Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Farewell to Donaldsons

The magnificent building, Donaldson's, has been the centre for the education of deaf children in Scotland since the 1850s.
The history of education for deaf children in Britain begins in Edinburgh. The first school, the Braidwood Academy, was established in Edinburgh in 1760 but moved to England in 1810. Several of the teachers remained to teach in the Edinburgh Institution for the Deaf and Dumb which, in turn merged with Donaldson's Hospital in 1937. Over the years, the name changed from Hospital to School and finally College but it will always be remembered as Donaldson's.

In 1830, James Donaldson, an Edinburgh printer and bookseller, left a legacy for the foundation of Donaldson's Hospital. It has always been an enlightened establishment, having equal numbers of deaf and normally-hearing pupils until 1938 and using sign-language at a time when the rest of Europe had adopted a totally oral education system (to the detriment of the Deaf, but that is a story for another day).

I did my studies in the Education of the Deaf at Oxford, but was greatly influenced by the ethos of Donaldson's and I spent many years campaigning for English educational establishments to adopt Scottish methods and attitudes. I recall a BBC documentary on Donaldson's School, shown some time in the 1970s, which illustrated the 'Donaldson attitude'. The interviewer was speaking to a teacher while her pupils were getting on with their work. As she was speaking , the teacher was simultaneously signing her responses and the interviewer asked her why she was doing that when the children were not included in the conversation. Her explanation was that a class of hearing children could overhear or deliberately listen in to a conversation if they chose to and she wanted Deaf children to have the same opportunity. A small incident but one which had a profound influence on my classroom practice and on everything I've written and spoken about in my professional life since.

Today's edition of See Hear on BBC 2 featured the move of Donaldsons College from the wonderful William Playfair building in Edinburgh to
this modern campus in Linlithgow.
The old building, which Queen Victoria considered to be grander than any of her palaces, is going to be 'redeveloped', doubtless into luxury apartments. I'm sure the new facilities at Linlithgow will be excellent but more important will be the transfer of the real spirit of Donaldson's from the old buildings to the new. I wish all the staff and students well in their new home.

You can see this episode of See Hear on BBC iPlayer for the next seven days and it will be shown again in the overnight Sign Zone on BBC 1 on Tues 26/Wed 27 February.


  1. What a fascinating, fact-filled post M. And a subject close to my heart, as you know.

  2. Another item for the TBD agenda, perhaps?

  3. Very interesting stuff, M.

    I've watched parents (family members and friends) wrestle with the education of their deaf children and it's been interesting to observe the vehemence with which they have argued for and adopted their own particular methods and philosophies: from those who categorically refused to allow their son to learn any sign language at all ('he'll live in a hearing world and we don't want him to feel or look different'), to those who wrestled long and hard over cochlear implants because their daughter was so happy with sign language that they were worried about introducing sounds into the equation again. It seems that national policy (if indeed there has been one) has wafted around indecisively and unhelpfully over the years as well. Whatever the outcome, all these children have undoubtedly fared better than the couple I used to live next door to - both in their late 50s now - who were severely hearing impaired but had never learned either sign language or lipreading. They communicated with each other mainly by shouting and throwing things, it seemed, and with the outside world they could barely understand or make themselves understood at all. He was an itinerant brickie, but she had never worked at all and was functionally illiterate, and it seemed so dreadful to me that they had both somehow fallen right through the educational net and lived such unnecessarily restricted lives as a result.

    (Late comment, but I'm just catching up with the blogosphere after a very busy week!)

  4. Juliet, you have touched on a subject very close to my heart. When I trained as a Teacher of the Deaf (1970) we were not allowed to use sign language at all. We spent hours every day working on single speech sounds when, in my opinion, the children could have been learning at the same rate as their hearing peers if they could use sign language. I campaigned and got into a lot of trouble for many years but am proud to say that I succeeded in getting Devon LEA to adopt an open policy on communication in 1990.
    My view has always been that children need to communicate first, by whatever means and when they have a good language base, they will want to communicate with the wider society. We must also accept that speech is not an option for a small number of children.
    I have rarely come across anyone with such first-hand experience of deafness as you obviously have and you seem to have understood the issues. There are people in positions of power and authority who never grasp them!

    (BTW - speaking of late comments, I've just absent-mindedly followed a link on one of your posts and left a comment - several months late, I think!)

  5. Hi M - yes, you left a comment on an August 07 post, to which I've left a reply! I don't mind at all if you'd like to repeat it on the more recent post so people read it (though I've taken down the 'recent comments' widget which I spent ages trying to set up, as it simply wasn't picking up the most recent comments, however hard I nudged it - most annoying!)

  6. Juliet, I had the same trouble with the Recent Comments widget. After some trial and error, I found this worked for me.

  7. On the subject of the deaf: I can't understand why anybody would be against the cochlear implant. I liken it to saying that if a person is happy in a wheelchair, why bother giving him or her the option of walking.

    m. I remember as a child, a friend of the family had child born deaf. She was in a residential school for the deaf and the father was adamantly against her learning sign language because he didn't want to give up hope that she would be able to hear. What a cruel fate for her.

  8. One of the problems facing parents of deaf babies, e, is that it is an invisible condition. Until very recent technical developments made it possible to detect deafness at birth, it might not become apparent to the parents until the baby failed to develop speech.
    There are many complex issues for families to come to terms with and often contradictory advice for them to evaluate at a time when they are grieving. In my many years in the profession, I never met two families that dealt with it in the same way.


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