A Deaf Counselling Trainee: Can It Work?

The trainee's experience

I am deafened, which means I am not pre-lingually deaf. I started losing my hearing about sixteen or seventeen years ago. I have a genetic degenerative hearing loss: initially my hearing loss was categorised as partially deaf and then severely deaf and I am now registered as profoundly deaf. I have some residual hearing and wear a hearing aid, primarily because I need some sense of noise and use my 'memory' of the noise in conjunction with lipreading. Lipreading requires intense forms of concentration and is extremely tiring.

When I decided to embark on a Diploma course I investigated what courses would be suitable for me. There are, apparently, only two courses for deaf people, one at Westminster Pastoral and one at Manchester University. The Westminster Pastoral course is a Counselling Skills and Attitudes for Deaf Trainees. Both courses are run in British Sign Language. BAC had no information and it seemed, from contacts I was making within the deaf world that I would have to undertake a mainstream course. I met with a deaf counsellor who had just completed the mainstream Diploma Course at WPF but had used an interpreter for the entire three year course. This had been a very costly exercise, also bringing with it difficulties with the dynamics of an 'outsider' in the group. However, this was not a realistic option for me as although I am learning BSL. It is not my first language and I am not adept enough to be able to utilise it within a learning experience. 

I applied and interviewed at Crawley and West Kent Colleges, and realised that both sets of tutors had little or no deaf awareness, but I sensed at West Kent an interest and a desire to learn. 

At West Kent I had two interviews at my request, one to discuss the deaf specific issues I would be bringing to the course and its ensuing problems, known and unknown. The second was my formal interview. Having been on a Certificate course elsewhere I was only too aware of the co-operation and support I would need. I felt I really needed to impress on the tutors my needs and the difficulties which lay ahead. They seemed to accept this and were prepared to work through it. We agreed that I would liaise with the College to set up a loop system and that on the first day I would introduce myself to the group explaining my disability, expressing my needs and asking for their co-operation. We also agreed that I would speak with a tutor at the end of each course day to check-in and keep close liaison as to how the course was working for me and whether any adjustments or stronger support need be made. 

On the first day the loop system had not been correctly set up. Fortunately I had anticipated this and had brought with me radio aids which consist of a body-worn transmitter and receiver. It was apparent that as the loop was not in operation I needed to make adjustments to my requests to the group, and it was agreed with the tutors that the transmitter be left in the centre of the room, and each person when speaking was first to pick up the radio aid, return to their seat, speak, and then return the aid to the centre of the room. I was introduced to the group and then made my own personal introduction and request. This, of course, had a strong impact for many people: it was not what they had anticipated they would have to do for the next two years. It was a most harrowing day for me, having to make myself so vulnerable on the first day, feeling the brunt of others' anger, and the spotlight on me, which I did not want, especially as we also have a disabled man on our course. I felt I was asking for all the support and attention, more than anyone else. However, I did feel very supported by the tutors and I sensed their interest and some excitement at the deaf-specific issues I was bringing to the course and how it would affect the dynamics. I liked that, as it gave me a feeling of acceptance from them, something I had not experienced on my Certificate course, where I had felt a nuisance who demanded more than anyone else and in consequence, because I had not had the support there, had spent most of the year hearing very little indeed. 
The loop was set up the following week, but in fact I was not able to hear with it, the system not being strong enough for my hearing loss. The tutors were very happy to continue with the radio aids, which suited me. 

The College has since loaned another transmitter, which enables the tutors to have one between them and one for the group. The system with the radio aids has worked very well for me and despite the fears of some of loss of spontaneity, it has, I think, had a positive effect within the group. It has been interesting to observe, on different occasions, various people's behaviour in connection with the aid. People can hold it to themselves, a form of holding their thoughts in a tactile way. It brings out other issues for people, for some the embarrassment of walking to the centre of the room in such a large group. Positively it prevents interrupting and negatively it does halt spontaneity, but it enables me to do the course. 

This is how it has continued for the past five months and it has worked extremely well for me. I feel satisfied that I have chosen well, relieved my fears were unjustified, delighted for so much support and co-operation (a very new experience for me), and a sense of enabling others as well as myself with the deaf issues I have brought to the course. I feel a strong member of this course, which has helped me with my self-acceptance. 

Pauline Monks

The course leader's experience

I first met Pauline Monks, a profoundly deaf woman, at the Open Day for the Advanced Diploma in Counselling Course at West Kent College in May 1996. I do not recall this meeting, which must have been very brief, but as Pauline had talked with Val Cunningham, a colleague on the course, I was aware of the possibility of a deaf trainee joining the next intake from my later conversation with Val. 

Initially, I did not see how this could work. Counselling and psychotherapy are sometimes referred to as 'the talking cure' and I wondered how someone who could not hear others talking could work in this field. I had virtually no deaf awareness, having never worked with any deaf person, nor known anyone socially who was deaf. However, I had chanced to read Oliver Sacks' Hearing Voices, so had some small theoretical knowledge of the issues of deaf people through this book. 

I have participated in and led trainings on difference, concentrating largely on issues such as gender, sexual orientation and race and including work on disability. I had worked with a blind colleague on my first counselling training and had worked with students in wheelchairs, so I had some practical experience of the possibilities of working constructively with people with different needs. I had recently completed a year of training with Carl Hodges, from the New York Gestalt Institute; this training had centred on issues of difference. How do we respond to those who are different, whether racially, physically, culturally or in any other way? Do we seek to push them out, get rid of them, to keep ourselves pure and intact? Ultimately this can lead to the 'Final Solution' of the Third Reich, the 'ethnic cleansing' of the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. These questions interested me, in my work as a group therapist and counselling trainer and in wider senses as well, in the areas of psychology, sociology, economics and politics. 

In considering the possibility of working with Pauline on the course, I drew on my training on difference and challenged my initial response of 'It can't work'. I realised that part of my initial response had been a resistance to looking at ways in which it might be made to work. I thought about our Equal Opportunities statement, which is included in the course brochure and thought -what does it mean? Is it just a meaningless, politically correct platitude? Or does it mean that I and the other tutors and the students might be prepared to work and think and maybe do some things differently, so that a disabled person can join the course? It was this challenging of myself which enabled me to meet with Pauline in (I hope) an open and constructive way. I and the two other tutors, Val and Sally Sugg, met with her to discuss the practicalities of her joining the course. This was prior to her interview. 

It seemed as if large group work would be impossible for Pauline to manage and I was back to 'it can't work', as large group time is an important part of the training. I had to struggle with my own resistance again, which now took the form of thoughts which ran - 'I am busy enough already without having all these extra problems' and 'the course is carefully designed and effective as it is and you are not going to tell me how to run it and I am not going to change it.' So there was a kind of laziness on my part and also a wish not to be controlled. I found that once I was able internally to understand my resistance to what she was saying I was able to listen to her more rationally. I found that I was willing to take on some extra tasks if they were necessary. The Equal Opportunities statement really was more than a platitude for me or, at least, I was willing to make it so. I found also that Pauline was very willing to listen to our point of view and was not saying that we should not have large group time but was asking if there was any way she could be part of that experience. So, on both sides, there was goodwill and a willingness and ability to listen to each other. 

The outcome was that we all approached Pauline's joining the course as an experiment. It was agreed with the College (who were more than helpful throughout) that a loop would be provided and we would see how that worked. The College agreed that Pauline would pay her fees termly and, if the experiment did not work for her, she would only be liable to the term or terms she had attended, rather than the whole year. The College provjded a specialist in deaf awareness who would visit and talk to the whole student and tutor group. We, the tutors, agreed to meet briefly with Pauline every week to check how things were going and to find out how we could best support her. 

I now felt very excited by the prospect of Pauline's joining us. I read Marion Corker's book Counselling: the Deaf Challenge and viewed working with Pauline as a challenge rather than a nuisance. I do cringe rather at the work challenge in this context as it has been so overused in Equal Opportunities training: it has become both a cliche and a joke. Perhaps 'interesting' is a better word: I found the prospect of working with Pauline interesting. 

The loop system did not work well for Pauline and we used and continue to use radio aids. Pauline has a receiver and the tutors use one transmitter and the students another, so in large group work people must get up and take the aid before they speak. Some people have difficulty with this - they feel embarrassed, inhibited and so on. I regard this as useful material with which to work, rather than a problem as such. 

We have ceased to have weekly check-ins with Pauline as to how things are going because by now (after one and a half terms) she is so integrated into the group and clearly both giving and receiving so much that this no longer seems necessary. Naturally, we continue to be available, should she have suggestions or requests. One recent request she made was that when we have specific training on disability next term that the College will provide a lipspeaker. We have, at her suggestion, occasionally used non-verbal exercises to help all of us be more aware of how it might feel to be deaf and to experiment with communicating in different ways, such as gesture and drawing. 

I find it easy to forget about Pauline's needs and have to remind myself of them. For instance, Pauline uses lipreading as well as the radio aid and so I need to remember to look at her when I speak and I often forget this. I ran a Saturday workshop recently and used music as part of the day, completely forgetting that Pauline could not hear it. Pauline is patient and considerate when people forget - sometimes people even forget to pick up the radio aid or make a joke or an aside, which excludes her as she cannot hear it. I imagine I would feel very angry - but then, I suppose if Pauline became angry at every time people forgot she would be angry all the time. 

I am very glad Pauline chose to join the course. She happens to be a very able student; had she not been, then the experience would of course have been different and I suppose it helps that she is gifted in many ways. I have found that my fears were groundless - it can work and work well, the course can benefit rather than suffer, no great amount of extra work ensued for the tutors, a deaf person can work effectively as a counsellor. I have learned a lot about the needs of deaf people, about how to be flexible and creative and about my own attitudes to disability and difference. 

I believe that all of us, both students and tutors have gained from Pauline's joining us. I would wholeheartedly encourage other counselling courses to accept suitable deaf candidates: it really can work. 


Corker, Marion (1995) Counselling -The Deaf Challenge Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London. 

Sacks, Oliver (1991) Seeing Voices -A Journey into the World of the Deaf Pan Books, Ltd. I London. 

Linda Martin, Course Leader, Advanced Diploma in Counselling, West Kent College, Tonbridge.

March, 1997. 

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