Episode 7- Listen and Learn

The Victorian College for the Deaf is Australia’s leading education school for children who are deaf. Principle Marg Tope chats with hosts Dr Lisa Interligi and Kristine Christopoulos about being the experts in teaching young deaf people in Auslan and English, and innovative hubs to provide work readiness skills. Marg also has some important advice for parents in creating life options for their children.

Speaker 1: Welcome to Loop Me In, the podcast community for parents and carers on raising children with disabilities. Join presenters, Dr. Lisa Interligi and Kristine Christopoulos and their guests in sharing experiences, information, and support ideas to help children with disabilities flourish. Loop Me In is brought to you weekly on platforms like Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher, to name a few. You can learn more. Connect to the Loop Me In community and listen to more episodes on our website loop-me-in.com.au.

Speaker 2: If you live in Melbourne, I think you have all driven past St. Kilda road many times and seen the iconic Bluestone Building, which houses the Victorian College of the Deaf. Today, we speak with the principal, Margaret Tope, to find out what goes on inside this beautiful building, which has been operating as a college for the deaf since 1865.

Hello, Margaret. I think I got that right. 1865. Did I?

Margaret Tope: Well, just to be pedantic and thanks for inviting me to your program. So deaf education started in 1860, but not in that building. And I think it was 1862, perhaps, when it moved on site here at 597 St. Kilda Road. And today, in present time, we don’t identify ourselves with the Bluestone, necessarily, as the school. We’re the building now on site with the terracotta tile, and Deaf Children Australia really occupy the Bluestone Building.

Speaker 4: Okay, good to know. It’s a great location. And in any case, to have such an education institution, it must be great access to people catching public transport and stuff, and it’s still a beautiful environment to be learning in.

Margaret Tope: Yeah. And look, I think that was part of the wisdom from people before me was to ensure that such a school… because we are so unique, we’re the only school of our kind in all of Australia, that it was housed centrally so it was accessible to students, children from all across the GTA. And yeah, we really have the prettiest grounds, and we don’t take that for granted. Our forefathers had great vision because the actual site is crown land with a Queen’s Caveat on it, and it says “For the care and education of deaf children.”

Speaker 2: Wow.

Speaker 4: Really? That’s amazing.

Speaker 2: Yeah.

Speaker 4: That’s fantastic.

Speaker 2: Yeah.

Speaker 4: Because you can imagine it’s prized land. Could be easily snappled up by some developer or somebody.

Margaret Tope: When we’re not recording, I can share more.

Speaker 2: We’d love to hear it.

The school is also the only school for the deaf that goes from prep to Year 12. Is that right?

Margaret Tope: Yeah, that’s right. So here at VCD, we do offer the foundation through to Year 12. We do have colleagues, though, so we have two other schools for the deaf here in Victoria, one being Furlong Park School for Deaf Children in St. Albans and that’s an F to 6 program. And then, of course, there’s the Aurora School in Blackburn. And in terms of years of schooling, they offer foundation program only.

Speaker 4: How many kids have you got there, Marg?

Margaret Tope: Yeah. So currently, today, we have, I believe, 57 or 58 students. I only say probably because I think word is getting out that we’re actually becoming a school of choice with all the implications of inclusive policy has made for the deaf learner. So we continue to receive requests or “come and tries” from different families. And yesterday, we had a new family begin with us and potentially, next week, we have another new family. So that’s why I’m starting to say, “Well, yes, as of today, I think we have…”

Speaker 2: Tell us a little about bit about the programs that you offer in the early years.

Margaret Tope: So early years, for us, really begins at age five. When we think of early years, we don’t offer onsite and early years education program. So early years, for us, is that age five when children are eligible to start school. That’s typically a foundation program. However, unfortunately, we know that many, many deaf children will not start school with age-appropriate language. So therefore, our curriculum really begins in that working toward foundation space. So we begin teaching and learning for certain cohorts of students with Level A, B, C, then D working toward a foundation year level curriculum and then, of course, following through, right through to Year 12.

Speaker 4: Is that because it’s hard to pick up hearing issues as young kids and have that early intervention prior to five, I guess? And why is that the case?

Margaret Tope: We do a fabulous job medically in detecting hearing loss in newborn babies. While I don’t have the direct statistics in front of me, I believe we’re really averaging, I think, around a 97% detection. So my understanding is that within the first few hours or 24 hours or three days when a baby’s born, it’s first screamed, and if there is a positive indicator for hearing loss, then there’s a follow-up appointment made for either confirmation of deafness or to say, perhaps that was a false positive and just to monitor.

So in terms of newborn hearing screening process in Victoria and indeed Australia, we’re doing a fabulous job, potentially, maybe not so much with our indigenous [inaudible 00:05:57] communities if we don’t have the facilities there, which is really sad. But it’s the issue of that if a child is born into a family and they’re unable to access the mother tongue of the family, then there is automatically a disconnect between fluid communication. And we know how important that, if you pardon, but I’ll use the traditional term in literature of mother-child interaction.

But whoever the primary carer is of that child, it’s really important that they’re able to share the same natural language. And there is considerable precious time that’s sometimes not capitalized on because if families decide to have a cochlear implant, there is still a time loss there where that child’s not accessing any audition, but 95, 96% of deaf children are born into hearing families. So therefore, the families do not know Auslan. So again, there is not an opportunity to seize the first three months, six months, maybe nine months, 12 months, 18 months before some kind of technology is also provided to that baby to access sound or to have someone with capability to support family to learn Auslan. And hence, we get language deprivation.

Speaker 4: How hard is it to learn Auslan? How long does it normally take?

Margaret Tope: It’s really like any language. To be fluent and competent, possibly seven years, if you wanted to say, “Yes, I’m fluent in Auslan,” But for a young family, with a baby and they’re wishing to begin straight away to provide, I guess, age-appropriate signs, it’s really possible for families to stay just even one week ahead of their baby and then their toddler and then their little person. Because if we think of the first words that typically babies expressively say, it might be like “mama,” “dada” or some home language like “ba ba ba” might mean like more, more drink, or more cookie or whatever it is because there’s this interaction that happens between primary caregiver and the child and so you establish a home language.

But what we do know that if families and in the States, United States in Colorado, they did an incredible job at early intervention and early education and they provided resources. So they offered… if you’d like a deaf role model to align with the family and to be like the language coach or the language role model for the primary carer, but also, for the baby and to show mom or whoever the primary carer is of that baby how to hold the baby and interact with the baby and how to make sure that they’re seeking eye contact and eye gaze. So it would be fantastic if we could adopt a similar model and approach here in Victoria and indeed, all of Australia.

Speaker 2: And as the children move into the senior schools, Marg, what happens in those year levels? I believe you have VCAL and you’ve got some amazing workplace hubs that I read about. Tell us a little bit about that.

Margaret Tope: Yeah, so we’re really proud of our senior year pathway programs. Here onsite, we offer two really rich opportunities and through a seeding grant and with the Departments of Education VET Innovation Funds also, we’re establishing a third social enterprise. So really proud and excited and welcome anybody to come on site and experience incredible coffee, food, and hospitality from our Tradeblock Cafe. This cafe has been in existence for 13 plus years.

Speaker 2: Wow.

Margaret Tope: It was developed by an incredible teacher who then… her name’s Amanda Joyce. Now, Amanda is the assistant principal at the college, and I’m really grateful for that, but that social enterprise started in a very humble way and is now one of 21 worldwide deaf cafes. And so we have deaf adults visit us here, at onsite at VCD just to experience our cafe. And the cafe is more than just a cafe. It’s a gathering of the deaf community as well.

And it’s incredible for our students because we have deaf community members who celebrate their 80th birthdays, their 70th. They might gather once a year for a bit of a back to. The class of 1959 or something might all gather there. So it’s not just a cafe. It’s a rich hub or the intersect of deaf and hearing communities also coming together.

The thing that’s empowering for our students is that, yes, not only do they learn the trades of a barista or working the register or back of house doing dishes, which that’s part of the job if you work in a cafe, but they really get to see when hearing people come into that space. All of a sudden, they see how, ooh, the hearing person feels a little overwhelmed because it’s the reversing of the roles and the experience. And all of a sudden, the hearing person might feel like they’re the minority now.

And our students are just so really kind and empathetic because that’s a lived experience for them day in, day out, and so they get it. And so they’re just so gracious and supportive for, if you like, the rookie hearing customers that walk in off the street just expecting to order a latte on the way to work. So that’s the first pathway that we’ve got.

The second pathway that we really hung our shingle out during the first year of COVID, 2020 and believe it or not, when bikes became a thing, we launched Ablock, which is our bike shop, and it’s also our VET Bicycle Mechanical Technology Cert II Program. And again, it’s based on the modeling we did with the cafe, so it’s a social enterprise. It’s an authentic teaching and learning space like the cafe, but it’s also a functioning bike shop that’s open to the public.

And so we have all kinds of people pop in. We got overwhelmed coming near Christmas time with people wanting to… they bought a bike from a big box store and all of a sudden, they couldn’t put it together, and they were like, “We need to have this for Santa,” all those sorts of things. So we actually had to take our shingle and bring it back in off the street because we couldn’t keep up with the workflow, what with either people wanting to read, garden, or bike ride. So, yeah, but that’s incredibly successful as well. And so we have lots and lots of folks just drop their bike off.

Apparently, we offer one of the few places to do a bike wash. And so when people go off track through the weekends, they bring their bike in for a wash. They run next door for a coffee, and then they’re back on their way. Or we just have regular commuters who, riding to work, to access the CBD on St. Kilda Road, get a flat and they walk it in and we fix the puncture and send them on their way and off they go, so that’s been fantastic.

And then our third enterprise we are just literally growing, no pun intended, it’s called Urban Grow. And it’s really looking at sustainability and environment and looking at developing, say, expertise in growing maybe herbs, or we’ve also got a grant where going to have operating beehives here on site. We’ve got a worm farm, which produces all those rich nutrients which we feed back. So our students are really excited about that opportunity as well and the business model to draft up to sell organic herbs to certain local cafes around town as well, so pretty excited about that.

So they’re our VET pathways on site. We have students who decide, “You know what? That’s great, VCD, but I don’t want to do any of that. I want to be an actor, or I want to be a diesel mechanic.” And so kids also go offsite for their VET practices as well. So we divide and conquer and follow our passions and dreams.

And then we offer programs for our senior students who may have deafness, but also an intellectual disability. And we follow a program that was birthed in the UK. It’s recognized in WA and Queensland Departments of Education, and it’s called as ASDAN and really, that’s about life skills and functional life skills, where some of these students may find themselves in a supported workplace program, but it’s really teaching them the necessary things like still, some OHNS, what would be appropriate clothing? How would you get to work? How would you get home? What does teamwork look like, punctuality, growing initiative within their role and responsibility of their placement in the program. So we have the ASDAN program and then, of course, we offer VCE Auslan of which we historically top the state for VCE Auslan, and why wouldn’t we when we’re experts in Auslan.

Speaker 2: Wow, you’ve definitely covered a lot of areas. How has it changed over the years? How long have you been at the school for?

Margaret Tope: Yeah, so I arrived, really, to take over a principalship role, Term 4, 2018. And so in my time here, we’ve… what? Cycling up to nearly four years. We stopped and paused because in Term 4, 2018, we went through a school review and there was also some community engagement through a ministerial review at the college. And that gave us some great guidance and a vision for the college and what the communities, so immediate parent community of the college, local community around where our school is geographically located, and our other important community being the deaf community. And so they all had some input and wanted the college to be a center of excellence for deaf education. So really, a hub and spoke model, so that it makes sense because we’ve got a critical mass of expertise here at the college. And so to offer support to further outlying suburbs of the GTA or indeed, regional and rural settings in Victoria. So that was one call, if you like, one quest for the college. [inaudible 00:16:54] be able to start to work and be outward facing and start to meet that remit within the four-year program that I’ve been here.

So through the COVID years, we had requests from rural and regional centers to support their deaf students in their local schools. And so we took on as a trial and we called it, for the sake of being able to have language, to name it something, we called it VCD Virtual. And so we had six students from different areas in Victoria join us for our literacy block, and five of those students with grandfathered off our screens because they’ve gone on to either be in Year Seven or they’ve moved into state and so forth. But that was a really rich trial where we really evidenced that students could learn with education support or teacher support at the other end, but access the expertise that we offer here at VCD.

So that was a fantastic outcome, and we’re hoping that the department has an appetite to look at that for some equity across Victoria in offering expert deaf education to students who, physically, may not be able to access our college, but still, we know we’ve learned a lot about the possibilities of the different video conferencing platforms now. We’ve become pretty good at it, and so we see that as a viable option, if we have some investment from the department in order to support and embrace that program.

Some other things that we really offer and have sort of changed is that we paused and looked at the nature of the students that were having a tour of our college. And indeed, because of newborn hearing screening programs, early detection, where we are at with our digital progress of our speech processes for cochlear implants, we could see that many of our students here had capacity to viably hear sound, so spoken English, so talking. We know that that’s the best way possible to learn how to read and learn how to write.

So what we’re trying to do right now is do some myth-busting because our school is steeped in history being back from 1860, but there’s still this perception, and I understand why, that we only teach in Auslan and that’s no longer the case. Yes, Auslan is definitely the inclusive language of our college because we are always going to be and have students and indeed, staff who cannot access spoken English, so must be able to communicate and access curriculum through Auslan. So that’s always going to be a constant at the college.

But what we’ve done is we also seek to hire staff who are really proficient at speaking and listening and so that’s hearing staff. So we’ve really looked at a balance of our staffing and said, “We need really strong deaf professionals, and we need really strong hearing professionals,” so that being either education support staff or indeed, teaching staff to work face to face with our students. And what we’ve done is we’ve matched the learning need with the student capability. So we’re really trying to teach to be literate and numerate based on students’ strength and teach to the advantage of students.

And so that’s been a big change, and I guess if there’s one takeaway from the discussion today is that people understand that the Victorian College for the Deaf, while we still are great champions of Auslan and we have a rich resource and capability to deliver and teach in Auslan the curriculum, we also are really the deaf experts at teaching through speaking and listening as well.

Speaker 4: I think that outreach element that you’ve been able to learn through COVID is very exciting.

Margaret Tope: Yeah. And we’re hoping that if outer-lying areas across Victoria see that as something that might be viable for them, while it’s not a perfect world, you always would dearly love to be able to have a teacher face to face, working with your child. But if it’s the next best thing and it seeks to solve a problem and we are always trying to be very solution-oriented [inaudible 00:21:21], then we have evidence that it is a viable way to actually deliver curriculum, so specifically literacy. If there’s a hot subject and we had to pick our poison out of all the crowded curriculum that we have, we would definitely recommend seeing what would be possible down the track for accessing literacy blocks here at VCD.

Speaker 4: What would you say to a parent that just recently had their child diagnosed with a hearing impairment or deafness?

Margaret Tope: It’s one of those things where when there’s a new little person brought into the world, it’s exciting, and we understand very much so that if there’s a point of difference in the child in some way, that can also bring about a time of loss and sadness and grief as well. And respectfully we need… and that’s always going to be there, and we see this with our families, even when their students or their children are Years 10, 11, and 12, and we’re talking about hitting another milestone in their child’s life. So I don’t think the grieving ever goes away in terms of the next milestone, the next milestone, my goodness, how are we going to get through this one?

But what I really urge those families to do is to think about what we know about language development, brain development, and the importance of those early years in order for that little baby to access, first and foremost, language because it’s interesting that if a child doesn’t graduate from secondary school being literate, then really and truly, that child’s choice for pathways is so limited. So while we all want as hearing parents to have a child who can speak and listen, for some students, it may not be possible. What we really need to encourage those families with those newborn babies who have a hearing loss is to think about when my child is older, do I want my child to have choice in their future pathways? Yes. What does that mean? My child needs to be literate. And in order to do that, you have to have language and you have to be able to read and write. It doesn’t mean you need to be able to talk or hear.

That’s probably the biggest thing that I would encourage families when they get the head space to quickly jump on that because those first few years of life, zero to three, especially, is so critical, what we know about neuroscience and brain development. It’s a confronting conversation I appreciate and understand, but when you think about the baby’s needs versus the parents’ needs, that also has to be a high priority and a point of discussion.

And so I really encourage anybody to go and meet a deaf professional. Come and see us. Even though we are tagged F to 12, we are a part of the deaf community and it would be fantastic for those families to actually meet deaf professionals and go, “Oh wow. My child could do this, or my child could do this” and not see it as a loss or blockers along the way. But over time, to be able to see it as still presenting with opportunities.

Speaker 2: I agree. Coming and seeing it live is just so much better when you first get that diagnosis, isn’t it? Yeah.

Margaret Tope: Yeah, definitely.

Speaker 2: Especially the families that haven’t got any deaf siblings or family, it must be really difficult.

Margaret Tope: Yeah and look, I really do understand. We have families here, not necessarily local families, but they may have arrived from war torn countries and so forth where they’ve had minimal to little exposure to perhaps a deaf adult. And they may have a belief that their child may not even learn to drive a car or ever be able to work. And so when they come here and they meet… because half my staff are deaf and half of us are hearing, and they start to see, “Wow, oh my gosh.” The secondary subschool leader, he’s a young man, but he’s deaf and he can’t talk. He can’t hear. But his Auslan and his language and he actually has three degrees. He has more degrees than me. Yeah. Amazing.

And so it really, I think, fills these people with joy because all of a sudden, the whole world now opens up and they start to see a future for their children. So therefore, they start to talk and have positive conversations about possibilities for the future, not to look at what will we do with this child or what will we do with your younger brother?

So it’s really about looking at a diagnosis of a hearing loss as also a cultural linguistic model, not to view it through the lens only of a medical model of less than and we have a problem and we have to make you more hearing-like. Respectfully, it’s parent choice. But I think it’s, in terms of those key concepts about how you view your child, it would be incredible if we could have families look upon their children as linguistically different, perhaps, but not look upon them as having an impairment, but just that their natural language may be different or their capabilities in different areas, not the same as their family.

Speaker 4: Yeah. That’s so powerful, though. That is so powerful. And the point that you make about having the parent unwind their expectation and focus on the child’s future is tough, but you kind of need somebody to guide you that way, right, because how would you know? So what a great role you play in helping those families.

Margaret Tope: Yeah. Well, here in Victoria, we do have a professional team. I believed they may be based at the Royal Children’s Hospital and it might be at Monash as well, but there is a team of professionals that go and work with a family with new diagnoses, but sometimes, they may not get to meet a deaf professional in those early years. And so therefore, we just say that if there’s curiosity out there and families are listening and they do have a child with a hearing loss, really irrespective of the age, if you’ve never visited us, you really must to even treat yourself to something at the cafe and, I guess, demystify anything because we don’t want to be just seen as this special school because we are really not that kind of special school.

We’re a government school like any other F to 12 government school. We just happen to enroll deaf students. Other F to 12 schools enroll hearing students. We enroll deaf students with additional needs. Hearing schools enroll hearing students with additional needs. Really, our point of difference isn’t that great. We just happen to be pretty good at teaching in two languages, Auslan and English, as opposed to majority of hearing schools who just teach in spoken English.

Speaker 2: Wow. It’s been amazing to have you on, Marg. We could probably talk to you all day. Thank you for giving us an insight on what goes on at the school and for all the families out there that have newborn children to come in and have a look around at the positive energy that you are showing there.

Margaret Tope: Yeah, and please do.

Speaker 4: And just to make a point, Marg, was really good to raise with us that we didn’t have episodes transcribed, so we are working towards making that happen in the coming week. So keep your eyes peeled for our transcripts and thanks for making us more inclusive, Marg.

Margaret Tope: Yeah. Appreciate that. And thanks for offering the opportunity for the Victorian College for the Deaf to feature on your podcast.

Speaker 2: Thanks, Marg.

Speaker 4: Thanks, Marg.

Margaret Tope: All the best, people.

Speaker 1: Thanks for being part of the Loop Me In community today and joining our conversation on raising children with disabilities. Join us for the next episode on some of your favorite platforms like Spotify and Apple Podcasts.

If you would like to support us, please recommend the Loop Me In podcast to your network of parents, carers, and providers. If you would like us to cover a topic or invite a guest to chat, please email us at contact@loop-me-in.com.au or go to our website at loop-me-in.com.au. If you’ve got any feedback, please let us know so we can improve and cover issues you want. And of course, if anything in the podcast today has raised concerns for you, you can contact Beyond Blue on 13 0022 4636 or Lifeline on 131114.

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