Christmas 2011: I was sitting in a darkened auditorium watching a Nativity performed by the special school where my mum was a teacher. A year before, I had finished my PhD in medieval English literature and I’d then spent six months in hospital and lost touch with academia, so life was at a funny point for me. The play concluded with the whole school singing and signing White Christmas. It profoundly moved me: every child and adult on the stage was part of a collective communication that went beyond an intellectual understanding of words into a shared emotional response to the joy of Christmas and a celebration of every person in the room, regardless of their particular challenges, circumstances or disabilities.
As a teenager, I’d studied ballet seriously, and then the power of the written and spoken word during my undergrad and postgrad degrees, so combining gesture and word into its own form of language made sense to me, and I wanted to know more.
A couple of months later, the Makaton lead for the school, Regional Tutor Jane Bellion, advertised a Foundation Workshop and I signed up to attend. I wanted to be part of this new (to me) way of communicating. My fellow course members included teachers, learning support assistants, parents, grandparents and foster carers. From knowing nothing (except the signs I could remember from White Christmas) on Monday morning, on the Tuesday afternoon, as part of a small group I signed and read the Hungry Caterpillar to the room.
I didn’t immediately have a chance to put Makaton into practice but, two years later, after more time in hospital, the right opportunity presented itself when a friend suggested starting a signing choir for a local charity, SoLO Life Opportunities, which supports children and adults with learning disabilities.
We started small in November 2014, meeting fortnightly with six choir members and three volunteers. We spent the first four months learning just three songs. Now, all of our skills have improved so much that we can learn that many songs in a single evening!
Within the choir’s first year, I successfully completed the Makaton Enhancement Workshop and I started to consider applying to attend Regional Tutor training. This involved a lot of work, including getting to grips with symbol use, which was something I’d learned in the workshops but not really used myself. I immediately saw the value of this when I brought the first set of symbolised lyrics to SoLO choir and one young man thanked me for finally bringing him “the real words”.
The group I was in for the residential Regional Tutor training was diverse and somewhat intimidating. My badge said “volunteer choir leader” and I was in a sea of “Senior Speech and Language Therapist”, “Manager of Adult Services”, “Teacher with Senior Responsibility for SEN”, etc. In fact, one of my fellow trainees, Zanna, has since become rather a familiar name in the Makaton world! Once the course got going, we were too busy for the differences in our backgrounds to matter and the whole experience was intense and wonderful.
Once I had my tutor certificate, I had the confidence to volunteer beyond SoLO choir, including running sing and sign sessions at a playschool for children with additional needs, and with typically developing babies and toddlers in another setting. I’ve also recorded a few “Makanory” story videos, which seem to be popular with parents and their children who may not have access to signed versions of their favourite books.
SoLO choir remains a joy. We now run weekly throughout the year. Our Friday nights are as important to us as our performances and we especially love making videos for #wetalkmakaton sign of the week and for the Christmas Countdown.
I asked some of the choir members to tell me what choir means to them: seeing friends was a recurring theme in their answers and growing in confidence was another. And that’s as true for me as for the members. I continue to face challenges with my own health but Makaton has given me a community wider and fuller, happier and funnier, than I could have envisaged when I sat in that darkened auditorium at the start of the Christmas play seven years ago.