Local deaf charity criticises Lewisham Council for lack of support

Attendees taking part in the Deaf is Cool Space launch event Pic: Sophie Soar

A local charity has criticised Lewisham Council over its deaf and hard of hearing support services, claiming that the council does not see it as a disability.

Meaka Bears is a charity founded by Andre Ferguson, who lives in Lewisham after his daughter Azara, now 12, lost her hearing at the age of one. Ferguson told East London Lines: “The council doesn’t do much for deaf people, as it is not seen as a disability.”

East London Lines has also established that the council’s website gives inaccurate information regarding deaf support services. Other information was four years out of date until it was corrected this week.

British Sign Language classes run by Meaka Bears are promoted on the council’s website, but it gives incorrect start times and dates. Meaka Bears’s other services, like sports sessions and its new event space, are not detailed on the council’s website.

Nicola Ward, the London Director for the National Deaf Children’s Society, said: “The Children and Families Act requires all councils to produce a ‘Local Offer’, which means they have to publish details of all the services available for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities.”

On searching deaf charities on the council’s website, results return to the ‘Family Information Service’ that details the British Deaf Association – in Coventry. The website visitors are also directed to the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Service in Laurence House in Catford, which transfers callers to Carers Lewisham.

A spokesperson for Carers Lewisham, the borough’s largest charity supporting care staff, gave some support to Ferguson. The spokesman said they were “tempted to say [the council do] very little” for the deaf community, but added: “We record sensory impairments which would include deafness but on the whole, it’s a language issue rather than a disability.”

The Equality Act defines a disability as a “physical or mental impairment [that] has a long-term and substantial adverse effect on [a person’s] ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.” This definition incorporates communication difficulties, which includes those affected by deafness who require Special Educational Needs (SEN).

To be tracked by the council, families of children with Special Educational Needs must acquire a SEN Statement. In 2007, over 7600 pupils in Lewisham were reported to have SEN but only 15.2 per cent had statements.

Ferguson said: “While the council provides [SEN] statements and pay for the odd hearing aid, my daughter got into her school because she has a statement and because that school needs to build up their disability quota.”

The National Deaf Children’s Society website quotes: “More than 77 per cent of school-aged deaf children in the UK attend mainstream schools where there is no specialist provision.” Ofsted also only began inspecting the support that children with SEN receive from their local council and health services in May 2016.

Since its creation, Meaka Bears has run swimming, football and sign language sessions for children who are hard of hearing or deaf in Lewisham, Southwark and Lambeth. Sessions now also operate in Barking and Peckham, drawing attendees from Notting Hill and Wandsworth. Meaka Bears also recently launched its clothing brand, Deaf is Cool, created by and representative of the deaf community.

Deaf is Cool Space launch event Pic: Sophie Soar

Last weekend, the Deaf is Cool Space had its launch event in Leegate, showcasing talents from sign language rap to spoken-word poetry. The venue has a photo studio, lounge, performance area and juice bar run by deaf or deaf-friendly staff to promote awareness and encourage community integration.

Ferguson told ELL: “The whole idea came from how I see my daughter progressing through life. Everything we do is a result of something she has inspired us to do. The Deaf is Cool brand and space is the cool side: it’s the fashion, it’s photography. It is giving deaf people a voice in that sphere and position.”

Lewisham Council has not responded to a request for comment.

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