In my late teens and early 20s, which was the early 90s, I used to work with disabled children. It was a time when, although it was never put in such terms by anyone in authority, the rule of thumb seemed to be that if you had an invisible disability – such as deafness, say – you were expected to fit in with the “normal” world (it was also a time when such quote marks were rarely used). If you had a visible disability, you were expected to keep yourself hidden as much as possible so as not to upset anyone. The one thing both approaches had in common is that they very much weren’t about making the people with disabilities comfortable. Comfort, ease, the ability to move through the world without being made conscious of what you could and couldn’t do? These were the prerogative of “normal” people.
The main takeaway from Rose Ayling-Ellis: Signs for Change is how little things have changed in the 30 years since – though the existence of this documentary and the public profile of Ayling-Ellis herself shows we may yet hope for progress. Ayling-Ellis is a deaf actor best known for her two-year stint as Frankie in EastEnders, the soap’s first regular deaf character, and for winning 2021’s Strictly Come Dancing (with her hearing aid she can pick up some music, including the beat, in addition to sensing vibrations). She has naturally become a role model and figurehead for the deaf community. One mother, Katie, whose two-year-old son Alvie was diagnosed as deaf at seven weeks, speaks very movingly about what Rose meant to her as she wrestled with the sense of powerlessness the news had given her. “I’d been holding him and singing him to sleep every night. Had he ever even heard me? ... And then, suddenly, there you were – happy, confident, successful.”
Such personal experiences, and the unvarnished reflections of Ayling-Ellis’s parents, are of course the emotional heart of the show. Her father, and the treatment of him, is especially interesting. He tells Rose that when she was a child he would have accepted a cure for her if it had been offered “because at the time it seemed like a problem to be fixed”. There is often strident and automatic vilification in such moments of such documentaries, as if the makers want to ensure they are right-thinkers even at the cost of dehumanising their courageously honest interviewee, but Signs for Change refreshingly sidesteps this trap. His daughter simply acknowledges that it is painful to hear but entirely understandable, and on we go.
The more political, and valuable in terms of the activism Ayling-Ellis supports, portion of the documentary emphasises the importance of communication and the apparently enduring prejudice against deaf children being taught sign language. Despite growing evidence to the contrary – studies show that in fact learning to sign as a first language makes it easier to pick up others, including spoken language – Katie is still told, as Rose’s parents were, not to let her child learn British Sign Language (BSL) because it will stop him learning to speak. Speaking, of course, is what the hearing world values, understands and thinks best. But as Rose and her signing friends point out, especially Chris (on the verge of becoming what he thinks will be the sixth qualified deaf architect in the UK) who exclusively signs, lip-reading and vocalising is very much a second-best option for people who don’t hear. It’s in signing that they find their fullest expression, can understand the entirety of what’s being said and do not have to waste energy trying to keep track of a conversation in a medium that doesn’t work for them.
Signs for Change makes clear – though it could have been made more central and more clear – that there is no publicly funded programme for deaf children (or those in later life) to be taught BSL. The vast majority (who will already have had to choose to go against the common medical advice) have to pay for private lessons. The recent emphasis has been on the technology – cochlear implants – that can help deaf people hear. Rose meets 26-year-old Harrison who, like 48% of profoundly deaf children these days, was fitted with cochlear implants at a young age. They have allowed him to develop nearly perfect speech and fit in with the hearing world. But, he notes, this means people assume he catches everything when he doesn’t and leaves him feeling not quite of one community or the other. And he can’t sign – so what happens, the programme asks, if and when technology fails children and people without other communicative avenues? What happens to a culture when its members are effectively deprived of their own language? It is hard not to feel that the historical degradation of BSL is the result of an unconscious bias in the hearing world against allowing itself to be cut off.
Much to think about. Much to discuss – in whatever way best suits you.
Rose Ayling-Ellis: Signs for Change aired on BBC One and is now on iPlayer.