By Rachel O’Neill

[BSL translation by Rachel O’Neill, University of Edinburgh]

It seems a wonderful job: teaching small groups of children, supporting deaf children to succeed in school, having close contact with families of deaf babies from birth, making adjustments so that deaf children navigate the education system more independently, learning a new language to teach some pupils: British Sign Language (BSL). Yet in many ways the profession has issues. Too often our role is more like a saviour than an advocate. The cochlear implant ‘switch on’ moments on social media show that bringing the world of sound to deaf children is part of the teacher of deaf children’s (ToD) core beliefs. Our profession is white and monolingual on the whole, though we work with a very wide range of black and ethnic minority pupils, especially in cities. The role of ToD often includes supporting wellbeing, encouraging independence, and sometimes being a BSL language model or interpreter, without many deaf people being in the profession yet.

In this blog I want to talk about three issues I have experienced around racism which affect our profession, and discussion around what ToDs can do to think about and tackle racism in the system. Deaf black children are navigating white spaces in school and in the community. As white practitioners, what can we do to support deaf black children? What values and views do we need to develop in order to ensure our practice is more aware of race equality and does not inadvertently misrecognise, misinterpret or misunderstand?

The first dangerous issue is let’s wait and see. Nurseries wait and see if a child from a bilingual home will talk. While deafness may be suspected, the main approach is often waiting for the child’s languages to emerge. It’s true that deafness is a minority issue affecting only 1 in 300 children, but about a quarter of children experience intermittent deafness in the pre-school age group because of glue ear. Nursery teachers should not wait and see, but act: how did older siblings do in nursery? What languages are used at home?  What evidence is there for how fluent the child is in these home language(s)?  Professionals need to find that out, take an interest, investigate it, even if they don’t currently know much about community languages. Waiting and seeing is an approach that abdicates responsibility and can be indirectly discriminatory – it can lead to extreme delays in the development of first languages. Later on this leads to educational under-achievement and a lifetime of lower earnings. In relation to deaf children, it is often the nursery staff and the speech and language therapists who see these children; the child has not yet been referred to the service for deaf children. So that means our role as ToD is regular awareness raising sessions in every nursery, and collegial discussions with speech and language therapists. We mustn’t shy away from discussing the dangers of wait and see.

The second dangerous issue is about logjams between services, often due to fear of discussing racism, or fear of appearing racist. The needs of deaf children can be complicated. Their parents (who are likely to be hearing and without lived experience of deafness for themselves) may not have clear or deep communication with them at home. Values, beliefs and information from families are often not passed on in the home as they are to hearing children. On the street, deaf children who use BSL, particularly ethnic minority deaf boys, are often seen as easy prey for gangs and as suspects by the police. Deaf people overall are more likely to experience abuse (Wakeland et al. 2018), which has consequences for mental health. This whole complicated mix can lead to being referred by social services for mental health services, but no appropriate service being available to communicate effectively with the child. Deaf children who are BME can find they are not referred because the social worker does not want to appear racist, leaving the deaf child in an unrecognised and unsupported environment. Deaf BME children may have to move house suddenly because of racist attacks and again these home contexts often go unrecognised or the depth and damage and hurt of such life experiences are simply not understood by ToDs.

As ToDs, our role gets a lot more complicated more quickly than for most teachers. We sometimes need to intervene – deaf awareness with the police, frank talking to a social worker who hasn’t met a deaf child before, following up to pass on records to another service about a deaf child in a family of asylum seekers where the child has suddenly moved authority. Many of these deaf BME children do experience racism, sometimes structural and sometimes personal; as ToDs we must collaborate better so that we build our confidence to support BME deaf children, young people and families more effectively. It’s easy for white teachers to say nothing and do nothing. The privilege of the ToD role is also a responsibility to make systems work, and to encourage agencies to collaborate in anti-racist ways. You may feel it’s not your job, it’s embarrassing. But what are the consequences for the deaf child from an ethnic minority background of us not acting?  This issue raises the wider point about why our profession is so white. What can we do to encourage more black and ethnic minority teachers into the field? It is often the head of service for deaf children in an authority who works to resolve these systemic logjams. So we need more ethnic minority and anti-racist heads of service.

The final issue is the missing curriculum which deaf children often don’t experience.  Now teachers of deaf children often see their curriculum support as remedial or backup to the class teacher’s role. Usually in areas of health and wellbeing, ToDs recognise that this is content we should teach, and encourage understanding about the child’s own deafness. But what about history and culture? We know many deaf children miss background information from home and school. Both environments have poor listening conditions, and few families learn to sign in the UK, because these services are not available to them. Deaf children’s lower background knowledge affects their reading skills and also their preparedness for life, including their sense of their place in the world. So when two students from the college where I worked went on an induction trip to the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, I thought it would be a useful experience for them. I should have thought to check with them beforehand how much they already knew about slavery. Born in Manchester and Soweto, neither of them knew anything about slavery. It came as a horrible shock to them. That made me think about my responsibilities to fill in more gaps, including the ones which are harder to tackle, and not make assumptions. We are fortunate as part of the teaching workforce in being able to hold in-depth conversations with our students. So we should include the missing curriculum. We should not kid ourselves that it is someone else’s job.

You may think these issues affect white deaf children just as much as those from ethnic minority groups. But in each case racism, conscious or unconscious, and discriminatory systems make the black child’s situation more serious and often quite different. That is something to acknowledge first, before we can start to act. Part of our action should also be to encourage a much wider range of ethnic minority and deaf teachers into the profession.


Wakeland, E., Austen, S. and Rose, J., 2018. What is the prevalence of abuse in the deaf/hard of hearing population?. The Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology, 29(3), pp.434-454.

Rachel O’Neill is a senior lecturer at Moray House School of Education and Sport at the University of Edinburgh. She co-ordinates the postgraduate diploma programme which prepares teachers to work with deaf children in Scotland. Rachel worked as a teacher of deaf children and an English as a Second Language teacher in Trafford, Bolton and Manchester for 25 years. Seeing the concentration of issues for deaf young people including poverty, racism and audism led to many of her current research interests. Rachel co-edits the journal Deafness & Education International.



Twitter:  @RachelONeill4