29 October 2019
Whether they’re tearing up bike tracks, playing inter-school soccer or performing on stage at the Arts Centre, the students from Furlong Park School for Deaf Children are smashing down barriers.
SUZANNE TAYLOR reports.
It’s become commonplace to see an AUSLAN interpreter at the side of the stage at major events, but one unique school choir is bringing signing out of the fringes and into the spotlight. When they were invited to perform earlier this year at Hamer Hall as part of the Betty Amsden Participation Program, the Furlong Park Primary Signing Choir joined a line-up that included rock royalty Adalita and Ella Hooper, Yirrmal, and Vika and Linda Bull. The Furlong students performed on stage alongside their parents, sisters, brothers and teachers, both hearing and deaf.
According to Maria Burgess, the assistant principal of Furlong Park School for Deaf Children, it’s often the quieter students who come into their own when they’re performing. “They go from being on the fringe to being centre stage – literally,” Maria says. “And that’s powerful. Their different personas suddenly come out; they can be creative, theatrical and, the truth is, we rarely have a platform like that for children who use Auslan.”
Maria is also aware that exposing more of the general public to sign language will ultimately help to create a more inclusive world for the children to grow into. She knows, because it’s something she’s experienced first-hand. “The more people see signing, and interact with deaf people, the less fearful they are. As an assistant principal, the more I go to regional meetings and expose other people to me and my interpreter, the more they approach me. The fear leaves. It’s like getting your learner’s permit – you need to put in those hours before you can let go and trust.”
To those ends, Maria and her staff have dreamt up some innovative and creative ways to challenge the children beyond their comfort zones. They take their three and four-year-olds to another kindergarten where they can explore nature play in a different environment with hearing children. They built a bike track on site to teach them how to ride with skill and confidence.
Then there’s the inter-school soccer training with their counterparts from over the road at Albion North Primary. The students nominate the captain and negotiate the rules with the other team. “Because deafness affects language, often our children know what they want to say but are not sure of the social skills or the intricacies of how best to say things,” says Maria.
Most of the Furlong captains have no usable spoken skills so the school hires interpreters to come along. At the start, Maria says, it was all a bit awkward. “Both sides were really shy, inhibited and nervous. But now they give each other high fives, and shake hands at the start and end of each match.”
Then there’s the camps and excursions, which they introduce from day dot. The students learn everything from how to use public transport safely to how to order a meal in a restaurant – communications strategies to express themselves with confidence.
That extends to throwing out challenges closer to home. The school hosts weekly visits from local hearing students and its own students are regularly taken to a local shop and encouraged to interact with the shopkeeper.
This holistic approach to education extends to the families as well, with the school running free signing classes for parents, and tapping into innovative technology to keep them in the loop.
Maria says the signing classes often turn into something more akin to a self-help group. “Sometimes we put our signing to the side because the conversation is more important. When parents are starting on this journey, they can feel very much alone. Often what they need to hear is a tried-and-tested point of view: tactics, strategies, tools that work. Often they just need to connect with other parents and feel like they’re not lost in this new world.”
Given most parents in the area not only need to learn Auslan from scratch, but also come from non-English-speaking backgrounds, the school has introduced an app called Seesaw, which works like a personalised Instagram feed about their child. As with the choir, the idea is to help parents see a side of their child that might otherwise be hidden from them.
“If you have a signing child who goes home to a family that doesn’t use sign language, the parents will often only see a small glimmer of that child,” Maria says. “So when they see them expressing themselves on stage in such majestic ways, it’s like watching a maestro painting a picture before them. They see their child’s personality, purpose and the intricacies of how they express themselves in a whole new way.”
“If you have a signing child who goes home to a family who don’t use sign language, the parents will often only see a small glimmer of that child.”
This article was originally published in the Victorian AEUnews.