Review: Rose Ayling-Ellis – Signs for Change
By Sylvia, Hearing Link Services volunteer
When I last wrote about Rose, she was playing Celia in Shakespeare’s As You Like It. She was subsequently nominated for an Olivier Award, not just an accolade, but proof that British Sign Language (BSL) can work in theatre. Her performance largely in sign language, together with her Strictly Come Dancing win in 2021, have raised interest in learning BSL and inspired many individuals and families dealing with deafness.
Rose’s recent informative and thought-provoking documentary Signs for Change aired on BBC1, is her story, told her way. It begins and ends with a home video of Rose as a child saying: “Hello, my name is Rose, welcome to the film”, a delightful foretelling of the successful and influential young woman she has become, determined to achieve and overcome barriers.
For Strictly, Rose said it had to be about what she could do, not what she could not do, so the BBC adapted accordingly. Her silent dance put across the message that there is nothing wrong with being deaf.
Rose interviews the MP Rosie Cooper whose Parliamentary bill – The BSL Act – came into force in 2022 and recognises BSL as a language of the UK. Rosie’s family were deaf and she describes the stigma in the 1950’s when she became interpreter for her parents. Sadly, some of that stigma remains to this day, together with the idea that deafness is seen as something that can be ‘fixed’.
A poignant chat Rose has with her mother reveals difficult decisions that were made for Rose when she diagnosed with significant hearing loss aged 18 months. She had been told that if Rose learned BSL she would never learn to talk.
Rose’s mother nonetheless decided to learn BSL and taught it to Rose so the family communicated with a mixture of speech and signing. Rose remembers struggling with speech in a hearing education system, feeling unsure where she belonged, as she knew few deaf people. She loved being in front of a camera however and was encouraged by her mother to attend a drama workshop for deaf students where she excelled. It made her feel confident about who she was – and so her career began.
Another interviewee is a deaf architect, one of five in the UK, who only uses sign language. Rose then evaluates being in a hearing world without access to a deaf community and being part of the latter, with a young man who grew up without signing skills. She has carved a life in both worlds and admits to finding a release in meeting up with her deaf friends, with whom she can just sign rather than worry about lipreading and whether she is missing something.
One mother empowered by Rose’s example, describes how hard it is still to make the right choices when a child is diagnosed as deaf, often not until age two. Deaf children leave school with a reading age of 9-11 year old simply because the education system still does not cater for them. Research has shown that learning BSL does not hinder speech, but it is not free and Rose asks: “Why does communication have a price tag?”
The title and content indicate that progress is too slow. Rose feels children should have the option of signing and speech in order to make their own choices later on. She states that: “Sign language is a right, not a privilege, freely available to all who need it.”
We have not heard the last of Rose and that is good news for anyone with hearing loss.
Rose Ayling-Ellis – Signs for Change aired on BBC1 in June 2023, Available to stream or download on BBC IPlayer.
Image courtesy of BBC Pictures