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Britain’s first deaf clinical psychologist hopes to inspire the next generation

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She has been an inspiration and one of her kind for almost 20 years. Now Britain’s first deaf clinical psychologist is hoping her journey can open the door to others.

Doctor Sara Rhys-Jones has led the way in breaking down barriers and changing perceptions and attitudes to get to where she is today at Swansea Bay University Health Board.

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She became Britain’s first deaf clinical psychologist in 2003 and remains the sole person qualified in that profession in Wales. This is something she hopes to change by telling her story.

“My journey into the profession was certainly daunting at first,” said Doctor Rhys-Jones.

“However, I am proud of this achievement and want to encourage more deaf people to take up psychology.

“There are now deaf clinical psychologists in the UK, but I would love to see another or more deaf psychologists in Wales by the time I think about retiring.

“I hope sharing my story will raise awareness that deaf people, with the right support, can become professionals in any field along with encouraging more deaf people to work in the healthcare profession.”

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It has not been a straight forward journey, but the experiences gained along the way have only strengthened her desire to progress.

Born profoundly deaf, Doctor Rhys-Jones was raised by a Welsh speaking family who had no experience of deafness.

Encouraged to read in order to develop lip-reading and speech skills at an early age, she had set her sights on becoming a clinical psychologist as a 16-year-old.

And whatever challenges she faced, the determination developed from an early age came to the fore.

“My parents instilled in me a strong belief not to let my deafness create barriers or prevent me from achieving my dreams,” she said.

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“As a teenager, I took a lot of joy working with young children, especially with the occasional deaf child I met during times when I volunteered at children’s festivals.

“It was at that point that knew I wanted to train as a psychologist to support deaf children, young people and adults.

“It really wasn’t easy at the start. I did a BA Hons in Applied Psychology at Cardiff University, but the department had no experience of supporting deaf students.

“I had a note-taker for some lectures and I read as much as possible to keep up with the course. My passion for the topic meant I had the drive to continue despite struggles at times due to being the only deaf student at the university at the time.”

A defining moment in her life came in the third year at university.

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A year’s work experience in Manchester at the John Denmark Unit – a specialist NHS mental health service for adult deaf people – introduced Doctor Rhys-Jones to deaf people and, significantly, British Sign Language (BSL).

“Despite being comfortable with the ‘hearing world’ and have wonderful hearing family and friends, there was something missing. During my time working in Manchester, I realised it was the absence of my Deaf identity,” she said.

“BSL fast became and continues to be my preferred communication for daily life and I finally felt complete.

“When I returned to Cardiff University, I arranged to have BSL interpreters for the rest of my course.

“For the first time at university, I had total access to what was happening at all times because with note-takers or trying to lip-read I had felt detached from the others.

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“My confidence really grew because I didn’t feel marginalised in society, as did my determination to be a clinical psychologist, to be trained to assess, diagnose and work with people with psychological difficulties and across all care settings.

“This field appealed to me the most because of the scope of clinical work and variety of care settings with the aim to reduce psychological distress and to enhance psychological well-being.”

Dr Sarah Rhys-Jones (Image: Swansea Bay NHS)

After graduating in Cardiff in 1996, doctor Rhys-Jones was awarded the best undergraduate dissertation project, which focused on the theory of mind in deaf children.

She was also given the opportunity of a PhD scholarship at the university, which centred on deaf identity and attitudes towards regional differences in BSL.

To add another feather to her cap, she completed a diploma in social sciences research methodologies.

That all led to her first post – assistant psychologist at the Deaf Child and Family Service (now known as National Deaf Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) in London where she met influential deaf and hearing professionals in the field of deafness and mental health.

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She would take up her first job as a qualified clinical psychologist there following a three-year clinical psychology course at Salomons, Canterbury Christ Church University, where she was the first deaf person to be accepted onto the course.

Five years later, she returned to Wales by joining the Cardiff Community Support Team for Adults with Learning Disabilities – a position and department that fell under the health board’s responsibilities in Swansea Bay.

After a decade in Cardiff, she moved further west to take up the same role in Bridgend, where she continues to work under the same health board.

Key to her work is the use of BSL interpreters during appointments, who have proved crucial in not only ensuring the best communication possible with patients, but also in terms of the service delivered.

“I would not be able to provide effective psychology service to service users in generic mental health services without excellent, compassionate and committed co-workers – the BSL interpreters I worked with during my training, first job on qualifying and continue to work with,” she said.

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“I use the term ‘co-workers’ to illustrate the incredible working relationships I developed with my team of BSL interpreters, which have and continue to tremendously benefit service users we work with.

“Interpreting in the formal way – to simply translate spoken English into BSL and vice versa – was quickly discovered to create barriers with hearing service users because the warmth and affinity was missing between the interpreter and service user to aid therapeutic work.

“The therapeutic aspect of my clinical work with hearing service users was discovered to be substantially more effective if the interpreter and I reflected on the session afterwards to plan the next session.

“For instance, the words used by the service user and the seating arrangement to help people with autism or psychosis.

“In my clinical work with hearing service users, it’s important for the interpreter to convey the order and choice of words along with tone of voice when it occurs in the assessment or session and to inform me afterwards.

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“Similarly, it is important to me that the interpreter does not ‘repair’ unclear words and meaning.

“My enriching experiences with service users – deaf and hearing – all intensified my desire and passion to complete the training and to continue working as a clinical psychologist to this day.”

Dr Sarah Rhys-Jones (Image: Swansea Bay NHS)

Sara continues to promote BSL outside of her work, having helped produce a free online deaf wellbeing course called ACTivate Your Life.

Delivered in BSL, that helps deaf people to learn how to look after themselves, keep their minds and bodies well and how to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

Her work was highlighted by a popular deaf blog – Limping Chicken – who published the video and an accompanying article.

And it is that effort, commitment and desire to help that makes her such a popular and respected colleague.

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“Sara has indeed challenged stereotypes around individuals with a disability in her career path as a clinical psychologist,” said consultant clinical psychologist Clare Trudgeon, who is Sara’s line manager within the team.

“Training in clinical psychology is highly competitive and demanding, and practicing as a clinical psychologist is a challenging role.

“Working within a learning disability setting is a particularly challenging role due to the presenting needs of the client group and her need to work at all times though interpreters.

“Sara makes a difference on a daily basis to the lives of those who can be less visible in society but who are often in greatest need of psychological expertise to support them and their carers to live meaningful and successful lives.”

Sara added: “There were a number of hurdles and barriers I had to overcome, but the satisfaction of achieving my childhood ambition of helping others has made it all worthwhile.

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“I’ve proved that deaf clinicians can work with hearing clients using regular BSL interpreters, while also bringing a different insight and knowledge in clinical work with deaf service users.

“Now I hope to see more deaf clinicians qualify, and for Wales to have more than one deaf clinical psychologist and healthcare professionals.”

(Lead image: Swansea Bay NHS)

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