Heather will be talking about her working life with the deafblind for Social Services and as an ordained Minister.
I was fifteen when I left school and my first job in my working life at that age was at Start-rite, first within the post department – incoming post followed by the typing pool and the wage office, followed by becoming a secretary. And when I was actually doing the wages, I was doing the wages for my mother-in-law which I didn’t realise at the time, my future mother-in-law. So I worked there for three and a half years, I left there at the age of eighteen and a half because I needed more pay to get married. So I joined their sister company, Start-rite Sonnet, working piecework. I didn’t want to work in a factory with the same company as I’d worked as a secretary. I worked in the factory at eight o’ clock in the morning until six thirty at night, doubling my money from the work so that I could make more money really to get married.
So on my wedding certificate I am a “Boot and Shoe Worker”, and I worked alongside Ethel George, who wrote the book The Seventh Child: The Memories of Norwich Childhood. I continued piecework, with Ethel – in those days if you worked piecework, the quicker you worked the more pay you got, so that helped us to set up our first home. And when our first son arrived, in 1967, I was twenty years old. I finished work, three more children arrived, four under the age of six I had, and then another daughter came, firstly as a foster daughter and later we became her legal guardians, so we had five children in the household, which kept me busy for the next eleven to twelve years. But within that time I did a three year counselling course in the evening.
When my youngest son started school at the age of four; that was in 1978, a neighbour used to have what was in those days called a home help. And the carer, from Social Services, asked me when I returned from school one day, ‘Do you know anybody who would take on this gentleman?’ And I said, ‘No, I don’t know anybody.’ But when I went indoors I thought well, I could do that. So, I had an interview with Social Services, just looking after this one man seven days a week, lighting his fire, getting his breakfast and hoovering round. And so that was my first introduction to Social Services. During that time we had a bad winter and the Meals on Wheels vans which used to go round the city couldn’t deliver meals, so from the church they asked for volunteers for people to take out meals through the snow to people who would normally get the meals on wheels, and I volunteered. I had about six meals to deliver within the local vicinity and one lady who I visited had sight and hearing problems so I had to take time with communicating to her – I’d never met a deafblind person before. After the bad weather and the spring came I continued to visit this lady. And while I used to visit there, a gentleman arrived who was a social worker, and he’d say, ‘You here again, Heather? You’re communicating well.’ It was patience and trying to understand what this lady was saying and the following July he rang me up and said would I like to visit a deafblind lady, for work within Social Services?
They were trying to set up a – that time it was called a – Deafblind Guide Helper Scheme and it was July and I said I can’t do anything now, it’s school holidays; if the lady would like to wait until September then I will visit. And she waited, and I started to visit this lady, twice a week and I visited her for seventeen years. But what he said to me was, ‘You will have to go away for some training on communication, you’ll have to do Guiding Skills and Deafblind Manual.’ So I went away to Peterborough, where the headquarters at that time was called Deafblind Helpers League. And I learnt Guiding Skills, Deafblind Manual. I consequently got the Deafblind Manual Level I and Level II. And you needed Deafblind Level II to communicate to people who were in hospital, or who were at the doctor’s, because you had to make sure your skills were good enough to make people understand through finger spelling what was actually happening. For example one lady who I went to visit went into hospital and had to have a leg amputated. Firstly they said just below the knee, and I explained everything to her and I knew she understood but the consultants changed their mind, it had to be above the knee. So had to go all through that again but making sure she knew that it was going to be above the knee and not below the knee. Because the circumstances on the communicator would be dreadful if she hadn’t understood properly. So I continued working as it was then called a Deafblind Guide Help and I did that firstly on bicycle and it was only in the Norwich area.
And what year are we in now do you think?
I started Deafblind Guide Help in the same year as I started with this man up the road about 1978. I put a lot of voluntary work into it as well; I used to do the Rainbow Club which was affiliated to Deafblind Helpers League. I have to keep remembering these old names – that wasn’t a paid post at that time, so I used to run that as a volunteer, but at least people from Norwich area then only came into the Rainbow Club for an afternoon and we started once a fortnight – but we then extended over the time to once a week; it’s now sadly gone back to once a fortnight but we did get it up to once a week. So I continued that for several years but then I became trained as a Braille instructor, so I could go out and teach Braille to people; that took me out of the Norwich area, in Norwich but wider as well. So I then had a car and I would teach Braille to people, I had to do the Braille course myself and train as a Braille instructor for three years to qualify before I then went out to teach Braille to people.
So you did the course at home did you?
I did the course at night school and then the exam itself, you had to send it away, the written Braille. What you had to read your instructor made sure you could read it, but what you typed out to make sure that you knew all the particular words for the Braille, had to go away because it’s a bit like doing shorthand typing, when you come to some words you can do one sign which means a word rather than actually putting all words into dots, so “and” “for” “are” and “with” you can do one thing for them. They changed the name from Deafblind Guide Helpers we became Communicator Guides and we had a manager who would then send us out a team manager. When I started in all of this there was no Sensory Support team, nothing at all, that got larger but sadly it’s shrunk down again now.
So this was all within Social Services?
All within Social Services. For my work with deafblind people I was invited to the Queen’s garden party and that was very early on because I was doing the voluntary and the deafblind. It was really a deafblind lady that had got an invitation and I went as her guide to the garden party, which was very nice.
Can you remember when it was?
I think it was 1979 so it was very early on, 79/80. And then after becoming a Braille instructor, which was challenging, I used to teach Braille on a one-to-one because people were at different stages and I used to tape the lesson as well so that when I left the person – because the people that were having Braille weren’t deaf, they had the visual problem, so that when I’d gone if they’d forgot what I said it was on tape, so they didn’t have to wait a whole week for me to go back. So they had something to keep them going.
Right, so you were teaching Braille, not just interpreting it for your own use, you were teaching it?
I was teaching Braille, I was interpreting the Deafblind Manual for deafblind people, then I trained as a Braille instructor for the three years and then I went out to teach people Braille. I used to go to their homes and so you’d have to then mark their work when you got back and prepare the next lesson for them. I would take the lesson as well so that if they forgot what I said they then weren’t waiting another week. And one story is that one man who actually said, ’I know I won’t be able to do the Braille, my family has told me I won’t be able to do the Braille.’ But for his commitment, he kept doing it all the time and would do his homework and everything and they had a Braille competition several years later within the country, not just Norwich, and he came second in the competition. So for someone who thought he couldn’t do it he jolly well did. And that’s all credit to him. Amazing that he just kept going with it. So from being a Braille instructor and having Deafblind Manual Level I, Level II visiting deafblind people (not just in Norwich then we were a county-wide service), I then did BSL which is different to Deafblind Manual.
So what does BSL stand for?
British Sign Language. So I did then do British Sign Language, so I could communicate with people who were deaf on a one-to-one and speak with them. But I still kept working with the deafblind. There were eighteen deafblind communicator guides at that time and the coordinator who was managing us, she was leaving and I was then going to go into training for Ministry. I went into training for ministry in 1993. And I knew that if I trained for Ministry then I would want to use some of that Ministry not only weekends but in the week as well. So a job was going as manager, or coordinator of the Communicator Guide team and that was going to be initially eighteen and a half hours, hoping that they could get more hours later for somebody else. So I went for that job to coordinate the team, rather than one of the Communicator Guides. So I would then go out and do the assessments and then put somebody in to work with the people. And I had fair knowledge of working with people because I had worked with people for numerous years. I went for the interview and I got the job as the coordinator, so then I took on the responsibility of that team of eighteen, which was a very good team – men and women – and I relinquished the Braille teaching because that was taking up quite a lot of time, not just going to people but the marking and the preparing the new work. So there I would work then Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and then I would have Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday for ministry.
And were you training to be a Minister at this time?
I was training in ’93, three years training, I was ordained in 1996. So I was at Social Services for the three days and then I was a Curate, I could use my times in the Curacy for Thursday, Friday and the weekends. I would mostly try to take a Saturday off, unless there was a wedding that I was expected to undertake. So that’s what I then did for the rest of the time that I was within Social Services. And that was good, and I know when I was interviewed people said to me how will you manage the reverting, shall I say, from being one of the team to them coordinating the team, because you’re in a different role as such. But that wasn’t a problem at all, that really did work well. I think basically because I knew what they were having to do. You work very much on your own in people’s homes and sometimes you have to make on the spot decisions and all that kind of thing, so I knew what people had to do and it can be quite a tiring job. So from that time onwards I then worked three days for Social Services from probably 1996 to 2007 when I retired and although they were going to get somebody else the money was never available until about the last three or four years. And then one of the people who I’d worked with from the team got the job as the other person with me. So we knew each other very well and we worked together very well. So in actual fact she was a year older than me but she stayed until I went, so we went together. And that was really good.
After that, what did I do… I still continued to be a volunteer for Deafblind UK, I got that last week thank you for continuing to be their volunteer, because I still have to have the police checks and everything for them and I think I’m the only volunteer for them in Norfolk. But I’m a different volunteer perhaps to some of the others because I volunteer in a Ministry way for them, under the Chaplaincy role, because you know I go as a Minister to see people so I probably volunteer in a very different way to some, but I don’t think there’s anybody else in Norfolk doing deafblind with Peterborough, they are now called Deafblind UK.
Is it because nobody has these skills that you have?
No – other people have got the skills, but I think it’s because people don’t volunteer so much now. You know at one time Social Services had a good connection with Deafblind UK when I worked within it. But because of budgets and things, they don’t work with Deafblind UK now, so it’s harder to get to know what people are around, because when I worked there you’d have this link – you’d have Deafblind UK ring you up because somebody had rung their helpline and could you do something for them? And then perhaps we’d go out and do an assessment but if nobody is able to tell you from Deafblind UK because nobody is working together that there’s this person then you don’t hear about them. I still go into the Rainbow Club, as you can see the dates are somewhere up there, but when I ran the Rainbow Club there was forty deafblind people plus a waiting list, now there are four. Now a lot of that is to do with, perhaps there are not so many deafblind people like who need Deafblind Manual anymore or whether it’s because people have to pay to come in now, whereas one time if you knew of a need you could get people into places without them having to pay.
And now of course if they want to come they have to find their own transport in, but it is a county-wide club and we have people coming in from King’s Lynn and all different places and I couldn’t take any more than forty because of the fire risk – the fire people said you know if people are deafblind you’ve got to get them to take them out, and we couldn’t have more than forty. But I had this band of helpers there, so it seems such a shame now really that you know it’s so reduced. You could say it’s a good thing that people are not around, but the people who are there have got sight and hearing problems rather than wholly what we used to call deafblind. But I still do go in, although I see the people that go in in other ways as I take services and they come to the services. So I do see them, if I miss and don’t go in I still see those people.
Did you want to speak at all about your work in the Ministry?
My work in the Ministry, I was ordained then in 1996 and I became a Curate, and then from being a Curate I then became Assistant Chaplain for the Deaf so I used to travel round – I used to do a Sunday service, a morning service and then I used to travel out to Kings Lynn one month, Lowestoft one month and Norwich the next month for services for the deaf. I was still at work then, so by the time I’d taken a Sunday morning service, travelled to Kings Lynn, taken a service, people like to socialise and talk after a service – I was back in to work on the Monday because I used to work Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. So what I did, I changed, it seems strange to say I changed, with a lot of careful consideration should I say, I have got a license now for deafblind people throughout the Diocese, so I still have to travel. I also got a license as Assistant Priest in Sprowston which is a non-stipendiary post so that’s a non-payment post, and I’ve got a post as Chaplain for the Norfolk and Norwich Association for the Blind. That came as I was just retiring from Social Services. I retired in the January, my birthday being the January and the Christmas the Director from the Norfolk and Norwich Association for the Blind rang me up and said would I become their Chaplain, because I knew about the people in the home, I’d been in and out of the home for years and years and years. I thought about it and because that Chaplain was retiring, I became the Chaplain for the Norfolk and Norwich Association for the Blind, which I still am.
Where is the home?
The home is on Magpie Road, there’s a home on Magpie Road, there’s sheltered accommodation on Magpie Road, Hammond Court and then they’ve got a big centre, the Bradbury Centre. On a Wednesday I’ll go down for coffee for Hammond Court, then I will do Chaplain’s Corner eleven ‘til twelve thirty, that’s anyone who wants to come and speak with me and then in the afternoon I do a Communion service and go round and see anybody who’s sick. But I have to obviously venture out of there because some of the people are there, other people live out and all over the county so I do join with them for activity times. I’ll go on walks with them, perhaps go on sailing with them, perhaps go on a trip with them so that I get to know other people who have visual problems but who are not actually living in the home or the sheltered accommodation or who do not access the Bradbury Centre.
Lots goes on in the Bradbury Centre, so you can see younger people in there. The picture on the motorbike is at the children’s party and at Christmas time they had the lorry came in with Father Christmas and all the pixies were on motorbikes and when they parked up these Harleys the Director said, ‘Let’s have the Chaplain on the bike shall we?’ So that’s how that becomes. So that’s you know quite a job but I am still in the Parish here as well.
So you have quite a large congregation really? Parishioners, what do I call them!
Sprowston is the largest Parish in the Diocese but that’s got a team and I’m Assistant Priest in the team so there is a Vicar and an Associate Vicar and then there’s myself and we’ve got a Curate too, the Curate will be leaving soon. So there is a team of people and there are some readers. In the Chaplaincy there’s only myself so I often feel I need to be out in the Chaplaincy more than in the Parish although I’m in the Parish Sundays. Friday I’ve got the volunteers’ party at the Norfolk and Norwich Association for the Blind so I’ll be at that to thank together with everybody else, all the volunteers who go into the Norfolk and Norwich Association for the Blind to help people in their everyday lives, so that’s four ‘til six. So I go to those sort of things and then I’ll meet a wider range of people. And the Queen too came there so I got a photo there of the Queen, she came there a couple of years ago, two or three years ago she came there and that was good.
Where did she come to?
The Norfolk and Norwich Association for the Blind.
The day centre?
Well she came to see it all really, yes. That’s what I do really in Ministry. And so I continue, and I continue as a volunteer there.
When I left work for Social Services they asked me at the UEA if I would do the slot on Communication in the Social Work course. And I said to them, only if you want something practical, I’m not going to do PowerPoint and all that because deafblindness is a hands-on communication and you have to have practice on it allowing people to come into your space and them allowing you to get into their space. If you just watch it on PowerPoint you know, you’re not going to gain anything you’ve got to have something practical. And they said that’s what they wanted and I did that for five years after I retired from Social Services, every year when they had the Social Work bit for Communication I would do that.
And this is for one of the degree courses at UEA?
This was for the Social Worker degree.
And what did you actually do when you went in?
I talked about deafblind people, I talked about how to be aware in a whole assessment of the person, to notice if there was a sight and hearing problem, to notice if the mail wasn’t being read or if people were just saying yes or giving the same answer to, to ask in another way – see if you would still get a “yes” answer when you were expecting a “no” answer. And if people offered a cup of tea and you didn’t really want one, maybe have one to assess how people, if you think there’s a problem with eyesight how they can make a cup of tea, rather than just assuming that when you say ‘yes I can do these things’ that people can do them. And look out for colour contrast, for black tray/white cup etcetera, that sort of thing. But in a holistic assessment, when you’re looking for whole things, please remember the sight and the hearing and look out for… And then went into the practical, how to do Deafblind Manual and how to hold people’s hand and not to grab people’s hand, that kind of thing I did in this session, and giving people the chance to experiment if you like, and to receive the Deafblind Manual back and know how it feels, and that you’ve got to touch each letter correctly otherwise it can be another letter. So that’s what I did really.
For five years I did that. So it’s only the last two or three I haven’t done that up there. It was only like one day but it was just for that slot, for the communications slot. I’m sure they could have got somebody much, much better but if it was technical with PowerPoint it wasn’t going to be for me. And to be honest I think I finished at Social Services in that role bang on the correct time. Because I think to assess a person you need to be out, see them, with them. And if you had a person years ago you would get to know them; when I left you would do a bit of work with that person, or you would ask them questions on the phone and then you would to make them non-active to you, another piece of work somebody else would pick up. You didn’t have your continuation so you knew families and that you could work with them like better I think years ago because you just knew them and of course probably, funding now, funding is not there. You could see people wanted something but you couldn’t because funding wasn’t there. I enjoyed my work and I still see some people because I’m still in a role but a different role working with deafblind people.
Did you tell me that you also worked with schools?
I’ve only worked in schools for assembly and Ministry, and I’ve only worked in schools if I’ve taken a talk. I’ve done talks in schools but not worked actually in schools. I did work in if I had somebody in; there was a school near South Park Avenue. I used to go into schools if there was a child but I wasn’t a teacher in the schools, I wasn’t a one-on-one person. Within Ministry I was a school governor for six years (a community governor).
And would you like to tell me a little bit about the training that you did?
The training to be a Deafblind Guide Helper as it was called at the time was training on Guiding Skills, how to guide a deafblind person. It was about learning the Deafblind Manual, it was about knowing about eye conditions – which was a written exam really – and it was about knowing about hearing conditions and why people became deafblind; whether from birth, or whether as something that happened to them through accident, through war, or an illness later on where sight and hearing was taken away. So although Deafblind Manual was the communication that was taught at Deafblind UK, they also mentioned Block, which was doing Block on somebody’s hand, also large-print also maybe magnetic letters onto a magnetic board to make words and possibly the most difficult of all was trying to get situations where husbands and wife or families were having to learn to cope with somebody who now couldn’t speak or hear where they could before through something like Motor Neurone, communicate. Because it takes a lot of patience and time. The training in Braille was three years, the first year was uncontracted Braille, and then it was contracted Braille.
What’s the difference between them?
Uncontracted Braille is where you use every dot as a letter. Braille is like a dice, a six dotted dice. So dot one is A, one-two is B, and one-four is C, one-four-five is D. So you would write every word out if you were writing “cat” you would write the whole of “cat” out. If you were writing “with” you would write the whole of “with” out. You’d write the whole of “four” out, you’d write the whole of “and” out. As you learnt contracted Braille you would learn to do one sign for “with”, like dot two-three-four-five-six altogether with “four” you would use different dots and you would use different dots, but it all comprises of six dots. So you would have to do the contracted Braille and then you would do numbers and how you would put a comma and a dot and all those sort of things in sentences. You could also have jumbo Braille, and jumbo Braille is the same but much bigger blocks, much bigger dots! But some people who are diabetic, and I had a very young girl who was only eighteen who was diabetic, lost her sight through Diabetes, couldn’t use the small dots, couldn’t feel them because her fingers were taking the blood. But you can’t get as many books in jumbo Braille as you can ordinary Braille. You’re limited in what you can read. And then they have other symbols as well that you can use to follow as well.
And you obviously picked these new forms of communication up quite easily.
I wouldn’t say quite easily! Deafblind Manual is not hard… Braille is harder but I learnt it to teach it so my instructor actually said, if you’re learning to teach it look at it because there are not a huge number of books that you can get in Braille that if you can get a library book you can get two of the same, three of the same easily. If you get Braille books you can’t get two, three, four easily of the same, they’ll do one and maybe not another one, if there is another one it can be hard or a long time to get. So you tend to have to be looking over the person who you’re teaching to follow. So you need to be able to recognise the dots and just read the dots, so consequently if you gave me a Braille piece of paper full of dots I would read it just like I would read an English text from a book. So I’m better at reading it with my sight than feeling it with my fingers, because that’s the way I actually learnt it to be able to teach it. And you have to be able to recognise it to mark it. And I can feel it and follow it but I can read the dots. It doesn’t do your eyesight much good but you can do it that way. So that was the training for that and I used to go to night class once a week for that. You have to have patience and I’ve still got my Brailler because still in Ministry I still use it. And if I go to somebody and I know they use Braille and they’re not in then I just Braille a note to say I’ve called. So I still use my Brailler. And I’ve still got a little notebook which I can just dot it out.
Lots of patience and a flair…
It’s a lot of patience working with people with dual sensory loss and what other training? It’s continual training, you do all the training other people do within Social Services, you know you do your First Aid training, you do your Child Protection training, all the same sort of training that is expected of you so it’s not just solely around deafblindness but a lot of it is. And we used to have training days where we’d have people in, and people in from Sense because we worked with babies, we called it from the cradle to the grave because we worked with young children right through to the elderly. And with young children, toys were things like vibrating toys, sensory toys which would …you could see colours go up tubes. And if you went to a training school, one of these schools where people with disabilities go, they usually have a sensory room; people will go in the sensory room and they will follow the colours and that sort of thing. I’m sure they had one at Little Plumstead, they certainly have got one at Sprowston and so those sort of things you had to be aware of. And how family communicated with people and identification of the worker who was going to go that day. So if you were going to go to somebody who had been at school and what mum would do would put say a keyring in the lunchbox with an elephant on and that worker would also have a keyring with an elephant on so when they met together they would know that that was the worker because of the keyring, the feel of the elephant. And when you’re working with children, a lot of it is like if you are using a flannel for wash and you’re showing a flannel and you’re using a flannel and it’s soft and everything, the teacher then has to use the flannel, the mum use the flannel and the worker uses the flannel. Because if you throw in soap it doesn’t mean anything. You’ve all got to work on the same thing. ‘Soap’ won’t mean wash if you’ve used ‘flannel’ for wash. So you learn all those things over the years really but you do have training sessions coming in from Sense and they give you some training on massage and hand massage and all those kind of things as well. But you do all the basic training that everybody else has to do to keep up with the job really. And new training that comes in you’re expected to go to it.
Heather Wright (b. 1947) interviewed in Norwich for WISEArchive on Wednesday 17th June 2015