"People have got to stand up for these kids because the kids can't stand up for themselves…" Stella O'Neill, parent
Alicia Egan was born deaf but no health professional picked upon her hearing impairment until she was 15 months old…
"When I found out Alicia was deaf, obviously I was devastated and didn't know what to do" recalls her mum Stella O'Neill "Then, the day after, I got a knock on the door and it was Ann, the teacher of the deaf, and it was like an angel had been sent to help us.
"She was absolutely brilliant and put us back together" she adds "If it wasn't for these teachers of the deaf we wouldn't be where we are now. We wouldn't know the first thing to do. They are just like a firm brick wall of support, whereas if that was ripped away there's nothing…"
Alicia, now eight, is currently a pupil at Grosvenor Road Primary School in Swinton, and is doing fine with an hour or more support for four days a week from either teaching assistants for the deaf or her teacher of the deaf. She was in the school play, she excels at maths and is slowly catching up to her fellow schoolmates.
"She's not quite there but she's getting by, and can understand most things" explains her mum "She's at a learning age at just over six but she is getting there and doing quite well. But when they rip the ground from underneath her, which is what they are going to be doing, she's going to have no help except for a normal teaching assistant who hasn't had years of working with the deaf."
Following a review of Salford Council's Service for Sensory Impaired Children, two models have been proposed to "develop a service for the 21st Century". Both models will see a reduction in teachers of the deaf. Model 1 will see a loss of around 3.3 teachers of the deaf (from 7.8 teachers to 4.5 or 5) and Model 2 will see the loss of 4.3 teachers.
Both models will also see a loss of specialist teaching assistants for both the visually impaired and the hearing impaired – from the current number of 4.1 for the hearing impaired and 5.2 for the visually impaired, to a total 6.5 or 7 teaching assistants covering both disabilities.
These are just figures. But behind the numbers are devastating affects on the lives of every one of Salford's 454 visually and hearing impaired children. Alicia's mum reckons it's not only going to be catastrophic for her own daughter but it's also wrecking the chances for a fair education for all the children currently supported by the service.
"Alicia will be seeing a teacher of the deaf probably once every two months, maybe for just an hour" Stella explains "That's once. Every two months. From the current one hour a day, four days a week.
"They say these kids need a fair education but they will not be getting a fair education if they are taking the teachers off them that they need" she adds "They've got a right to a fair education, and they're discriminating against visually impaired and deaf children who didn't ask to be born deaf or blind.
"They have been given the help already, so to drag it away from them is absolutely disgusting" she says "The kids don't understand what's going on. Alicia doesn't know what's going on, she doesn't have a clue that Sara, her teacher and lifeline, is going to be taken away from her. She doesn't understand…"
Sat with Stella are Alicia's grandma, June, and uncle, Craig, who list the social difficulties that Alicia has to cope with both in her neighbourhood and at school, some of which are just too upsetting to even write about.
"Her specialist teachers are her lifeline in school, she just can't work without them although she does try" says June "Even when she gets frustrated at home she cries for Sara."
Craig believes that "It's all about numbers, it's not about education. They want to save money, they see them as a minority so no-one cares about them and they think because they're deaf they're stupid. But Alicia can grow up and get an education, she might even want to work with kids like herself. The point is that if she doesn't form people skills by the time she's left school, she's not going to bond with people and she's not going to get a job. There's nothing wrong with her except her speech because she can't hear."
Alicia has cochlear implants which does improve her hearing, and will downgrade her in the brave new service being proposed because she won't be far enough behind the other kids to get a Statement of Special Needs. But Stella explains that Alicia doesn't hear like other people…
"What the councillors think - and I know this because they've said it to me – is that when she has her implants on she becomes this brilliant hearing person who hasn't got any special needs at all; they think she can hear like a normal hearing person, they don't understand that she has to learn how to hear and each time she takes them off she's deaf...she can stand next to a Jumbo jet taking off and won't hear it.
"Even when she has her implants on, she doesn't hear like me and you, it's a robotic noise that's about two seconds behind, so when she goes to dance classes she's always a step behind" she adds "She now also has to learn how to talk again with a therapist because she's had to learn from 15 months what a new born would learn. That's why she's behind."
Alicia currently has six weeks worth of speech therapy and then she's put back to the bottom of the list and has to wait a couple of months to get back with the therapist again.
"She's constantly falling behind, and with five kids I've got to take time out every night to do her homework and normal reading with her but then to do speech therapy work as well, so it's a never ending cycle of hard work" Stella explains "I would like a councillor or an officer like Sue Woodgate [Assistant Director Targeted Services] to come to my house to do all of this work with Alicia, and then come and tell me at the end of the week that there's nothing wrong with her hearing, and that she's not deaf and doesn't need any help."
Stella has read all the `reports' and `reviews' and `strategies' and `re-models' and `rationales' for the new Salford service and concludes that it's all about cutting costs as opposed to supporting children's needs.
She talks about teachers of the deaf having to re-apply for their own jobs on reduced wages, and ordinary teaching assistants, as opposed to experienced specialists, being trained to work with deaf and visually impaired children, .
Indeed Salford Council's Delivery Model Report talks about `packages' of support on a sliding scale of costs that can be bought by individual schools. The Royal National Institute for the Blind pulled no punches in its response…
"Such a policy could lead to schools providing unqualified support to VI (Visually Impaired) pupils who urgently need specialist input. It is also a potential disincentive for schools to admit pupils with high level needs (such as VI) as they may be perceived as using up a disproportionate amount of the delegated SEN [Special Education Needs] budget."
The RNIB also lays into the Council's emphasis on finance rather than the children…
"The consultation claims that its overarching aim is to 'develop a service that supports and develops young people to become independent learners and to reach their full potential'. We do not believe that the models presented have been designed with the primary intention of meeting this aim" it states "There is nothing in the consultation that talks about children, their needs, and how they learn - the focus is exclusively on procedure and cost."
For Stella and her family this is a fight against cuts in services for some of Salford's most vulnerable children…
"The executives at Salford Council are getting a wedge, why don't they take a pay cut?" she asks "They're cutting everybody else, but the people who are coming up with these ideas are not having anything taken away from themselves. Instead they're taking everything away from kids who need it the most.
"You've got no-one to turn to except the teachers of the deaf because it seems to be that they are the only people fighting for these kids' rights" she concludes "I will fight for these kids because they didn't ask to be born deaf – they're being punished for being deaf and it's absolutely disgusting…
"I'm going around telling everyone to go to the public meeting on Saturday because they've got to stand up for these kids" she explains "People have got to stand up for these kids because the kids can't stand up for themselves…"
Public Meeting Against Cuts for Kids with Disabilities
Saturday 26th January 11am
Swinton British Legion
3 Cheetham Road, M27 4UQ
The meeting is being supported by Salford City UNISON and Salford Deaf Society.
Salford Council has been asked to send representatives to speak to parents, professionals and the children themselves at the meeting.
* The proposals for Salford Council's Service for Sensory Impaired Children is still at the consultation stage (although there is no mention of it on the Council's `consultation' page on its website). One of the two models for the new service will be implemented in September.
Everyone is also being urged to sign the save services national online petition from the Deaf Children's Society - click here