(The Kent team. From left: Andrew Belcher, Janet Rickner, team manager Lynn Stow, children’s social worker Mandy Sanderson, Michelle Evans. Pic Tom Parkes)
Specialist services for deaf children have declined generally in recent years, but Kent is showing what can be done with a small dedicated team.
A recent report by the National Deaf Children’s Society found that the division of social services departments into dedicated children’s and adults teams in 2004 had led to the loss of many specialist services for deaf and hard-of-hearing children.
The report warned that provision for deaf children in many councils only consisted of distributing hearing aids and intervening in emergency cases.
The deaf services children and families team at Kent Council is doing things differently. In 2006, it inherited Kent’s former specialist deaf services team. Team manager Lynn Stow says: “We had staff who understood the impact of our work on deaf children, and the managers recognised that – it seemed a natural progression to have a dedicated service.”
The disabled children’s service supports children with profound disabilities. “A lot of deaf children wouldn’t meet that criteria,” she says. “But if a family feels that deafness is having an impact on their child we will help them.”
The team comprises four specialist social workers and a support worker. Two are deaf, and all are trained in British Sign Language (BSL) and communicating with deaf children. “Oral communication is different and there are limitations on lip-reading,” Stow says. “It’s important to be able to communicate directly with the child – if you’re working through a hearing parent you’re not getting their thoughts and feelings.”
The team’s expertise means they understand how deafness can prevent a child reaching their full potential, she says. “Because we are skilled in all communication methods we can make an assessment and provide whatever services are needed. If you don’t understand how deafness affects a child’s development you will only intervene at a very high level. By then you’re working to minimise the damage and missing a vast opportunity to work in a preventive way.”
From the point of diagnosis, the team helps parents to understand what issues might occur in the future. Families can feel disempowered or have difficulties relating to their child, Stow says. Inevitably, there are challenges on inclusion. “If a child is in mainstream provision they won’t get the same level of access to education or health services without support.”
Referrals come from schools, health authorities or parents themselves. Medical equipment such as hearing aids and cochlear implants are the preserve of the health authority, and the team uses a social model of deafness, rather than a medical one. “We are not looking from a disability stance but at what the child can do and where they require support,” Stow says.
Behavioural problems can be a result of frustration by the child at their inability to express themselves. Other risks include low self-esteem and mental health issues. The team works in partnership with Kent Deaf Children’s Society to run a local parents’ group, so deaf children and their parents can meet each other.
Mandy Sanderson, a children’s social worker, has been with the team since February. She had no specialist knowledge of deafness but has undergone an intensive course, learning BSL and lip-reading. She practises daily with deaf colleagues. “I’m learning slowly. I can hold a conversation and I can read [BSL and lips] a lot more than I can say,” Sanderson says.
She visits between two and four families a day, spending about two hours with each. If the child or family needs a lot of support she will visit weekly. “The most important part of my role is to listen to what the family needs. It might be pointing them in the direction of specialist organisations, or helping them claim disability living allowance.”
Joanne Moore’s daughter, Briony, was born with a rare chromosome disorder and is profoundly deaf with additional medical needs. Sign language is her only means of communication. “We worked with a disability team from day one, but they didn’t pick up that she was deaf until she was seven,” she says. “I was angry and didn’t know what was available.”
Moore says the “fantastic” team provided information and support. Equipment included a vibrating alarm clock and specialist doorbell to help Briony be independent.
The team helped Moore see that aspects of Briony’s behaviour, such as problems understanding non-visual concepts, were a result of deafness, not her learning difficulties. Briony is now approaching transition and is working with the team on what to do when she leaves college.
Running a specialist deaf children’s team is not easy, Stow says. “It is difficult to recruit people with the specific skills and there’s little specialist training. But services for deaf children are quite cheap to run.” Unlike in many areas, their work is valued within the council. “When we first started it was about being seen as a credible social work team. Now we are very much part of the children’s directorate,” Stow says.
Community Care articles
- Ensure managers are on board.
- Train specialist social workers.
- Work preventively.
- Help parents to help each other.
This article is published in the 4 December 2008 edition of Community Care magazine under the headline Lending an ear to need