Ed Lepre has had an exceptional career. Born profoundly deaf, he now works as an IT trainer with Happy Computers, teaching delegates in British Sign Language, his ‘mother tongue’. He also recently won the IT Trainer of the Year Award. Jutta Mackwell reports.

Can you give me a ‘short history’ of yourself?

I was born profoundly deaf and was brought up using BSL (British Sign Language) as my first language. I went to a special school for the deaf, both primary and secondary, but after that attended a local mainstream college.

I studied Electronics / Electrical Engineering at Coventry University, and then did a BSc (Hons) in Electronic Product Technology at London Metropolitan University. After university, I worked for two years as a freelancer in web development before joining Happy Computers.

How did you become interested in IT training?

I began teaching myself how to use a computer and how to program at the age of seven, when my father bought me a spectrum computer.

I have also always dreamt of becoming a maths teacher, to be able to see learners gain confidence in their ability, and in that sense being an IT trainer is not that different from being a maths teacher.

How did you get to where you are now?

While I was working as a web developer, Adam Starr, Employer Advisor at the RNID (Royal National Institute for Deaf People), asked me if I’d be interested in teaching IT, and I was given the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take part in a three-day ‘Train the Trainer’ course run by Happy Computers.

There were 20 deaf candidates in the group to start with, but only the six best candidates were picked for the whole of the three-day course. The first two days of training was to get an idea of how to train to your best ability. Then I was sent away for a month to practice training techniques, styles, presentation, training methods and so forth. It was a struggle to start off, but I loved learning more and more about how to be a great teacher.

After the training I was given the opportunity to become an IT trainer, leading to a temporary part-time technical role, due to staff shortage, to web development and now a trainer development manager and examination invigilator.

What does your current job entail?

I am currently training three days a week on average, two days on ECDL and MOS (Microsoft Office Specialist), and one or two other days on open courses (for example, customised training courses such as Microsoft Office, DeskTop Publishing and Adobe Packages and so on).

I also look after the technical side of things, for example monitoring computers and sorting out technical problems throughout training courses.

Another major part of my role is to improve our web accessibility, especially for deaf people whose first language is not English. These web pages mostly use BSL videos to communicate.

What makes a good and effective training course?

I think one of the most important things when training is to build a good rapport with all delegates. I usually start the training course off with a short introduction, such as fire exits, if people are on the correct course, ice-cream time (3 p.m.), air-conditioning (anyone too warm or too cold), followed by getting to know the delegates, their job role, their experience in specific courses and finding out what they would like to get out of this training course.

It is also important to reassure delegates that it is ok to make mistakes (after all we all make mistakes) - this is what happens in the real world, and it helps them to learn to solve these problems.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

What I love about the job is meeting different people from different backgrounds and different stages of life every day. I also love the variety of my role and the opportunity to experience working across all departments.

What does a trainer need to keep in mind when training hearing-impaired delegates?

When I started, I asked my manager Henry Stewart to give me an opportunity to train hearing people so I could see what the difference was between training hearing and deaf delegates. I had a BSL interpreter in the room, who would translate what I said in BSL to the delegates and vice versa.

When training hearing-impaired or deaf people, the style and method are completely different. One thing to keep in mind is that English is very often not the first language, and delegates need extra time to read, especially during live application examinations.

There are different ‘groups’ of deaf people. ‘Capital D’ deaf people, who grow up with BSL as their first language, usually don’t consider themselves disabled, in contrast to ‘lower case d’ deaf people, who don’t use sign language and grow up with English as their first language.

BSL is based on gestures, facial expressions and body language and has its own grammatical structure and syntax, whereas SSE (Sign Supported English) is a language that is used like spoken English. There are very few deaf people who can’t use either BSL/SSE and communicate orally.

Any tips for communicating with someone who is hearing-impaired?

When you communicate with a deaf person, speak clearly, but not too slowly! If you speak too slowly, it becomes difficult to lip-read you as it distorts the lip pattern. I have encountered so many people who exaggerate the pronunciation of words, thinking this makes whatever they are saying clearer. To get my attention, I can hear my name being called sometimes, but if that doesn't work, tap me on my shoulder, wave within my field of vision, or even throw a light object at me (although this tends to be done by friends and family - obviously, people are not comfortable just throwing things at each other!)

How difficult is it for someone who is deaf to have a career as a trainer?

Not many job descriptions would match a deaf IT trainer. It’s a very exceptional career, especially if your first language is not English, but BSL. I would say it is very rare to have a deaf trainer, as any hearing trainer can teach deaf delegates through a BSL interpreter. But from my experience and the feedback I get from deaf delegates, they prefer to have a deaf IT trainer whose first language is BSL rather then having the three-way communications via a BSL interpreter.

How do you keep up-to-date with the latest IT developments?

I have a natural curiosity to learn and develop new skills. I have gone from being a qualified ITQ, to ECDL, MOS and finally to MCAS (Microsoft Certified Applications Specialist). I am always looking out for new software products.

I can’t resist learning new things, and that is what I am good at, gaining knowledge and passing it on to delegates on my training courses.

What would you say are the most important attributes and skills of a good trainer?

I have learnt that the most important attributes and skills of a good trainer are patience and flexibility to adapt your training methods to the needs of your delegates.

Also it is very important to treat everyone the same, no matter whether they are smart or struggling to keep up. I have always believed that everybody has the ability to learn and develop their skills.

What did winning the IT Trainer of the Year Award mean to you?

I had been awarded a silver medal by BCS in 2006, but nothing can be compared to winning gold this year. I felt fantastic, excited, pleased and amazed at what I had achieved over the years. My dad knew all along that I would win (parents weren’t invited - they would have loved to see me going up the stage and collect my award).

This IITT award means a lot to me, and I think it is also a very encouraging message to other deaf people, showing that it is possible to achieve their dreams in life.