Interview: Lambeth Deaf Children’s Society

The Lambeth Deaf Childrens Society (LDCS) is now in its fifth year, set up in 2008 by parents who had struggled to find suitable events and activities locally for their deaf children to attend.  Bobbie Lakhera spoke to Polly Burton, one of the founders of the LDCS, about why the group was launched and what it provides for the local community

deaf society

“Isabella was at nursery and the staff said that she wasn’t responding to being called, that’s when we first realised. She was about 11 months old. Obviously we were very shocked, there’s no history of deafness in the family.”

Polly Burton explains when she and her partner Michael became aware that their daughter may have a hearing problem. After extensive tests, specialists found that Isabella was in fact profoundly deaf.

The couple took the perspective that communication is key so, alongside deciding on medical interventions which have improved Isabella’s ability to hear, they wanted her and the family to learn sign language and be part of the deaf community. Subsequently, Isabella – now nine – is growing up bilingual, fluent in both English and British Sign Language (BSL).

When Isabella was two, Polly was put in touch with a local parent who was also keen for their child to learn BSL. Both families had been unsuccessful when looking for a local children’s group which encouraged signing skills. Polly says: “We wanted more signing opportunities, activities for the children to get involved in. And there wasn’t a group where you could meet deaf children and deaf adults also. I knew there were local societies that the National Deaf Children’s Society (NDCS) supported so we thought maybe we should set something up.”

Now firmly established, the LDCS has 20 families who regularly attend the monthly meet ups. “With these types of groups people find either it is what they are looking for or quite simply it’s not for them. Often that’s to do with the kind of communication being used but our group is very mixed. Some of those attending are more oral and don’t necessarily sign, but others are BSL users from deaf families.”

The group meets at the Effra Early Years Centre on Effra Parade, usually the second Saturday of every month. The age range of the children is from babies to 12 years old, with deaf and hearing families attending. There are also children who may have delayed language skills and/or additional needs, so there are many different types of communication used in the two-hour sessions. It is an excellent opportunity for all the children to mix with each other regardless of their level of ability.

This interaction can impact greatly on a deaf child’s confidence, explains Polly: “Most deaf children are in mainstream education, often the only deaf child in their class or even their school. Maybe they are the only ones with hearing aids or a cochlear implant. The group is a great chance for them to see each other and know there are children out there like them. When they are with deaf peers they feel confident and happy, it gives them a sense of who they are.

“One boy who attends the group was learning to swim with his school but really didn’t like it, and wasn’t progressing. There is a local deaf swimming club now in Brixton at the Rec on a Sunday morning. He’s been going there and has made huge improvements with his swimming.”

At the Centre, the children can enjoy the indoor and outdoor play areas, arts and crafts, dressing up and face painting, with each meeting ending with a signed story or song. The group also go out on visits, most recently to Vauxhall City Farm, and regularly base the meetings around current events. In the summer they held a mini-Olympics in Brockwell Park, and last month saw deaf Santa visit to find out what the children wanted for Christmas. The LDCS usually has voluntary interpreters, to ensure that all meetings are fully accessible for those children or families communicating by BSL.

Polly advises: “Deaf children can miss out on information that hearing children pick up all the time from what’s going on around them. It’s really important with deaf children to reinforce things that are happening and be able to talk about issues, subjects and events which may be significant.”

Through setting up the group Polly and Michael have built fantastic relationships in the local Deaf community and further afield, all the more important when their younger daughter was born. Four year old Rosa is also deaf, although this was not unexpected. “A while after finding out about Isabella we had genetic counselling, and it was genetic. It’s connected to Connexin 26, which is one of the genes known to cause deafness. Both Michael and I have the recessive gene, which meant there was a 1 in 4 chance of deafness in a child of ours. So we knew with Rosa that there was a strong possibility.”

It is common for deaf children to be born to hearing parents so the sessions are useful for all the family. It provides deaf and hearing parents with a chance to talk to each other, exchanging information and advice on deaf issues not readily accessible elsewhere. This can include discussing how their child’s statement of special educational needs is progressing, or explaining where they have found deaf friendly classes and events. Families mainly come from Lambeth and Southwark, but there are deaf families who travel from Brent and St Albans who find the sessions suit them and their needs.

The group receives a small annual grant from the NDCS and has been fortunate to receive additional funding from the workplace of a parent who attends. Lambeth Council previously paid for the venue, however, this money was stopped and the group now covers all running costs itself.

The next meeting is on Saturday 9 March, 1.30pm – 3.30pm, at the Effra Early Years Centre.

For further details on the LDCS you can contact Polly at 07951 737 372 /