When Andre Ferguson’s daughter Azara lost her hearing at the age of one, he naturally wanted the best for her. Since then, however, his determined efforts to fight for a better life for Azara have gone on to help over 150 deaf children, and to improve support services across south London.
Andre, 35, credits the Government’s Work Programme, which can offer support to unemployed budding entrepreneurs to set up their own businesses, for making it possible for him to launch Meaka Bears, an independent community-based charity which hosts group activities for deaf children, and provides vital advocacy services for parents of deaf children.
Although Andre was already battling to get support for his daughter, he said he faced another brick wall when he tried to set up the charity before he was referred to us on the Work Programme in Lewisham in south London.
“The most difficult bit was the stigma attached to being unemployed, young and black,” said Andre, who had given up work to devote his time to Azara, “People assume you must be into something else, especially if you dress well. Doors just closed and it was very stressful. I felt some people treated me as someone they thought was up to no good, rather than giving me the support I was asking for.”
But meeting Jacqueline Salazar, the enterprise coach at PeoplePlus in Lewisham, was like a breath of fresh air. It took three years to get there, but in Jacqueline I finally found someone who just listened. She took time to really understand what my vision was, and she completely got it.
“During that first meeting, she gave me advice about start ups and went out of her way to organise a meeting with a local business to talk of possibly getting funding for what I do. Although it didn’t work out, I thought that was really touching because she didn’t have to. The whole time she gave me constant information about business opportunities and pushed me to get out and do it.”
Andre’s story – and just how far he’s come since that fateful meeting – is inspiring.
Shocked at the lack of support available to parents of deaf children in the London borough where he lives, the dad of two refused to rest, not sleeping or eating for the first month, as he battled for his daughter.
He said: “When I first realised that Azara was losing her hearing, like a lot of people, I just didn’t know where to go to find out what I needed to do. I remember calling Kings College for a month and all I got was a recording about digital hearing aids that would take four years to get.
“Luckily, I was able to go private and Azara had her first hearing test at the Portland Hospital. It wasn’t until a year later that the NHS finally called up to give us an appointment and by then she’d already had a hearing aid fitted and was about to get an implant.”
Andre, of Southwark, said he faced similar issues when he tried to find groups that would allow Azara to participate in the same activities and experiences as other children and meet other deaf children.
“She’s extroverted and likes to sing and dance and there was nothing that catered to that,” he said, “That was my inspiration for setting up a company that catered to my child’s needs, to provide activities like performing arts, and swimming and football to give them confidence and social inclusion.”
Andre also went on to organise sign language classes to help deaf and non-deaf family members learn to communicate with each other and to provide recognised qualifications to professionals and key workers when he discovered that the nearest one would have meant extensive travel.
He said: “I know that had I not been pro-active in getting these things done, Azara would have been two or three years away from where she is now. She wouldn’t be in a mainstream school, where she is now, and she’s doing really well, top of her class. She went to specialist nursery and that really helped and she came out of nursery and she could speak. But all that was private and we had to pay out of our pockets.”
Andre’s latest venture is to raise more funds for Meaka Bears – named after his daughter’s nickname and a bear she carried throughout her surgery - through the launch of a clothing line, Deaf is Cool. It will sell branded T-shirts, sweatshirts and beanie hats.
Andre will be a special guest at the annual conference of the Employment Services Related Association (ERSA) in London this month (December), where he will describe his experiences to thousands of delegates from the employment and training sector. Conference attendee will also receive bags branded with the Deaf Is Cool logo, which Andre hopes will start to create a culture of support for the deaf community.
Andre added: “Thanks to Jacqueline and the help I found on the Work Programme, I have moved closer to creating the kind of company that is needed for deaf children and their families in south London.”