When Scarlet Davies first saw deaf actor Rose Ayling-Ellis on Strictly Come Dancing , she felt inspired. “Rose has had such a massive impact on young people,” said the 15-year-old, who is also deaf. “She reinforces the message that we shouldn’t let other people dictate to us because of our deafness.”
Davies, who lives in Hertfordshire with her family and wants to be a teacher, said Ayling-Ellis made her “feel that I don’t need to worry about my deafness getting in the way of my future. She also makes me believe that I can do anything in life and my deafness will never stop me.”
New research carried out in the wake of Ayling-Ellis’s victory on the BBC One show last weekend shows more than three-quarters of deaf children think the programme has given the public a better understanding of deafness.
A survey of deaf children and their families by the National Deaf Children’s Society also found that Ayling-Ellis’s visibility led to two-thirds of deaf children feeling more confident about wearing their hearing aids, with seven in 10 saying they felt happier talking about their own deafness.
Alongside her professional dance partner, Giovanni Pernice, Ayling-Ellis was crowned winner of the celebrity dance competition, despite being able to hear only parts of the music and keeping time by counting beats.
The 27-year-old actor, who plays Frankie Lewis in EastEnders, has been praised for being open about her disability and for using British Sign Language (BSL) with Pernice, who learned the basics in order to be able to communicate with her. Interest in learning BSL has now exploded, thanks to Strictly, with some teaching centres reporting waiting lists for BSL courses.
Figures support this increase in visibility: Google searches for BSL rose substantially during Strictly and, according to numbers from Signature, an awarding organisation for deaf communication qualifications, searches for local BSL courses more than doubled in 2021, compared with 2020.In particular, the pair’s routine in week eight created a surge in interest in learning BSL. Performed to the song Symphony by Clean Bandit featuring the Swedish singer Zara Larsson, the dance featured a silent section where the music cut out, giving non-deaf viewers an indication of what life can be like for some deaf people.
Martin McLean, senior policy advisor at the National Deaf Children’s Society, said Ayling-Ellis’s winning run “helped put paid to lots of misconceptions about deaf people”, which “has meant a huge amount to deaf children and young people everywhere”.
He said: “What’s important now is keeping this going because increased awareness and understanding of deafness can only be a good thing.”
McLean urged people to take on board tips for communicating with deaf people, such as asking how they communicate, facing them when talking and never saying things such as “It doesn’t matter” or “I’ll tell you later”.
He said: “It really will make a big difference next time they speak to a deaf child or young person. A little deaf awareness goes a very long way.”
Lindsay Foster, the executive director of Signature, said the awareness raised was not only about the barriers and challenges that Ayling-Ellis overcame but “also the way in which Giovanni has embraced it”.
She said: “His understanding and passion for learning alongside Rose has been thrilling to watch, and to see him using BSL on the show and with Rose really does show an outstanding commitment.
“They have inspired so many people to think about learning and they have shown what a fun and engaging language it is.”The Department for Education recently confirmed it would be holding a public consultation at the start of next year on the possibility of launching a new GCSE in sign language, despite a moratorium on new subjects.
The GCSE is being piloted in six schools, mostly in south-east England.
Foster added: “With the potential for a GCSE in BSL within the next few years, we hope the momentum continues to improve communication for all.”