Each year a small number of children are born profoundly deaf in Blackpool, and most are born to parents who have never experienced deafness.
That’s why a local charity supporting families with deafness has been described as a lifeline by those who use it.
Sign Hi Say Hi – formerly Fylde, Wyre and Blackpool Deaf Children’s Society – is not only a supporting arm for children with deafness, it helps the whole family come to terms with their children’s condition and brings them through it with sign language lessons, drop-in sessions and someone to talk to.
The charity, which meets every Tuesday at The Independent Living Centre on Whitegate Drive, was set up 20 years ago by a group of local parents who felt there wasn’t enough support for families who felt isolated in dealing with a deaf child in the family.
For the last five years, it has run a fortnightly drop-in, where families could meet and access information and services. Sign Hi Say Hi also runs in partnership with the Play Inclusion Project, where staff help in the running of club sessions in sport, craft, sign language classes, workshops and courses.
Here, two families tellhow Sign Hi Say Hi has changed their lives, and we look at how Blackpool Victoria Hospital identifies the condition.
‘The Earlier can we identify a problem the better’
Nearly all babies born in Blackpool are given a newborn hearing screen test.
Experts at the Blackpool Victoria Hospital test 98 per cent of babies for hearing defects within their first four weeks, which surpasses national targets.
Most mums are offered the test before they leave after giving birth.
Neo-natal screening lead Colette Clarkson said: “Nationally, about one to two in every 1,000 babies are born with some kind of hearing loss.
“Without it being spotted early it can have a detrimental effect on the development of a child’s speech and learning.
“Since babies develop their listening and language skills within the first few months after birth, it is essential that any hearing abnormalities are identified early, so parents are given support and advice right from the start to help their babies develop as well as they can.”
It’s a simple test where the baby doesn’t even have to be awake when it is done.
Colette added: “Simply reacting to sound is a good sign but it doesn’t identify if there is a problem in just one ear or if there is reduced hearing ability.
“The screen works better if baby is asleep as there is reduced movement.
“We use a very sensitive hand held machine which sends clicking sounds via a soft ear tip down the baby’s ear. When the ear receives the sound the inner ear, known as the cochlea, produces an echo. It’s that reading that helps us identify if there is a problem or not.”
Any baby whose screening test does not show a clear response will be referred to the audiology department for a full diagnostic assessment.
Around one in 13 of those referred will actually have permanent hearing loss.
“It’s a case of better safe than sorry in most cases but, again, the earlier we identify a potential issue the better, as sometimes it can be treated and that will be beneficial to the baby during development,” said Colette.
There are out-patient clinics held for parents to bring their newborns to be checked. Call (01253) 306518.
For details on Sign Hi Say Hi visit www.signhisayhi.org.uk.
‘You get the feeling you’re not alone’
Two-year-old Sophie Hill was diagnosed as profoundly deaf shortly after she was born.
Doctors at Blackpool Victoria Hospital performed a Newborn Hearing Screening test, which showed there was a problem with Sophie’s hearing, and further tests revealed the tot had severe hearing difficulties.
It was news that was a complete shock to Sophie’s family, which has no previous history of deafness. But with the help of Sign Hi Say Hi, the family has adjusted to her condition.
As well as being able to speak to other people in the same situation, the family has started taking sign language lessons which are helping Sophie communicate with her loved ones.
Her grandmother, Karen McLeod, said the charity had become a lifeline.
She said: “As well as a lot of support, through Sign Hi Say Hi we were able to speak to people in the same position and found out who to go to and what to do.
“Sophie is learning to sign to support her talking as her speech is severely delayed when compared to children of her own age – she’s at least 12 months behind other children her age. This has made all the difference to her.”
Sophie’s older sister Olivia, eight, also attends the sign language lessons, and Karen said the pair (pictured) enjoyed signing nursery rhymes with each other.
For Sophie, of Bispham, being deaf is all she knows so she has taken to wearing her hearing aids, which she has worn since she was seven weeks old, very well.
Karen, of Lytham, said: “Sophie is very much used to living with deafness.
“She knows she needs her hearing aids in as soon as she wakes up and has really adapted to having them from wearing them from such a young age. She’s very keen to have them in all the time and she asks for you to put her ears in if she doesn’t having them in. Although she does take them out – and throw them – when she is frustrated at not being understood or not getting her own way.
“If it wasn’t for Sign Hi Say Hi our family would not be able to all learn sign language. Sophie is still waiting for specialist speech and language therapy to improve her speech and may have to go out of the area because there aren’t that many deaf children in Blackpool. Very few children are born deaf, but can become deaf after illnesses such as meningitis or following an accident.
“Because the numbers are so small it makes providing services and finding other people in the same position quite difficult, which is why it’s so good to have something in Blackpool such as Sign Hi Say Hi providing support.”
Karen said attending Sign Hi Say Hi meant coping with Sophie’s condition more bearable.
“Looking back it was devastating, but it’s good to be able to talk to other people who understand what you are going through,” she added.
“Just because a child is deaf doesn’t mean they cannot achieve anything. With the right support anything is possible, and that’s what’s available at Sign Hi Say Hi.
“You get that feeling that you are not alone and you can see the success of the group through the other children there.”
‘Adam and Helen have become role models’
Siblings Helen, 19, and Adam Thomas, 16, are profoundly deaf.
They were fitted with cochlear implants as young children and, according to their mum Jane, they are the “most wonderful children ever”.
Jane, who is chairman of Sign Hi Say Hi, said: “They are no different from other children at all, apart from the fact that they cannot hear.
“They are proof that with the right structures in place during their education they can achieve anything. They have been helped enormously by their family and friends – both those who are deaf and those who can hear.”
Jane said her children enjoyed Sign Hi Say Hi because it was a place where they lost their deaf identity, and were able to just relax in their own peer groups.
“It helps them realise that they can survive in the hearing world,” she added.
“It has broken down barriers between the deaf world and the hearing world.”
Both Helen and Adam were diagnosed as deaf as children, when the family lived in Plymouth.
Helen, a former Blackpool Sixth Form College student who is preparing to go to Manchester University next month, was given an eight-month hearing test when doctors revealed she couldn’t hear.
Because of her diagnosis, Adam, who attended Highfield Humanities College, was tested at six weeks.
Jane, of Squires Gate, said: “There is no family history at all.
“They say there’s a one in four chance of a child being deaf – it just turned out that we have two.”
Jane and her husband, David, made the decision that their children would have cochlear implants, which has helped them hear slightly better. Jane, 51, said: “It was a big decision as we didn’t know how they would react to them, but it has made a huge difference to their lives.
“How much they can hear we don’t know, as it’s just normal to them, but they say they can listen to music.”
The pair also have hearing aids.
And being deaf certainly hasn’t stopped Adam, a football studies student at Myerscough College, realise his sporting dreams.
He currently plays for the England senior deaf Futsal team and the Manchester United deaf team.
Jane said: “He plays in goal, and he’s a great footballer.
“When he was younger he was told he wouldn’t make it too far in football because of his deafness, which was devastating for him. But he was lucky enough to be picked up by a big football team, and now he knows nothing will hold him back.”
Jane said, through Sign Hi Say Hi, Helen and Adam had become role models to younger deaf children.
“It’s wonderful for new parents to see that their deaf children can grow up to be OK,” she added.