Working Lives

Communication: a lifetime spent working with deafblind people in Norfolk (1952-2015)

Location: Norwich

After her first job at Start-rite, Heather began working for Social Services in Norfolk in 1978. In her work, she used Deafblind Manual to communicate with people with dual sensory loss. She was also proficient in British Sign Language and in Braille. Heather was ordained in 1996, and served as an assistant priest in Sprowston. When she retired from Social Services in 2007, Heather taught part-time on the Social Work degree at the University of East Anglia. She has also worked as chaplain for the Norfolk and Norwich Association for the Blind, and has been an active volunteer throughout her life with the Rainbow Club for deafblind people in Norfolk.

Starting work at Start-rite and Start-rite Sonnet; marriage and family

I was fifteen when I left school. My first job was at Start-rite, within the post department dealing with incoming post, followed by the typing pool and the wage office, followed by becoming a secretary. When I was doing the wages, I was doing them for my future mother-in-law, which I didn’t realise at the time. I worked there for three and a half years, and I left at the age of 18 ½ because I needed more pay to get married.

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 from eight o’ clock in the morning until 6.30 at night. I worked alongside Ethel George, who wrote the book The Seventeenth Child: Memories of Norwich Childhood. In those days if you worked piecework, the quicker you worked the more pay you got. I was doubling my money from the work so that I could make more money, really, to get married. It helped us to set up our first home. On my wedding certificate I am a ‘Boot and Shoe Worker’.

When our first son arrived, in 1967, I was 20 years old. I finished work, three more children arrived, so I had four under the age of six. 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 11 to 12 years. But within that time, I did a three-year counselling course in the evening.

Introduction to caring: a ‘home help’

When my youngest son started school at the age of four, 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?’

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. That was my first introduction to Social Services.

Working with deafblind: the Deafblind Guide Helper Scheme, and learning Deafblind Manual

During that time we had a bad winter. The Meals on Wheels vans which used to go round the city couldn’t deliver meals. They asked for volunteers from the church 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. 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. While I used to visit there, a gentleman arrived who was a social worker. He’d say, ‘You here again, Heather? You’re communicating well.’ It was patience and trying to understand what this lady was saying.

The following July they were trying to set up a Deafblind Guide Helper Scheme, as it was called then. He rang me up and asked if I’d like to visit a deafblind lady, for work within Social Services.

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.’ She waited, and I started to visit this lady, twice a week, and I visited her for seventeen years.

The importance of accurate communication

The social worker also said to me, ‘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. I learnt Guiding Skills and Deafblind Manual. I consequently got the Deafblind Manual Level I and Level II.

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. I knew she understood, but the consultants changed their mind: it had to be above the knee. So I 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. The circumstances on the communicator would be dreadful if the lady hadn’t understood properly.

Deafblind Guide Help, and the Rainbow Club

I started working as what was then called a Deafblind Guide Help in 1978, the same year as I started helping the gentleman who lived up the road. At first it was only in the Norwich area, and I did it by bicycle. Later they changed the name from Deafblind Guide Helpers. We became Communicator Guides. We had a team manager who would send us out. When I started in all of this there was no Sensory Support team, nothing at all. It got larger but sadly it’s shrunk down again now.

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. People from the Norwich area then only came into the Rainbow Club for an afternoon. We started once a fortnight, but over time we did get it up to once a week. It’s now sadly gone back to once a fortnight.

Training as a Braille instructor

I continued that for several years. Then I became trained as a Braille instructor, so I could go out and teach Braille to people in Norwich and out of the Norwich area as well. At that time I had a car. I had to do the Braille course myself and train as a Braille instructor for three years to qualify. I then went out to teach Braille to people.

I did the course at night school, one night a week. Your instructor made sure you could read the Braille that you had to read. The written Braille that you had typed out in the exam had to be sent away to make sure that you knew all the particular words for the Braille. It’s a bit like doing shorthand typing. When you come to some words, you can do one sign which means a whole word, rather than actually putting all words into dots, so ‘and’, ‘for’, ‘are’, and ‘with’ you can do one word for them.

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. I used to go to their homes. I’d have to then mark their work when I got back and prepare the next lesson for them. I used to tape the lesson as well so that, if they’d forgot what I said, it was on tape. They didn’t have to wait a whole week for me to go back. They had something to keep them going. The people that were having Braille lessons weren’t deaf, they had the visual problem. In addition, I was interpreting the Deafblind Manual for deafblind people.

All this was within Social Services. For my work with deafblind people I was invited to the Queen’s garden party. That was very early on, in 1979 or 1980, 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.

British Sign Language, and working as co-ordinator of the communicator guide team, while training for ministry

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 British Sign Language, or BSL, which is different to Deafblind Manual. I did BSL 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 18 deafblind communicator guides at that time. The co-ordinator who was managing us was leaving, so a job was going as co-ordinator of the communicator guide team. It was going to be initially 18 ½ hours a week. I was going to go into training for ministry; this was in 1993. I knew that if I trained for ministry then I would want to spend time on ministry work not only at weekends but in the week as well.

So I went for that job to co-ordinate the team, rather than one of the communicator guides. I would then go out and do the assessments and then put somebody in to work with the people. 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 co-ordinator, so then I took on the responsibility of that team of 18, which was a very good team, men and women.

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 then co-ordinating 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. It can be quite a tiring job.

So I would work as a team co-ordinator Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and then I would have Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday for ministry. I also 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.

When I started as the co-ordinator, working 18 ½ hours a week, they hoped they would get more hours for somebody else, but the money was never available until about the last three or four years. Then one of the people who I’d worked with from the team got the job as the other person with me. We knew each other very well and we worked together very well. In actual fact she was a year older than me but she stayed until I went, so we went together. That was really good.

Training for the ministry; ordination; leaving Social Services

After three years training, I was ordained, in 1996. I was at Social Services Monday to Wednesday and then, as 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.

I retired from Social Services in 2007. 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. 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 make them non-active to you, and it would become another piece of work somebody else would pick up. You didn’t have your continuation so you knew families. You could work with them better, I think, years ago because you just knew them. Of course, probably, funding now 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.

Work in the ministry, and for the Norfolk and Norwich Association for the Blind

I was ordained in 1996 and I became a curate. Then from being a curate I became assistant chaplain for the Deaf, so I used to travel round. I used to do a Sunday 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…. Then I was back in to work on the Monday because I used to work Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday.

So what I did, I changed, with a lot of careful consideration should I say. I have got a licence now for deafblind people throughout the diocese, so I still have to travel. I also got a licence 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 at 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.

Norfolk and Norwich Association for the Blind’s home, the Bradbury Centre, is on Magpie Road. There’s sheltered accommodation on Magpie Road, called Hammond Court. 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 for anyone who wants to come and speak with me. 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. That way 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. At the children’s party at Christmas time they had the lorry came in with Father Christmas and all the pixies were on motorbikes. When they parked up these Harleys the director said, ‘Let’s have the chaplain on the bike shall we?’ So that’s how there’s a picture of the chaplain on the motorbike. So that’s, you know, quite a job but I am still in the parish here as well.

The Queen came to the Norfolk and Norwich Association for the Blind a couple of years ago. I got a photo of her. That was good.

Work as assistant priest at Sprowston, and as a school community governor

Sprowston is the largest parish in the diocese but it’s got a team. There is a vicar and an associate vicar. Then there’s myself as assistant priest and we’ve got a curate too. The curate will be leaving soon. There are also 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 on Sundays. On 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. That’s from four ‘til six. So I go to those sort of things and then I’ll meet a wider range of people.

I’ve worked in schools for assembly and ministry. I’ve only worked in schools if I’ve taken a talk. I did work in if there was a child in the school I was working with, but I wasn’t a teacher in the schools, I wasn’t a one-on-one person. Within ministry I was a school governor, a community governor, for six years.

That’s what I do really in ministry.

Reflections on leaving Social Services and Volunteer work after leaving social services

After I retired from Social Services I still continued to be a volunteer for Deafblind UK. I still have to have the police checks and everything for them. I think I’m the only volunteer for them in Norfolk. But I’m a different volunteer perhaps to some of the others. I volunteer in a ministry way for them, under the chaplaincy role, because I go as a minister to see people. I don’t think there’s anybody else in Norfolk doing deafblind with Peterborough, they are now called Deafblind UK.

Although other people have got the skills, I think people don’t volunteer so much now. 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. 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? Then perhaps we’d go out and do an assessment. But if nobody from Deafblind UK is able to tell you, because nobody is working together, that there’s this person, then you don’t hear about them.

I still go into the Rainbow Club, but when I ran the Rainbow Club there were forty deafblind people plus a waiting list, now there are four. Now, perhaps, there are not so many deafblind people who need Deafblind Manual anymore, or it might be 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.

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. I couldn’t take any more than forty because of the fire risk. The fire people said that 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 it’s so reduced. You could say it’s a good thing that people are not around. 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 still see those people.

Teaching at UEA: ‘Only if you want something practical – and no PowerPoint!’

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. 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. 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’re not going to gain anything. You’ve got to have something practical.’

And they said that’s what they wanted. I did that for five years after I retired from Social Services, every year when they had the social work bit for communication for the Social Worker degree.

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. If people were just saying, ‘Yes’, or giving the same answer to a question, ask it in another way to see if you would still get a ‘Yes’ answer when you were expecting a ‘No’ answer.

If people offered a cup of tea and you didn’t really want one, if you think there’s a problem with eyesight, maybe have one to assess how they can make a cup of tea, rather than just assuming that when they 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.

Then I 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 gave 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.

I did that for five years. It’s only the last two or three that I haven’t. It was only one day but it was just 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.

Some personal reflections on using Braille

Braille is harder than Deafblind Manual but I learnt Braille to teach it. My instructor actually said, ‘If you’re learning to teach Braille, look at it.’ There are not a huge number of books that you can get in Braille, and if a library has one copy of a book it can be hard or take a long time to get another copy of that book. You tend to have to be looking over the person who you’re teaching to follow, because you’re using the same book. You need to be able to recognise the dots and just read them. 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. 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. It doesn’t do your eyesight much good but you can do it that way. You have to have patience.

I had a very young girl who was only eighteen who lost her sight through diabetes. She couldn’t feel the small dots because her fingers were taking the blood. For someone like her you could also have jumbo Braille, and jumbo Braille is the same but much bigger blocks, much bigger dots! 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 that you can use to follow as well.

I’ve still got my Brailler because in ministry I still use it. 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. And I’ve still got a little notebook which I can just dot it out.

Thoughts on working with people with dual sensory loss: other communication techniques

It’s a lot of patience working with people with dual sensory loss. We used to have training days where we’d have 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. With young children, toys were things like vibrating toys, sensory toys where 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.

You had to be aware of those sorts of things. And how family communicated with people, and the identification of the worker who was going to go that day. If you were going to go to somebody who had been at school, what mum would do would put, say, a keyring in the lunchbox with an elephant on. 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, you’ve all got to work on the same thing. For example, 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 uses the flannel and the worker uses the flannel. Because if you throw in ‘soap’ it doesn’t mean anything. ‘Soap’ won’t mean wash if you’ve used ‘flannel’ for wash.

You learn all those things over the years really but you do have training sessions coming in from Sense. They give you some training on massage and hand massage and all those kind of things as well. You do all the basic training that other people do within Social Services. You do your First Aid training, you do your Child Protection training, and new training that comes in you’re expected to go to it. It’s not just solely around deafblindness but a lot of it is.

Deafblind Manual was the communication that was taught at Deafblind UK. They also mentioned Block, which was doing Block on somebody’s hand. There were also large-print magnetic letters on a magnetic board to make words. Possibly the most difficult of all was trying to get situations where husbands and wives 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. It takes a lot of patience and time.

Deafblind Manual training, and contracted and uncontracted Braille

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. It was about knowing about hearing conditions and why people became deafblind, whether from birth, or whether through something that happened to them through accident, through war, or an illness later on where sight and hearing was taken away.

The training in Braille was three years, the first year was uncontracted Braille, and then it was contracted Braille. 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. 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 all together. With ‘four’ 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.

An inspiring story of patience and commitment

One story from when I started teaching Braille is about 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 through his commitment, he kept doing it all the time and would do his homework and everything. 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.

Heather Wright (b. 1947) talking to WISEArchive on 17th June 2015 in Norwich.

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