Down through the Square, past the stalls of the farmers’ market and round the back of Shrewsbury’s soon-to-be new museum and art gallery, last Friday found me in hot pursuit of a woman called Doreen Woodford. She may not be well known to you or me, but worldwide she’s renown for her work in the deaf community. Or at least she was. Doreen has been dead now for a couple of years, so I suppose for accuracy’s sake I should say it was her legacy I was in pursuit of, not the woman herself.
The Woodford Foundation has its head office on College Hill. It’s one of a surprisingly large number of charities based in Shrewsbury. Our town might be tucked away in the rolling border country between England and Wales, but it’s anything but inward looking. The Woodford Foundation, for example, has for years been working with partners across the world, including in Uganda, Malawi, Zambia and Tanzania, where over the years Doreen had built up direct contacts and strong links.
There's been support for the deaf here in Shrewsbury for well over a century. The Church Mission to the Deaf and Dumb in South Staffordshire and Shropshire was founded in 1856, establishing two small centres in Shropshire as well as working in Wolverhampton. In 1955, that organisation purchased Brierley House in Shrewsbury as a centre for deaf social and church activities. Then in 1963, a local committee -The Shropshire Christian Association With Deaf People (SCAD) - was established to oversee the delivery of services in Shropshire.
In 1993 South Staffs and Shropshire separated, SCAD became an independent charity and the Shropshire Deaf Association took over Brierley House, which it held until 2002. In 2004, the Woodford Foundation was set up by four retired professionals, including Doreen Woodford, who had worked throughout their careers with sensory-impaired children and their families, in particular overseas. Since then the two organizations continued to operate in tandem until their merger last week.
Interestingly, Doreen never wanted an organization named after her. That was thrust upon her by the Foundation’s other Trustees, in recognition of what her name stood for in the deaf community worldwide. We’re talking here about a woman whose exploits included sneaking into Afghanistan during the Taliban’s rule, disguised beneath a burka, to bring support to that country’s deaf community; flying fearlessly into the Congo; even taking on Somalia, coercing men with machine guns to allow her to pass through.
Since last week, however, the name ‘Woodford’ is no longer being used – and my guess is that Doreen would be delighted. A merger has taken place. The Shropshire Deaf Association and the Woodford Foundation have become Signal. Their Chief Executive is Matthew Gilbert, and last Friday I met him along with Rachel Baxter, who’s been in charge of the merger, and James Cousins who until now, working for Shropshire Deaf, has been responsible for building up local relationships. Their offices, overlooking a lovely walled garden [one of those hidden gems that Shrewsbury specializes in], are packed with files, paperwork, bookshelves and computers. These are busy people. I appreciated them making time for me.
Mat talked about the stigma of deafness, which he said was a massive problem. Across Africa, courtesy of a wealth of superstitions, the deaf face serious social taboos. Deafness can be extremely isolating. Africans often regard the deaf as cursed. Even within the family, the deaf can find themselves excluded. And where the deaf community forms itself into groups, those groups are still often separate from the rest of society.
The same can be said of the UK too. ‘Maybe people don’t see deafness as a matter of being cursed,’ Mat said, ‘but our society isn’t much better at helping the deaf to find their place.’
Helping the deaf to find that place is what Signal is all about. Its global mission is to integrate deaf people into their families, their communities and their society. It offers local-to-local assistance both in Africa and here in the UK. ‘This is the slow way of going about things,’ Mat said. ‘A massive amount of time is spent listening to people, and talking through issues. It would be far quicker to go in saying we know what you need, but then we wouldn’t be half so effective.’
In Tanzania, the Woodford Foundation has done a great deal of work assisting deaf children in their out-of-school lives, which is often when they have nowhere else to go. They’ve worked with parents too, and their first vocational training centre for the deaf was opened in 2010, run by nationally qualified and accredited staff. Woodford was proud to be involved in that scheme, helping to provide appropriate teaching that was funded by the Tanzanian government.
In Malawi, the Woodford Foundation recognized that very little aid and support was going to the north of the country. Sure enough, up there they found a need that wasn’t being addressed. For the last four years, along with the Central African Presbytarian church [who run three quarters of the schools in northern Malawi], they’ve been running awareness communication training and encouraging families to put their deaf children into schools.
The Woodford Foundation, and now Signal, very much see their role as one of project management. They don’t have staff on the ground working in their name, but work instead with overseas partners. ‘It’s important to build capacity locally,’ Mat said, ‘so that local people can undertake the training themselves. If we go out, it’s only as observers. We’re the catalyst, you could say, bringing together money and help, and formulating plans and programmes to be implemented by trained and trusted outreach workers and volunteers from the deaf community.’
Currently Signal has been asked by Comic Relief to create a model that can be replicated elsewhere. This speaks for the success their approach is seen to be achieving. In order to build that model they have starting up pilot schemes in Malawi and Uganda. ‘In Malawi,’ Mat said, ‘we’re seeing more and more government involvement, but often very little by way of funds. The Ministry are keen to buy into projects, but often they don’t have the money or resources. The Millenium Development goals call for the highest number of children possible to be in schools and trained. But higher numbers of pupils in classes mean that the quality of teaching is reduced and inevitably the hearing impaired miss out.
‘In a situation like this,’ said Mat, ‘we’ll work with teachers to look at learning methods that improve deaf children’s chances. Placing them at the front of class, for example, or making sure that teachers talk whilst facing children rather than with their back to them, whilst writing on the board – these simple things don’t cost anything to implement, but they make a great difference.’
Much work is being done in the UK too. Many deaf people end up being completely dependent because not enough thought has gone into what will happen to them post-education. Making links into the vocational world is of vital importance, as is the need to raise awareness that the deaf can be as productive as anybody else.
This is where James’s work comes into its own. He’s been busy liaising with hard-of-hearing groups, social workers, councils and other gatekeepers, working towards creating a deaf and hard-of-hearing hub. Sometimes he’ll sit in on audiology clinics, other times he'll drop in on the See/Hear van on its regular visits around Shropshire’s care homes, bringing advice to the hard of hearing, including practical help with hearing aids.
James also sets up focus groups. ‘But the deaf are nervous of groups,’ he said. ‘That’s when they notice their impairment most.’ Even so, a number of groups are operating in the region, and James is working with clinical commissioning groups to find a place in Shrewsbury where they can meet - somewhere hopefully that could offer access to a variety of users. ‘Did you know,’ James said, ‘that 43% of people who go to their GP about hearing problems don’t get referred on?’ I didn’t, and I was shocked. That’s a very high percentage.
I wanted to know more about the merger between Woodford and Shropshire Deaf. Rachel’s been working on this since July, concentrating on merging, rebranding and last week’s big launch. The origin of this merger, she said, came a few years ago when the Shropshire Deaf Association decided it wanted to do more. That’s when it employed James, and the two organizations have been working side by side ever since. ‘It was natural for their resources to be pooled,’ Rachel said. ‘Both organizations’ objectives were virtually identical. The only difference was that one worked in Africa, the other in the UK.’
Both organizations were dealing with the same issues, raising awareness and working against stigma and isolation. Everybody agreed they were a ‘good fit’. It was healthy for a Shropshire-based organization to have an international dimension, and for an international organization to have a base back in the UK, working as part of a localized community, gave it a rootedness it wouldn’t otherwise have had.
Whether her name has gone or not, Doreen Woodford won’t be forgotten. If you want to read the fascinating interview Mat conducted with her in September 2010, I can't recommend it highly enough. If you want to know more about Signal, here's their website, and here's the Shropshire Star article about their launch. Or, if you want, you can still see the old Woodford Foundation website and read some of their back newsletters.
Oh, and one final word. I’ve been using this phrase ‘the deaf community’, however, according to Mat, it’s not just one community but a series of them, all under the one banner. There are the sign language users [‘the noisiest language in the world’ somebody once said, and having witnessed a group of deaf teenagers exuberantly signing on a train, I know what they meant]. There are those who lip read – and historically speaking Shropshire has always been a lip-reading county. There are those who use hearing aids, whose deafness most probably is the result of a loss of hearing at some point in their lives. And there those of us who struggle with the effects of tinatus.
As I write this, I can hear a swishing noise in my ears. First time I realized this was happening, I was in a hammock, in a Welsh wood, beside the sea. It was the middle of the night. Half way through telling myself how much I was enjoying the silence, I realized a] that it wasn’t silent – I could hear the sea – and b] it wasn’t the sea; it was me. Since then the swishing has upped the ante. Now I hear a giddying roar of static every time a bus goes by. Sometime I’ll have to go to the doctor. Hopefully I won’t be one of James’s 43%. I only tell you this, not to garner sympathy, but to make the point that deafness isn’t ‘out there’ happening to ‘someone else’. It can happen to any of us.