Councils are failing to teach sign language to deaf children and leaving them unable to fully communicate with their families and teachers, charities have warned.
All deaf children in the UK are offered NHS cochlear implants – electronic devices that can help them to hear. However, in 30 per cent of cases the implants provide only limited hearing, so to communicate effectively the children also need to learn sign language.
About 151,000 people in the UK use sign language, with some 87,000 relying on it as their main form of communication.
More than 90 per cent of deaf children are born into hearing families, so if they have to use sign language their parents and siblings will need to learn it too. But the National Deaf Children’s Society says up to 40 per cent of local councils do not provide financial assistance for lessons, meaning families end up having to fund it themselves, which can cost up to £400 a week.
Jack Gurney, two, from Bracknell, Berkshire was born deaf and NHS cochlear implants failed to work. Now Bracknell Forest Council have told his mother Kim, 33, to quit her job and sell the family home so she can teach him sign language after turning him down for funding
It is estimated 40 per cent of council across England refuse to fund sign language lessons for deaf children
Children may also need a qualified support teacher in school who can assist with their learning, and many councils are failing to provide this too, say campaigners.
Ian Noon, chief policy adviser at the National Deaf Children’s Society, says: ‘Cochlear implants, while an incredible tool, do not cure deafness, and for many families sign language is still a crucial part of their communication.
‘Language development is so important in a child’s early years. If they don’t receive the correct support, the effect will be catastrophic. It’s unacceptable that many families are being forced to pay thousands of pounds a year to communicate with their child.’
Spotting deafness as early as possible is crucial for the development of children, so the NHS runs a screening programme that is designed to identify problems within weeks of birth.
Cochlear implants are offered to children and adults whose hearing loss is so profound that hearing aids – which increases the volume of sound – are ineffective. The device turns sounds into electrical signals and sends them, via an implanted electrode, to the cochlea, a bone in the inner ear that plays a key role in hearing.
From there, the signals travel to the brain and are interpreted as sounds. The implants, which require surgery to insert the electrode, have become increasingly effective over the past 30 years. Every year, more than 1,500 people in England receive one.
For many, the technology allows them to hear and speak at a level comparable to hearing people. But the increasing prevalence of cochlear implants may have made it harder for those people they don’t help to get extra support.
‘Cochlear implants are not a fix for everything, but they are often treated that way,’ says Professor Bencie Woll, a deafness expert at University College London. ‘This has led to an increased hesitancy about teaching children sign language, because there is a mistaken belief that this will stop them learning English and leave them isolated from hearing people. But there is no evidence to support this.’
Kim Gurney, 33, from Bracknell, Berkshire, has a two-year-old son, Jack, who was born deaf. Although fitted with cochlear implants, he cannot hear. This is not uncommon with his condition, auditory neuropathy spectrum disorder, which affects how his brain receives sound signals rather than due to defects in his ears.
Despite this, his family’s application to Bracknell Forest Council for financial help to learn sign language has been rejected.
‘Even if the fire alarm went off, he wouldn’t notice,’ says Kim. ‘And the doctors say the chances of the implant ever working are slim. He is at such a crucial stage in his development, but we can’t communicate with him at all – it is heartbreaking.’
When Kim was turned down for funding, she claims she was told to sell her house and quitting her job in an engineering firm to become a full-time carer for her son.
‘I was told if we wanted to fund the extra support Jack needs, we should consider selling our house and I should stop working to teach him myself. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It was outrageous.’
Currently Kim pays about £400 a week for sign language lessons and speech therapy for Jack. ‘We can’t afford this in the long run,’ she adds. ‘I’ve really hit a brick wall. And I don’t know how Jack will manage at school with no one there to make sure he’s keeping up.’
Mr Noon says: ‘We come across people in this situation all the time. Many councils have funding difficulties due to cuts, and support for the deaf is something they don’t budget for. We want the Government to commit to offering help to every family that wants to learn sign language.’
Grainne Siggins, executive director of Bracknell Forest Council, said: ‘Jack is currently meeting all milestones for development, apart from communication, supported through weekly sessions with his teacher for the deaf at nursery.
‘Some nursery staff are undertaking sign language training, which the council has offered to pay for. [Funding for the family] has been declined due to Jack’s very young age and to allow time for the professionals to understand how his recently activated cochlear implants may impact his communication development.’