How does a shy Deaf girl from North East London rise to being named one of the most powerful Muslim women in Britain?

Deaf Professionals Network’s talk by Sabina Iqbal took place on Thursday June 4th 2009, at Royal Festival Hall to a riveted audience.

Sabina Iqbal, published author, manager and campaigner shared the skills she has learnt to influence, network and gain recognition whilst juggling motherhood, voluntary work and a full time job.

This talk came at a time when the Deaf community seemed to be in the midst of a baby boom. A new generation of parents are maintaining diverse professional careers whilst experiencing the joys and challenges of parenthood. Sabina explored how she has achieved work/life balance with her husband and two children and how as a family they form a winning team.

A charismatic and powerful speaker – if you are ever asked to define the term “role model” Sabina Iqbal is surely the perfect case study.

Below is a summary of her talk:


Sabina Iqbal was born in East London, her parents were originally from Pakistan and moved to the UK in 1972.  She was first diagnosed as profoundly deaf after the age of one and with two hearing brothers became the only deaf person in her family.  At first the cultural and social reactions to her deafness overwhelmed her parents. But they learnt British Sign Language (BSL) and Sabina started a school specialising in education for deaf children.  BSL provided what Sabina calls a “lifeline” for her parents to finally be able to communicate with their child. Their new found language also sparked an unexpected new career for Sabina’s mother – having begun to volunteer to support other Asian families with Deaf children she eventually qualified as a social worker for deaf families.

Mary Hare Grammar School years

Sabina applied to go to Mary Hare Grammar School for deaf children, passing their strict entry exam with flying colours. Her initial experiences at the school were difficult, being one of the first Asian students to be educated there she experienced racism from other children,  their ignorance led to taunts that she should “go back to her own country”, even though UK was the only country she had ever known. When Sabina reached her fourth year at the school the situation improved and more Asian students began arriving and she gained her first experience as a positive role model to others. By the time she had to leave Mary Hare with seven GCSEs it had affectionately grown to become her “second family”.

College Years

Sabina started mainstream college full of confidence that she was ready to take on the ‘hearing world’, but being the only Deaf out of 900 hearing students was inevitably a culture shock. Sabina soon found that the provision for communication support was woefully inadequate, with the college only managing to organise level 1 -2 communicators several weeks after she had started. Although initially people seemed to make an effort the novelty wore off and she often felt patronised and excluded by her teachers. Back in the days when there were no mobile phones, Sabina struggled with the day to day management of her support workers. When they called in sick or were late she had no way of knowing and would have to sit waiting in her classroom hoping they would turn up. All this combined meant that Sabina missed out on 90% of the information she should have been receiving and despite her excellent records from Mary Hare, failed her Maths AS Level exams. Sabina was devastated. But her steely resolve drove her to fight for better support and one year later re-sat the same exam and received a straight A grade. She eventually achieved good grades at all her A levels but the experience of fighting for better support and working every night to 1am to keep up with her peers left her totally exhausted. Not ready to move onto University, she needed time out from education.

Off to work

Sabina left college at the age of 18 aspiring to be a business woman, setting up a travel agency to explore the world. Unsure of what her next steps would be to achieve this she joined a job club for Deaf people and landed an administrator post at a disability day centre. As part of her personal development she was offered training and went on travel agency course and qualified only to be told she would never been employed by the travel industry because she was unable to hear the phone.

This rejection turned out to be a positive one as it led her to change track and apply for job in Newham as a reasearcher on a project for Asian Deaf people and their families, looking at their quality of access to Council services. She found a role model in her boss, an Asian Deaf woman, who encouraged her to consider a  degree from university, despite Sabina’s initial reluctance to return to education she completed a course in Deaf studies with Management at Bristol which she enjoyed:

“I never felt so relaxed, so included in learning”

Her team in Newham included three Deaf staff and three hearing but all could use BSL so formed a very positive working environment where Sabina’s confidence grew. Her job evolved in to an unqualified social worker post for Asian Deaf people and their families. She had a big impact on educating hearing parents who were often shocked to see a successful deaf Asian woman holding down a job.

Back to education

Keen to progress in her career Sabina decided to return to university, negotiating for a three-day working week that allowed her to attend a 2 day university course. Better prepared this time round, Sabina insisted on qualified interpreter and full control of her communication support budget. Successfully completing her two year social work diploma she discovered she could achieve a full degree by applying for an additional year in international social work studies. During this time Sabina also juggled freelance work in between terms, training people on Deaf and Ethnic issues and even television work.

After an initial struggle to find a suitable placement required for her international course she eventually found one through an interpreter friend who put her in touch with an author called Paul Preston (writer of ‘Mother Father Deaf’) in California who in turn invited her to be part of a research project with Deaf parents. Her time in America was the best experience of her life, relishing her independence and recognition of her skills. It also sowed the seeds of the Deaf Parenting Project.

Deaf Parenting UK

On her return to London in 2001, Sabina established  Deaf Parenting UK driven by a passion to fill the gaps in provision that she had found for Deaf parents. Working voluntarily Sabina wanted to improve confidence, empower and support Deaf parents/parents to be and campaign for Health, Education, Social Services and mainstream parenting organisations to improve access to information.

The organisation grew from strength to strength, employing two full time staff and raising awareness of Deaf parenting issues internationally, winning numerous awards. Sabina also wrote the first ever book on pregnancy and birth for deaf people.


Sabina married her Deaf husband in 2002. Her first pregnancy coincided with the start of a new job as Sensory Team Manager for Westminster council. her maternity leave was generous, with one year out to raise her newly born child. Upon her return to work she fell pregnant again but her manager was very supportive and she took another year off work. Her children, now aged fourteen months and three years old, are both hearing.

Her own experience as a Deaf parent has led her to a heightened understanding of what Deaf parents need and she has written numerous articles and featured in many interviews in various publications.

“Looking back – I’m fortunate to have had so many challenges and took risks to get where I am today. If I didn’t make those decisions at certain point of my life, where would I be? Who knows? Having the right support from your partner, families, friends, colleagues and employers are also important to enable you to make the most of opportunities that are on offer and it is up to you to create opportunities yourselves too.”


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