The Alternative MacTaggart: Rose Ayling-Ellis

Launched in 1997, the annual Alternative MacTaggart provokes debate in the industry from different viewpoints. This year Deaf actress Rose Ayling-Ellis offered her perspective on the stark realities of life as a Deaf person working in television.

Rose offered a sobering insight into the prejudice she has faced, and offer simple solutions to change our collective mindset around the representation of the Deaf community.

In the Pentland at the Edinburgh TV Festival, Rose Ayling-Ellis asked: “What if I don’t accept it anymore? What if I use the power of my voice to make you more aware, to get you to see it’s time for you to put in the work? 

What I do know is disabled people shouldn’t be responsible for curing non-disabled people of their ignorance.

During the Alternative MacTaggart Rose talks about an early job at a theatre production where, from the beginning, there was a lack of awareness of deaf culture and BSL, and where the director expected Rose to teach the other actors to sign… “BSL is rich and expressive, just like any language. Throughout its long and complex history, BSL has been oppressed, mocked and patronised by hearing people. And enough is enough, it deserves to be treated with the same respect you would see in any language.”

Rose continued “being deaf has its own culture. Deaf awareness is crucial, and a consultant can make sure both the language and culture are respected. When we are working, I need to be able to see other actors’ faces. I need visual cues, and most importantly I need the people I work with to know how to communicate better with me. And it is not a one-off, I hear time and time again deaf actors having similar experiences in other productions, in theatre and on TV their identity being considered a burden that has to be compromised. All of this could have been easily avoided if the production team had planned it and talked about what needed to be done when working with a deaf actor beforehand. I was made to feel like I was a burden like I was difficult. It was missed opportunities to create something great if only they had been prepared to put in the work.”

Rose told the audience of delegates from the television and digital world “everyone can hire an interpreter, and get deaf awareness training, it is important to make sure actors’ needs are met, that is the bare minimum! It doesn’t equal representation. Representation happens before the actor comes into the room, by doing research. It is vital to remember that access and representation are two separate things.”

“A clear example of this is a role I played on TV, where I’m almost always working with a script that is written by hearing people. It can be frustrating playing a hearing person’s perception of what a person who is deaf is like. I’m grateful for this job, it gave me opportunity and gave me a place to grow and develop my skills as an actor and they were the only programme to take on a deaf actor. Credit where credit is due. Being the first deaf person to play this character was long overdue. Now, they make sure every day is accessible for me. I always have an interpreter, they created deaf awareness for every new person coming into the company, and they do try to set up BSL classes. Despite all the things it has given me, I would be lying if I say it didn’t come with its own challenge.”

Rose said: “often I see a script that is not quite right. They will write my character in the room with a big group of people arguing with each other, knowing everything that has been said and even repeating it. Or they will write that the character is lipreading someone from impossible lengths far away, it is not a superpower! I’m playing a deaf character that is either written as a hearing person or a deaf stereotype.”

“When it comes to editing, the editor follows the original script and the changes I made are left out or cut. This isn’t a one-off, it happens to me every week. I’m constantly fighting to have my deaf identity represented but ends up making me feel like my voice isn’t heard. I end up being torn, torn between representing the deaf community, and telling our story, but wanting to have a career with a good working relationships. I have asked countless times for a deaf consultant to be brought in to work with the writing team, to help to advise on the way to incorporate and respect the deaf culture. You can’t write about deaf people without a deaf person’s input, nothing about us without us.”

Rose said “recently I started to see more changes at work. They asked me to come into the writing room and share my experience as deaf woman to help make sure their writing is realistic. By allowing me to make changes to the script, it means my ideas make it to the final edit. But it shouldn’t have taken me two years of repeating my frustrations, using up my time and energy to be able to get to the point where I feel able to make sure my needs are met. It is another job on top of being an actor. It is not fair! Only have my one voice in the whole company means my voice can get drowned out and it can be lonely.”

Rose does point out that “this isn’t meant as a criticism of the show in question, it is something happening across the board, and needs to be seen as a problem in the whole industry. The reality is that deaf and disabled talent are working with a system which wasn’t built with them in mind.”

Going on to discuss Strictly Come Dancing, Rose tells the audience “when Strictly approached me, to tell you the truth I didn’t get excited straight away. I became very wary of the industry. Every job I had been given I had always been the only deaf person. And it’s always coming with challenges and issues. I knew a big part of what Strictly approached me was because I’m deaf. I’m an actress, so doing a reality show is something I had not previously considered. However, I could see that the opportunity was huge. Turning it down felt wrong.

I knew I would be the first deaf dancer. But little did I know how magical and beautiful it would also be for me personally.”

Rose continued “one of the first things the Strictly production company asked me, was if I watched the show? I told them no. Simply because I couldn’t. It was not accessible for me. The live subtitles were slow, leaving me always a step behind and excluded from a joke, even on iPlayer, the subtitles have not been corrected.”

“I told them from the start exactly what I needed and that if I were going to be part of a show it would vital that my deaf culture and identity were part of it too. I wanted my deafness to be present, but not overly emotional or inspirational. The Strictly team went away and put a plan together based on my ideas. Incredibly quickly a team came back to me, and said they had arranged live subtitling and on the iPlayer, they also added audio description for blind viewers. In addition to this they set up deaf awareness training for everybody on and behind the scenes and brought in a knowledgeable deaf person to provide consultancy rather than burden me with this responsibility. By putting this in place it made me feel heard. It was the most supportive and inclusive job I ever had. It has had a profound and lasting impact. They let me share my story in my way. And look what that did. One of the best moments of the year. A demand for on-line BSL courses has risen by 4,000%. I have so many deaf people telling me they have seen a positive shift in attitudes towards them. And parents of deaf children telling me that seeing someone like me on screen had given their child a huge boost of confidence.”

“So to everyone on the team to play a part in making that experience so inclusive, I would like to say a huge thank you!”

“I have now found myself considered as a deaf pioneer, the poster girl for the deaf community. Like I said it’s fantastic for younger generations to have someone to be able to look up, which is something I never had, however, it comes with a new pressure that I never experienced before. For instance, I heard about programmes developed with a view to exploring deaf culture being cancelled because I decided not to be part of them. This attitude of if Rose isn’t doing it, we don’t want to do it, it puts massive pressure on me.”

“It is not enough to elevate me, there are so many talented deaf people out there, and a thousand deaf stories to be told.”

Rose said: “because if you are really thinking about the whole deaf community, rather than using me as a token gesture, you would be able to get more done. And maybe I wouldn’t need to fight for little things, like watching my own telly. Remember when I mentioned I would come back to subtitles. Ofcom regulates subtitling in the UK, but the requirement that the broadcasters follow are different. The BBC is required to subtitle 100% of all those, but ITV and Channel 4 are only required to subtitle 90%. Other channels even less, only 80%. Subtitles on-demand, whether catch-up or streamed is currently not regulated at all. Why? What’s their explanation for this? When questioned Ofcom responded that the decisions on regulation are made on the basis of audiences and technical difficulties. Researches has shown that users of subtitles has grown on a massive scales. Viewers aged 18-25 say they use subtitles all or some of the time. Next flicks says all their members use subtitles at least once a month.”

“Let me break it down for you, would you watch a TV series that only has the sound on for 80% of the time. And what about watching an episode that is completely blurry and you complain, and they come back and said if more people watched the series they might fix the problem. Would you accept that? There would be an outcry. Yet deaf people are being ignored and expected to be grateful for the bare minimum. So to all the channels still subtitling less than 100%, please fix this problem. And to all the broadcasters, please think about your audience.”

“There is lots of things wrong, “hearing impaired” is an offensive term, and am I supposed to believe it is impossible to find a single deaf person amongst the UK’s 87,000 BSL users that could have played this role? When we are we ever going to move on from this? I investigated myself how difficult it is to hire a deaf actor. I began by asking Equity how many deaf actors are registered, they don’t have the data. Put simply the industry is not regulating its data. Aat the moment 11 million people in the UK are deaf or hard of hearing. They only account for 201 of the actors on Spotlight. Of the 201, only 56 of them use BSL.”

“The frustration that is clear in my speech is something that happened for me all my life. I’m so used to it. I often underestimate and dismiss how much I put up with. It is my hope that by sharing my thoughts and feelings I will encourage you to think about how you can hire deaf people. We are no longer prepared to be your inspirational tokens on screen. If you are only taking one thing away from the speech, please do not be put off working with deaf people. That’s the last thing we want to happen. It’s OK to make mistakes, we all do, if we don’t make mistakes how will we learn. But please don’t take the easy way out just to tick the box. Let’s work together, we want to work together.”

“I was in two minds to talk about what I plan to do next, on reflection I thought if it’s not me, then who, if not now, then when? My journey so far hasn’t always been easy, and the future will certainly have its challenges, but it is still a privilege to tell a deaf story and to have that attention and reach an expanding audience. I have created and currently developing a new comedy drama series that will be bilingual and female-focused. Whatever is next for me, I know one thing for sure, I’m done with being a token deaf character.”

“I believe that diverse and fascinating stories are ready to go to mainstream, thank we can do this together. Let’s create together to normalise deaf and disabled people on stream, I can only dream seeing other disabled people on screen isn’t such a rare sight, or I don’t get excited by the sight of other disabled people working behind the scenes. This can only happen if you provide those opportunities. Please have a hard look at your production, and ask yourself, where are the deaf and disabled talent? If you are working with deaf and disabled people, have you asked them if they feel they are appropriately supported. Are you matching that representation of this experience by scripting and directing. Bringing in diverse talent, particularly disabled talent, you are opening up a whole new world of stories, ideas, people, characters and talent. It’s a no-brainer. You have that power. Not us. I hope you walk away from this and take action. I hope that you can push yourself to be braver. To have the courage to make changes, and I hope that you reach out to us and to me, because I’m so ready for you to see what I can do, and I won’t stop until you listen. Thank you.”

Rose continued to be interview by Afua Hirsch – we’ll have an overview of that very soon.

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