Deaf Academy student Hafwen Clarke made history by becoming the first person to sign a speech at Buckingham Palace when she went to collect her Gold Duke of Edinburgh Award. 

The 19-year-old, who lives during term-time at the Deaf Academy, admits being nervous before giving her speech to 2000 people, while being watched on by Prince Edward. 

But her preparation and the strength and resilience that she has acquired while growing up Deaf, and from her St John’s Ambulance volunteering, stood her in good stead. 

She says: “I spent a month planning what I wanted to say. I wanted to tell my story and show the world that being Deaf doesn’t mean you can’t have the same experiences as hearing people. Deaf people can achieve anything they want to if they set their mind to it.  

“When I was born people told my parents that I wouldn’t be able to achieve things because I was Deaf. Luckily my parents ignored them! I want to show everyone that being Deaf doesn’t mean you can’t follow your passions and dreams.” 

The teenager describes the whole experience at Buckingham Palace as “amazing”, especially when Prince Edward signed “thank you” after her speech and when she met celebrity attendees, the astronaut Tim Peake and Harry from the band McFly. 

She beams: “I’ve been getting lots of messages from all my friends and family saying how proud they are of me.”  

Hafwen admits it was quite a contrast to her Welsh upbringing. Originally from Aberystwyth, she attended three different mainstream schools before joining the Deaf Academy in October 2023. Her secondary school had a specialist unit for Deaf people, but she found the setting very big and busy and a difficult environment for her learning. She enjoyed playing in the hockey team and became a St John’s Ambulance volunteer aged 10, at her mum’s suggestion. 

“I was quite shy and quiet when I started at St John’s Ambulance,” she recalls. “But they were very supportive and I realised I could communicate by writing things down. You just need a pen and paper or to be able to send texts. Some people know a bit of basic BSL (British Sign Language) which helps.”  

She embarked on her Duke of Edinburgh challenge three years ago, taking on the Gold level and physical endurance treks with some trepidation. 

“I’m really glad I did it,” she adds. “It boosted my confidence and proved I can do the same things as other hearing young people. Being Deaf does not have to be a barrier.” 

Hafwen is now training to be a hairdresser at Exeter College, which partners with the Deaf Academy. The Academy strives to support young Deaf people on pathways to achieve their ambitions. It is also providing Hafwen with sign language and wellbeing support, helping her feel confident as she pursues her goals.