Deaf Actress Rose Ayling-Ellis: “I Am Disabled Because I Live and Work in a World That Disables Me”

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“My reality isn’t always nice,” Rose Ayling-Ellis told the Edinburgh TV Festival in the annual Alternative MacTaggart keynote on Friday.

The deaf English actress (EastEnders, Dancing With the Stars) offered her perspective on the stark realities of life as a deaf person working in television via a 30-minute address and an interview with journalist and producer Afua Hirsch.

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“It is not nice when my access is compromised. It is not nice to realize my presence is a token. It is not nice when my favorite TV shows don’t have subtitles. It is not nice to feel frustrated and unheard,” Ayling-Ellis said. “However, let me clarify one thing, it is not frustrating being deaf. Being deaf is my proudest identity. Having a disability is not a barrier. I am disabled because I live and work in a world that disables me.”

She also proclaimed: “I am done with being the token deaf character. I believe that diverse, rich and fascinating deaf stories are ready to go mainstream and that we can do this, together.”

She continued by urging people to go beyond pleading ignorance. “I have learned to expect people to do the bare minimum and to put responsibility back on to me to make a difference in my community, and it is very tiring,” she said. “I don’t know if anyone is going to listen to me. … What I do know is that disabled people shouldn’t be responsible for clearing non-disabled people of their ignorance.”

Deaf since birth, Ayling-Ellis, 27, is a British Sign Language campaigner. Last year, she was the first deaf contestant on BBC hit dance competition Strictly Come Dancing and won it with professional partner Giovanni Pernice. Their silent dance routine during one episode of the show won the must-see moment honor at the BAFTA TV awards.

The actress on Friday also expressed worries about speaking out though. “Let me stop myself. Do you know what I am doing right now? I am doing what I always feel I have to do, making sure that I come across as happy, positive, and easy to work with,” she said. “I am being careful, as I always am, to explain myself politely, because I have a constant underlying fear that if I dare to express my anger, I will be seen as difficult, too much like hard work, and that I will be replaced by someone who is not deaf. I am presenting the version of myself that I want you to see, the one where I am grateful for everything that has happened, and thankful for all the opportunities you have given me. But the reality is, it’s been a constant battle, I have to break through countless barriers to get to where I am. It’s been a lonely, upsetting journey, and whilst winning Strictly was an amazing experience, it shouldn’t be allowed to conceal the hardships I have been through to get here.”

Ayling-Ellis urged broadcasters and streamers to subtitle all of their content. “The BBC is required to subtitle 100 percent of their shows, but ITV and Channel 4 are only required to subtitle 90 percent, and other channels even less at only 80 percent,” she highlighted. “Subtitles for on-demand, whether catch up or streaming, is not currently regulated at all. Why? What is the explanation for this? When questioned, (media regulator) Ofcom’s response was that decisions on regulations are made on the basis of affordability and audience size, and occasionally technical difficulties. Research has shown that users of subtitles has grown on a massive scale. Viewers aged 18-25 say they use subtitles all or part of the time. Netflix claim that 80 percent of their members use subtitles at least once a month. There is a growing market making use of subtitles, so it makes no business sense to make your programming inaccessible – not just to deaf people – but to the wider market.”

The actress on Friday also urged creatives to look closer and harder when working with deaf creatives. For one of her early theater productions, “I was playing a non-disabled role,” and “the director wanted me to adapt it into a deaf character who could communicate in sign language,” she recalled. “From the beginning, there was a lack of awareness for Deaf culture and BSL. They didn’t spend any extra time during rehearsals to incorporate BSL into the script, and the director then expected me to teach the other actors to sign.”

Noting that the first historical mention of BSL was in 1576, Ayling-Ellis said on Friday: “Throughout its long and complex history, BSL has been oppressed, mocked and patronized by hearing people, and enough is enough. It deserves to be treated with the same respect that you would treat any language, and it is certainly not something you can expect to pick up in a few rehearsals. Sorry for waffling, did I mention BSL users are expressive?!”

The actress said that “deaf people are used to feeling excluded and underestimated,” mentioning a recent email asking her to “overdub the dialog for a hearing actress who was playing a deaf role,” which, she said, read: “We struggled to find a hearing impaired actor who could deal with the physical requirements of the character, so we ended up hiring an able-bodied actor for the role […] we were incredibly respectful and avoided the actor doing an imitation when speaking.”

Ayling-Ellis said she wasn’t impressed at all. “There are so many things wrong with this. For one, ‘hearing impaired’ is an offensive term, a quick Google would tell you that, and the term ‘able bodied’ doesn’t apply here,” she told the Edinburgh festival. “Am I supposed to believe it was impossible to find a single deaf person, amongst the U.K.’s 87,000 BSL users, that could play this role? When are we ever going to move on from this? I have tried myself to investigate how difficult it is to hire deaf actors. I began by asking (union) Equity how many deaf actors are registered and as much as they say they would love to have this data, they don’t. Put simply, the industry is not regulating this data. Approximately 11 million people in U.K. are deaf or hard of hearing, but they account for only 201 of the actors on (casting resource) Spotlight. Of these 201, only 56 of them use BSL.”

Changing this will not be easy, Ayling-Ellis highlighted. “Before I had an agent, I tried to apply for Spotlight membership and was rejected more than once. I got rejected for one of three reasons, because I didn’t have an agent, I didn’t go to drama school, or I didn’t have enough experience. But here’s the thing, an agent wouldn’t take me on because they didn’t think I could get enough work; I couldn’t get into drama school because it was not accessible; and I didn’t have enough experience because there is not enough deaf roles written. How is a young deaf actor supposed to get their foot in the door, when the door is firmly shut on them from the start.”

Ayling-Ellis ended her speech with another appeal. “The frustration that is clear in my speech is something I have lived with all my life; I am so used to it,” she shared. “False promises have become the norm for me, and I often underestimate and dismiss how much I put up with.” She continued: “It is my hope that, by sharing my thoughts and feelings, I will encourage you to think about how you can improve the experiences of deaf people when you hire them. We are no longer prepared to be your inspiration token on screen.”

Concluded the actress: “If you’re only going to take one thing away from this speech, please do not feel put off working with deaf people, that is the last thing we want to happen. It is okay to make mistakes, we all do. If we don’t make mistakes, how are we going to learn? But please don’t take the easy way out just to tick a box. Let’s work together, we want to work together. … Let’s create together, to normalize deaf and disabled people on screen. I can only dream of the day where seeing other disabled people on screen isn’t a rare sight or where I don’t get excited at the sight of other disabled people working behind the screen.”

After recently announcing her exit from EastEnders, the actress has been tipped to join the cast for the upcoming season of Doctor Who since following showrunner Russell T. Davies and new lead Ncuti Gatwa on social media.

At Edinburgh, a cross-industry initiative was launched under the moniker TV Access Project (TAP). Spearheaded by BBCchief content officer Charlotte Moore, its goal is to get rid of accessibility problems in the TV sector. The BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Sky, Britbox International, Disney+ U.K., Paramount, Amazon’s Prime Video and UKTV are all signed up to TAP, which has the backing of producer trade body Pact and the Creative Diversity Network (CDN).

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