Updated: May 13, 2022
By Beth Dillon (she/her)
Listen to the blog here: https://open.spotify.com/episode/1cdvv7S9pI6HZ4O3C0b0c7?si=71ad6bea33de4e09
This month Rose Ayling - Ellis, a Deaf actress from London, won Strictly Come Dancing. Rose uses British Sign Language (BSL) and throughout the series we saw her navigate the competition beautifully, with accessibility adjustments such as an interpreter with her for training and shows being shown on screen. She is the first Deaf person to win Strictly and had huge support not just from the Deaf community but also the rest of the population. But what was the significance of this?
As someone who has steadily been losing their hearing over the past five years, seeing Rose on Strictly meant a lot to me. I have been mourning the things I can no longer easily and effortlessly do: socialising with ease, popping to the shops without being scared I will be asked questions I can’t understand, and education being inaccessible, to name a few. I grew up hearing and therefore I wasn’t part of the Deaf community, I didn't know anyone who was Deaf. I didn’t have any coping strategies and things I had previously enjoyed and helped me no longer worked for me. Rose being included in Strictly made me feel seen, and many of the things she was talking about that she had found hard on strictly were things that I too was struggling with but seeing her find a way round them and it not stopping her, or being an inherently negative thing was something which I really needed. Her winning showed me that I can do things and succeed, something which is so difficult to remember when everyone is telling you to give up or your access requests are “unreasonable”.
It also helped me see a community. I have learnt conversational BSL through a short course run at Glasgow University and as part of a university society which I love, but aside from the group’s tutor there wasn’t anyone else who was Deaf. This meant I didn’t get to hear about other people's experiences or hear positive stories about being Deaf. In trying to find community I am part of a Facebook group for Deaf and Hard of Hearing people, and I saw lots of posts abou Rose on there - everyone in that group was posting the night of the final, all feeling very similarly excited and emotional. As silly as it sounds (cough cough internalised ableism) seeing her partner and her become so close and the rest of the country fall in love with them also reinforced to me that being Deaf won’t stop people liking you. Yes you may lose some friends (their loss), and yes some people will stop making the effort to communicate with you (again, their loss), but this definitely opened my eyes to the fact that people will still want to be your friend if you let them in!
It also means a lot for families, friends and colleagues or anyone who knows a Deaf person. Considering that 1 in 5 adults in the UK has some degree of hearing loss, this is a big chunk of the population! Rose appearing and being so charismatic helped change perceptions of Deaf people - that they don’t need to be pitied, that it isn’t a bad thing, and that it isn’t scary. I saw in a TikTok that Rose appearing had a huge impression on a lot of new parents of Deaf children who were scared and unsure about the future. It started open conversations about topics thought to be taboo - communication preferences, about listening fatigue, etc. My parents talked to me about ways of communicating ( e.g. turning on and off the light to get my attention if I have my hearing aids out) for the first time which made a huge difference and made me feel so much more included and valued and they used a lot of the things which had been raised in the VTs and media surrounding the programme. It gives people someone removed from their own situations who they can look at and then apply these thoughts to the people in their lives.
It also prompted an increase in the number of people wanting to learn BSL. This is wonderful for lots of reasons. It has meant more parents and friends of Deaf people have become interested in learning BSL which is a huge deal considering currently over 80% of parents of Deaf children don’t sign and instead rely on oral methods of communication. Oral communication can be exhausting for Deaf people and it relies on so much concentration, trying to piece together lip patterns, body language, context and sound to form a picture of what is going on. And this is before you get all kinds of interference and background noise from listening devices for you to attempt to filter out which is challenging when it all comes through at the same volume unlike for hearing people. Personally I prefer signing - especially if I’m tired or have interacted with people for a lot of the day but this isn’t usually possible because so few people around me know BSL. It also shows that people are thinking about, and wanting to do their bit to improve, accessibility. I hope that this desire for accessibility and inclusion will be transferred to disabilities of all kinds, to education, and to the workplace. The conversations happening just now feel like an important first step.
We need more representation. We need to be able to turn on the TV or open a book and see Deaf and Disabled people like us. We need our friends, families, teachers, doctors, the people who work in shops, on trains, (everyone really!) to see positive representations of people like us. We need more Roses on Strictly.
For Further Reading
Sign language Resources
The best way is to learn from a Deaf tutor. A lot of universities and colleges do evening classes and lots more can be found by searching online!
British Sign Language - Online resources, games, & course. (british-sign.co.uk) – level 1 online as it’s pay what you can!
Deaf Creators to Follow
Hermon and Heroda, @being__her on Instagram
Kirsty Jade, @thatdeafgirlkj on Twitter
Ebony R. Gooden, @ebonyrgooden on Twitter
Liam O’DEll @liamODellUK on Twitter
Mr Luke Christian, @mrlukechristian on Twitter