It's time to start opening more conversations about deaf awareness

Rose Ayling-Ellis at the National Television Awards

Earlier this month, we saw deaf actress, Rose Ayling-Ellis, crowned champion of Strictly Come Dancing 2021. Her success on the BBC1 primetime show has provided the deaf community with some much-needed representation in the main-stream media and has opened up conversations surrounding deafness in society.

For Naomi Smart, from London, who is partially deaf, Rose’s big win has sparked some useful conversations with family and friends about deafness.

“Many hearing friends and colleagues of mine have opened up conversations about Rose, and it’s often led into some really useful learning opportunities for them.

The demand to learn British Sign Language (BSL) has been higher than ever as a direct result of Rose on TV and it’s incredible to see,” she says. This representation is massively important for Smart, particularly in something like dance.

“Seeing Rose not only competing but doing incredibly on Strictly is so amazing. It’s also extremely valuable for deaf children to see themselves represented-- a lot of deaf children are raised with something called the ‘oral’ method, which means they are taught that hearing is the goal and we should strive to blend into a hearing world,” she adds.

Naomi Smart

Smart, 25, uses her social media platforms to spread awareness for the deaf community, aiming to give hearing people insight into what life is really like for deaf people.

While the deaf community can bask in Rose’s success now, it shouldn’t be forgotten that it has taken this long to get here and that there is still much more to be done in terms of representation in mainstream media and accessibility in the UK.

“If you look into Deaf history, we see time and time again the idea that speech is superior and that deafness is somehow deviant to the norm or inferior,” Smart says.

“It’s only been very recently that this idea is starting to shift and even then, we still have a long way to go. Deafness is often seen as a problem for the individual -- something we need to fix, and as a result it is often assumed that we, as individuals, should make our own accommodations," she adds.

Back in November, for the first time ever, the British Fashion Awards had sign language at the awards ceremony. Something that Naomi believes is crucial for inclusivity and accessibility.

“Often, large events or organisations haven’t factored the possibility of accommodations for deafness into their plans, and so avoid doing it all together,” she explains.

It is important to learn from the British Fashion Awards that it is important to think about accessibility from the outset.

“Instead of adding accommodations as an after-thought, it should be present in planning. When events are being organised, one of the first thoughts should be ‘how can we make this accessible to the widest audience possible?’,” Smart adds.

This is something that has been particularly prevalent in that last couple of years with Covid-19. With the wearing of masks being introduced to create a barrier between us and the virus, little thought had been given as to how much of a barrier this has created for deaf people who heavily rely on lip reading. Something that Naomi knows all too well.

“As somebody without fluent sign language , the introduction of masks and screens has made me realise just how little I can hear and how much I rely on lip reading,” she says.

This has been the biggest push for Naomi to learn BSL after realising she was effectively left with nothing. Naomi never learnt BSL as a child after pressures from doctors to raise her as if she was hearing child, however, she is now learning it in her 20s.

If she could offer any piece of advice to hearing people to help make life easier and more accessible for the deaf community, Naomi says that awareness is key:

“Often when I tell a hearing person that I am deaf, they are unsure what that really means for our communication. Every deaf person is different- deafness is a spectrum, not an ‘all or nothing’ dichotomy, and so each person will have different needs in interaction.”

“The best thing a hearing person can do is ask ‘what can I do to make this more accessible for you?' Maybe the answer is facing me when you speak, or perhaps it will be writing down your questions and showing me, but there will never be a ‘one size fits all’ approach,” she says.

In your opinion, what more can we do to improve deaf awareness in our communities? Leave your suggestions below!