Deaf Roots and Pride: The importance of role models

robin with family

The presence of a role model one can aspire to is crucial for the wellbeing of a young person as they grow up – these people can inspire, provide a blueprint on how to behave and act as a source of valuable information. Novelist Oliver Goldsmith wrote in 1759 that “people seldom improve when they have no other model but themselves to copy.” But one of the key factors of a role model is shared experience – and with this in mind young deaf people need the presence of adults who are themselves deaf in their lives, so they can see how deaf adults behave and respond to situations such as challenges in the workplace. Two BDA Northern Ireland projects have been set up under Deaf Roots & Pride to address this. John Cradden goes to Belfast to find out about the first of these projects – the mentoring scheme.

If your child is deaf there is a variety of supports available at every stage from audiologists, social workers and teachers to help these kids reach their full potential.

Having a supportive family also helps a lot, too, but for a lot of deaf children and teenagers who attend mainstream schools or services, there’s still something missing.

They might still be lacking in basic confidence or independence or are perhaps still in denial about being deaf, but whatever the issue is, it has been shown time and again that spending a bit of time with a deaf “mentor” can have a hugely positive impact.

Take Robin Davis, for instance. He’s 17 and lives with his mother Pamela, brother Luke and stepfather Barry in Antrim. Despite having very supportive parents and getting a cochlear implant at a very young age, he was still “finding school a bit hard” and struggling to communicate, his mother said. He attends a local mainstream school which has a deaf unit, but there are no pupils in the unit in the same year as him, and he didn’t seem to mingle much with the others nor had he ever shown any interest in learning BSL.

robin with family 2

But since last year, when Action Deaf Youth referred him and his family to the British Deaf Association, Robin, who is currently doing his GCSEs, has been meeting regularly with a deaf mentor named Daniel.

They meet about twice a month and Daniel, who is 29, will let Robin decide what they want to do. So far they’ve been on trips to places like the Titanic Quarter and entertainment centres in Belfast. Another time, in an effort to boost Robin’s independence skills, Daniel gave him a “mission” involving organising a trip by train from Antrim to Holywood, Co Down, that involved Robin figuring out the timetable to get the right connecting train and getting the tickets.

All very normal stuff, but the impact has been clear. “Robin is more accepting of his deafness now, and his confidence has improved a lot,” said Pamela. “He is keener to communicate both verbally and with BSL, and he is keener to socialise with his deaf and hearing friends.” She also reports that he is more independent, which has manifested itself in things like wanting to order his own food when the family are in cafes, rather than letting others do it for him.

The British Deaf Association runs a mentoring programme as part of a three-year lottery funded project entitled Deaf Roots & Pride. Aimed at children and young people aged between 8 and 20 who are transitioning from primary to secondary education or from secondary school to third level, employment or other environments, the project hopes to make its participants more inspired and hopeful about their future as well as cultivate a more positive attitude to being deaf.

Mentoring is one of four strands in the project; the others are Transitions, Culture, and Sign Posting.

“We offer these four strands because around 90% of deaf children go on into mainstream education and services, but through which they’ve never [had the chance] to meet deaf role models,” explains co-ordinator Sue Barry. “So we are now giving those young people the opportunity to meet those role models. It gives them an opportunity to get in the Deaf world but still get back to the hearing world if they need to, so it’s a choice of two worlds.

“All deaf role models will have an empathy and understanding in how they advise the young deaf children of the barriers they might meet. All the mentors are deaf but from various backgrounds. Some sign BSL, some sign ISL (Irish Sign Language), some of them have a bit of hearing and speech but all of them have a range of communication methods.”

Such a scheme is particularly valuable in a region like Northern Ireland, where there is only one deaf school and a small number of units in mainstream schools geared towards deaf children. As a result, most deaf children are educated in fully mainstream settings with little opportunity to meet others like them.

However, even when parents are happy to engage with a mentoring scheme, it can still be a hard sell for some children. They might be struggling at school because of social isolation, but this is often compounded by an unwillingness to acknowledge their deafness. Children who attend a deaf school may be more accepting, while for those in mainstream settings it will often be a longer road. But once they are persuaded to give mentoring a go, one session can be all it takes.

“If you look at Robin, his confidence has improved, he’s more accepting of his hearing loss, his independence skills have developed, and I genuinely believe that a lot of that is down to Daniel,” said Pamela.

Robin didn’t take to BSL when he had the opportunity, for instance, but Daniel, who can talk and sign, was obviously a positive influence here. “We had done sign language classes before, but because he wasn’t accepting of his deafness he wasn’t interested,” said Pamela. “But now he has more interest, and will sign a bit.” More recently the family has begun to take part in BDA’s Sign Language in the Home Tutoring scheme (which the BDN will report on next month).

It’s clear that Robin’s family is hugely supportive, but Daniel has clearly been a big hit in the space of just a few months because he has been able to answer questions that a deaf child might have that only another deaf person can credibly answer, such as: “Am I the only one?”; “Are there other children like me?”; “How do they cope?”; “Do they feel lonely too?”

robin at graffiti art workshop

Some children may seek out these answers by themselves but, more often than not, a little push or encouragement can make all the difference to this journey of discovery.

If you are a deaf child struggling with low confidence or loneliness, it’s hard to overstate the value that comes from having someone pay you a bit of close attention – and from someone who understands, who “gets it”. But even children who ostensibly seem to cope well can also benefit. “Mentoring suits everyone as they all need a bit of motivation,” says Sue Barry. “When they meet a deaf positive role model, they realise that they can do it and feel that they are not on their own.

“Also, we are giving them endless opportunities, that they know that they can have someone to chat to, and be signposted to different organisations – not just in Northern Ireland. They could be in Ireland, or worldwide.”

For children with bigger issues, the impact of mentoring can be hard to overstate. Toni George, who pairs mentors with mentees, recalls working with one boy in particular who for a variety of reasons hadn’t been in school for five years and had absolutely no communication or social skills whatsoever, even things like ordering a cup of tea or coffee
in a café or managing money. “It was all about going back to basics,” she said.

After availing of a mentoring service, the boy and his family have been out and about, started learning BSL, and are now looking into short courses in college for him. Communication within that family had improved a great deal too.

Toni remembers being a mentor to one deaf girl who had a lot of issues with her family that she said boiled down to a lack of communication, but she also – in much the same way as Robin used to – had a hard time acknowledging her deafness in that she would never tell strangers that she was deaf. Once she did, things started to improve dramatically and her confidence levels rose. Simple things like that can make all the difference, she said.

The success of the mentoring scheme means that the BDA is always on the lookout for mentors, particularly those who can service families and children in more rural parts of
Northern Ireland.

The service also usually tries to match children to mentors of the same gender, and while the balance of male to female recruits has changed from year to year, there is a shortage of male mentors at the moment. “It’s a real challenge,” says Toni.

While there’s no doubting the profound impact a mentor can have on a deaf child, he or she can also have a profound impact on the parents by giving them positive visions for the adults their kids could grow up to resemble – confident, independent and articulate individuals who are at ease with themselves and their deafness.

Mentoring relationships usually last up to two years. “It depends on the mentee’s needs as each person is different,” says Toni. She adds that the odd relationship might not work out for a variety of reasons but most of the time the match works well, she says.

It can sometimes be a case of trial and error, but the BDA Deaf Roots & Pride team works hard to create the best possible match between mentor and mentee.

“It was a very, very good match. Daniel is a warm person who’s very friendly and approachable, almost kind of funky,” said Pamela, with a smile.

BDA Northern Ireland is taking on both mentees and mentors. If you are interested in finding out more about the service you can email Toni: or tel: 028 9043 7483

While the mentoring service is only available in Northern Ireland at the moment the BDA will be expanding it into Wales, Devon and Cornwall and the north-east of England in 2016. Keep an eye on the BDA’s Facebook page for details.