Sencity London 2017: a reflection 

It was such a surreal moment.

The heat of the lights, the wires threatening to tangle my feet, the gaze from the singer as he altered his microphone so I could see his lips. As my smile met his I began to sign as he sang. 

There’s no denying, it was the hardest gig I’ve ever done. And I’ve performed at a lot of venues; theatres, concert halls, outdoor festivals, community centres… But this was the first time I’d worked with a live band. And a real life, spontaneous-moving-in-the-moment singer. 

I’m used to pre recorded music, shooting videos and working solo on stage. But this was waaaay out of my comfort zone. So when Sencity asked if I’d be a ‘sign dancer’ for Balkan style band Gypsy Hill, I was excited but terrified too. 

Sencity is a multi sensory music gig, set up in 2003 originally for the deaf community but now prides itself on being a mainstream event that incorporates sensory experiences such as an aroma disc jockey, illuminated floors and sign dancers such as moi. 

The event itself was part of the Open Senses festival, attracting both a hearing and deaf audience with two bands including Gypsy Hill playing on the night. (The other was New Town Kings.) 


Gypsy Hill mostly play songs without lyrics but they had three pieces in their hour long set that had words. My task was to translate these into sign language / movement. 

The songs themselves were beautiful but each one very different in style, rhythm and sound. I couldn’t hear the music at home at all so I asked my friend/communicator to film herself lip syncing and beating the pace of the whole song. I used this to rehearse with.

Visually the rhythms came to life and I could imagine how the songs may sound. Lyric wise, there were a lot of puns, plays on words and lengthy English grammar that meant I had to write out the whole songs again in a visual/BSL structure which would hopefully make more sense to a live audience. 

(My beloved music stand and lyrics below)

Rehearsing at home was one thing, the sound check was another. I met the band without an interpreter (eek!) and discovered they had never worked with a signer before so this was a new experience for both of us. However, they were warm and approachable and our shared passion for music made me feel connected despite me using my hands instead of my voice. 

Sound checks are notoriously hurried when there’s more than one band and time is pressing. So I was able to go just through two songs and get a sense for how they felt on stage. With speakers and live instruments beside me I felt bombarded with vibrations and noise; but on the slowest songs I could pick out the lulling voice of the singer which I loved the most. 

The band were so enthralled to have a signer on stage that they asked me if I could sign another song which I was unprepared for. “It’s only three verses” they said 😊

Trying not to panic as there was only 30 minutes till showtime (how could I possibly squeeze another song in my head?!) the stage manager suggested I have the lyrics on stage as a back up and given how gorgeously thought-provoking the lyrics were, I agreed. 

(Rehearsing Everybody Knows)

There was an interpreter present for the sound check but for everything else on the night I was going in alone. It was just me and the band. The lead singer was aware of how I would be following his lips and he was considerate to remember this throughout his performance. 

Still, it was scary. It felt like free falling through a song, I was never sure where the singer may ad lib, slow down or add in extra words (they always do – they’re in the moment!)

That’s the risk when anything is live –  the unpredictability. And as a deaf performer I usually rehearse music to the death to ensure I’ve absorbed the song and it’s intricacies.  

Here, I was vulnerable. But gosh, was it thrilling. 

Performing Everybody Knows)

Not knowing when to enter and exit the stage for my songs, The DJ of the band DJ Kobayashi was my cue. He knew I wouldn’t hear him announcing me so each time he would turn to where I was in the wings and let me know when my spot was coming up. For all of my songs apart from the newest one I was centre stage, signing whilst simultaneously trying not to knock the guitarist or get hit by the jumping trombonist. 

The audience were able to feel the music too given the unique vibrating dancefloor. It pounded out the rhythms like you wouldn’t believe. Excellent fun but not so much if you’re holding a drink… 

Overall, it was a great experience and has given me a lot of encouragement when it comes to pursuing more work with live musicians and at mainstream events. Sure, I can’t hear music. But I can darn well feel it and I adore expressing it. 

So let’s have more sign performers onstage and normalise the experience of seeing a signer with a band. Hearing, deaf – it doesn’t matter. We are all artists after all, free falling in one way or another 😉

Why mocking sign language is never acceptable…

I have a good sense of humour, I can assure you. My friends will all tell you how I like a laugh – like most people. But some jokes cross boundaries.  And for me, mocking sign language is one of them.

So when Twitter fans complained to deaf model & TV star Nyle DiMarco that he needed to “learn to take a joke” when he spoke out about an actor making fun of sign language on live TV, I couldn’t have felt more enraged. 

Actor Jamie Foxx had appeared on Fallon Tonight and was shown signing gibberish in an attempt to impersonate either an interpreter or a deaf person.

This appearance sparked a shocked response from Nyle DiMarco who is a deaf sign language user and winner of America’s Next Top Model and Dancing With the Stars. He stated online;


Nyle’s message has received enormous support from the deaf community but he has also been subject to complaints of being “overly sensitive.”

I believe Nyle’s response was completely reasonable. A language that has been oppressed, argued against and denied for so many years and is hardly ever seen authentically on television does not deserve to belittled. 

It reminded me of the Nelson Mandela funeral “fake interpreter” – that same sense of having our language torn apart and insulted. 


Of course Jamie Foxx and Jimmy Fallon wouldn’t understand. They probably didn’t grow up being told not to sign because it’s “embarassing.” They didn’t get kids telling them they spoke “weird.” They didn’t have to fight for a language they feel most comfortable using.

They probably didn’t have to put up with school peers jeering at them in fake sign language. 

They didn’t perform (like I did the following night) to a live audience and have three people in the crowd laughing and pretending to sign before they were told to leave. 

These kind of people don’t know the struggle for sign language access. To ‘them’, signing just looks funny. Our language is amusing. 

Did I miss the joke? 

Because to me, to belittle another language is a sneaky way of playing the superior card. It’s almost like saying “you’re not normal, you’re the minority and so it’s okay to make fun of you.” And then all the sheep will think that’s okay and laugh along. 

But it’s not okay. 

A language that has been a sensitive topic of controversy for years and underrepresented in the media deserves more respect. 

Get some real deaf stars on your show, Jimmy Fallon. And do us a favour, Jamie Foxx, learn some proper ASL and use that on live TV next time. 

You can read more about the incident here:

https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/www.queerty.com/straight-disrespectful-nyle-dimarco-slams-jamie-foxx-making-fun-sign-language-20170530/amp

The Who’s Tommy: a review 

It was early this year that a good friend of mine and fellow actress, Donna Mullings, came over to my house with a favour to ask. She had a video audition to send off to a casting director and she needed it filmed urgently. 
Armed with only an iPhone, laptop and floor lamp we shot her audition piece in my dining room. The song was Pinball Wizard and the show that she landed a role in was The Who’s Tommy. 

I was thrilled for her. I knew that the musical was based on the 1969 concept album by The Who so there would be some juicy rock songs to enjoy and I also knew that the production of Tommy was a groundbreaking opportunity, part of a 6 year programme of work to initiate change in the mainstream theatre world. 


Tommy is led by New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich in association with Ramps on the Moon; a consortium of theatres across the country who have committed themselves to accessibility and inclusivity. Each theatre has agreed to commit to several things including integrating both disabled and non disabled artists and prioritising accessibility in their productions. 

They state that their shows must have an equal mix of disabled and non disabled artists; that the creative team must also be a 50/50 split between disabled and non disabled practitioners and also that accessibility must be embedded within the production. 

Tommy meets all of those points with its diverse cast of 22, captions, British Sign Language and audio description. So when the show came to Nottingham’s Playhouse last month I couldn’t wait to see how it all came together. 

The venue itself is gorgeously modern and easy to access. I was also offered a free ticket for a carer/communicator to join me. Entering the theatre, the layout is clear and deaf theatre goers are given seats in the middle area of the stalls – perfect for viewing the captions comfortably. 

The lead role of Tommy is played by William Grint, a deaf actor previously known for award winning short film Chasing Cotton Clouds. As the show opened to a signed song by Tommy, William signed clearly and emotively, evidently confident in his role. 

We then met Donna who played his Mother, Mrs Walker. The show guided us through her journey; the romance of meeting and marrying Captain Walker (Tommy’s Father), her grief when she was told her husband was missing and presumed dead, and her lustful passions with her new lover. It was a great role with varying emotions for Donna to really demonstrate her skills as an actress. 

Returning to the plot, it is when Captain Walker returns alive and well and Tommy witnesses his Mothers lover shoot his Father dead that Tommy locks himself in a “blind, deaf and dumb” world.

We then follow Tommy’s encounters with other people as he grows up and see how his talent for playing pinball despite being blind and deaf brings him fame and success. 

The storyline is unusual and uncomfortable at times especially when Tommy is molested by his Uncle Ernie. But the integration on stage between the artists and the languages was exceptionally interesting. 

Every deaf cast member had a hearing member who acted as their voice, singing whatever they signed. This form of shadowing was very effective and meant the signing cast could lead and participate in a song instead of sitting out the musical numbers.

 
I was also impressed by the high standard of dancers, notably Hearns Sebuado who is a deaf performer based in London. His technical brilliance stood out during the choreography of Pinball Wizard and his superb timing meant he blended in effortlessly with the group of hearing dancers. 

Acting and movement wise, there was little difference between the deaf and hearing cast. Sure, you could tell which performers were trained dancers and who were not. But overall the energy and power on stage was definitely that of an integrated, tight-knit group. There was no segregation.  

My only bugbear about the show was that in certain places the signing didn’t fuse as naturally as it could have. In the song “it’s a boy” when Mrs Walker gives birth to Tommy, a group of nurses begin singing and signing but the slow pace meant the signs looked unnatural, overly exaggerated and leaning towards the novelty element rather than accessibility.

Likewise in the song Acid Queen when there’s a killer solo by renowned actor Peter Straker he’s accompanied by two sign singers. Here the movement of the sign language was more alike to a dance routine than BSL which meant the meaning was lost. It looked fabulous but without the lyrics above the stage I wouldn’t have had a clue what they were saying.

That said, there were times when the signs and music fused perfectly. Captain Walkers song “See me, feel me” translated his dreamy voice beautifully and “Pinball Wizard” used fantastic dance choreography with sign language to depict the lyrics. The choreography by Mark Smith of Deaf Men Dancing was intricate, clever and catchy. 

I also take my hat off to Alim Jayda, the actor who played Mrs Walker’s lover. A hearing CODA (child of deaf adults,) he fluctuated brilliantly between BSL and spoken English and his talents in dance and acting are undeniable. 

Overall, what I loved about the show the most was how the actors’ disabilities aren’t really showcased as such but they’re simply merged in with everyone else. It makes you think if everyone on stage is different then surely that means we are ultimately all the same? 

There was a truly lovely feeling of unity that resonated from the cast which reverberated back into the theatre hall. The show ended with a standing ovation and many people, myself included, left the theatre singing/signing 😉

With so many cast members with varied types of disability there might have been a slight risk of the actors feeling like the token “fill-the-blanks” disabled person. But there is no denying that Ramps on the Moon are out to challenge misconceptions about who can be on stage and break barriers for artists nationwide. What a brilliant production to be part of!

Since seeing the show I have noticed casting calls from the same consortium of theatres looking to meet more deaf/disabled actors and also work with more deaf/disabled people on their creative teams. 

So if you’re a deaf or disabled artist or wanting to work in performing arts, check out http://www.rampsonthemoon.co.uk and find out how you can be involved. 

Here’s to many more shows like Tommy! 

Deaffest 2017: a review 

I’ve been attending the festival Deaffest at Wolverhampton for many years now. This year was its 12th festival and boy has it come a long way since it first launched. 

Based on the theme “Discovery” this years festival promised to showcase undiscovered talent from around the globe and it brought over several high profile performers to do just that. 

The MC for both Friday’s opening night and Saturday’s awards ceremony was New York based ASL artist Douglas Ridloff. Charismatic and cheeky, he charmed the audience with his fluid International signs, assisted with both a BSL and American Sign Language interpreter on stage. 

USA rap artist Sean Forbes and his band also performed on both nights and when I wasn’t squealing like a teenage fan I really appreciated being seeing first hand how he fuses ASL/PSE (their version of SSE) with music and lyric videos. It’s unique, brashy and bold. 

Attendees were also able to meet Sean Berdy from the hit American series Switched at Birth and be wooed over by his successful attempt to fingerspell his name in BSL (go Sean!) 

Taiwan First Deaf Dance Group opened both evenings with dance routines that fused classical and modern choreography and Italian born VV maestro Giuseppe Giuranna made a special appearance with UK comedian John Smith. 

The audience were also treated to more British talent with performances by dancer Chris Fonseca, sign singer Colin Thomson and a Cirque VV show by Steve Webb and David Sands. 

They were all varied performances in style and pace, with literally something for everyone. But rather than have the same acts on both nights I think it would have been more effective to have different acts (and different jokes) per night as I had a slight case of Deja Vu on the Saturday… didn’t I see you guys yesterday??

All in all it was a jam packed programme, highly exciting yet a little haphazard when it came to the smooth running of the evening programmes. Highly surprising considering the amount of people involved! 

Anyhow, while Deaffest began as primarily just a film festival it appears to now be much more inclusive of other arts; with VV, comedy and drama workshops, live performances and a sign karaoke too all taking place over the weekend. For only £2 entry during the day you certainly do get a lot for your money! 

Saying that, I do feel that by showing films and holding talks/workshops simultaneously throughout the Saturday, it leaves attendees with a difficult choice regarding how to spend their time. 

Personally I was disappointed that I couldn’t go to the acting workshop AND watch the nominations for best film/television programme. It was also impossible to watch Sean Berdy’s talk and view the nominations for best artistic short film. 

It meant that when the winners were revealed during the awards ceremony, there were a few winning films that I had not even seen. 

The festival definitely drew in a great crowd for the whole weekend  and another highlight for me was Birmingham  based illusionist / magic artist iNfInItY who treated us to some tricks as he weaved his way in and out of the crowds. He dumbfounded us when he took a 20p coin from my husband, rubbed it and bent it before our very eyes! Sheer entertainment indeed. 

Attendees were also introduced to Rachel Shenton, a hearing British actress and Deaffest’s patron who has a short film in production that centres around a profoundly deaf girl. Keep your eyes peeled for The Silent Child when it’s released, featuring an authentic young deaf actress. (Hurrah!) 

Deaf Funny, written and directed by Limping Chicken’s very own Charlie Swinbourne, also premiered at the festival and is released on BSL Zone this week for your own viewing pleasure! 

And without blowing my own trumpet too much, I was fortunate enough to be part of Macbrew, an inclusive piece of theatre based around Shakespeare’s witches from Macbeth. It was a pop up style performance that took place in the venue’s cafe twice on the Saturday and surprised those sipping on their coffees.. Inclusive theatre while you have your lunch – why not?! 

The Sunday’s programme was purely film showings and included a subtitled screening of Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2. 

On the whole it was an exuberant weekend and really delivered on its promise to show international talent and demonstrate how collaborations can be formed. But let us not lose sight of the real reason we attend Deaffest; to celebrate our deaf films and nurture the talent that creates these. I’d love to see more opportunities for budding directors, editors and writers as it seems that those onstage seem to (ironically) steal the limelight. 

Great job though, Deaffest. You’ve got people talking, facebooking and tweeting about how enjoyable the festival was, even if they’re just swooning over the American stars 😉 anything that brings deaf art together definitely wins my acclaim and that is why I will certainly be returning to see what more delights your festival has on offer for us. 

Cue compulsory fan photo! (Me with the legend that is Sean Forbes ☺️)

The first National Sign Choir Competition – a reflection 


Last month the first national signing choir competition took place in Nottingham. Organised by Simon Astill of Harmoneyes, there were four junior choirs and ten senior groups that had travelled across the country to compete. 

As one of three judges I was really looking forward to seeing so many sign song enthusiasts come together. The mayor of Nottingham attended the evening which played to a full house, with coverage from the local media as well as See Hear. The event was also hosted by Stewart Hill, an ex soldier who was part of the Invictus choir led by the BBC’s Gareth Malone. 

As the signing choir competition began it was clear that although the standard differed from group to group, there was great potential for development and artistic success within sign song. 

The winners of the junior group, de Ferrers signing choir, were a passionate choir whose eyes sparkled when they signed. Each performer was confident and their professionalism edged them into the lead for sure. The senior category was won by Dee-Sign of Chester who cleverly fused BSL signs with English lyrics and performed a highly polished Abba medley with intricate choreography. 

Yet there are also a few others that deserve a special mention. Heathlands school had charismatic, charming performers sign What a Wonderful World. Their artistry and sign language skills were astounding and they had me smiling throughout. Being an all deaf group, I felt proud of how beautifully they portrayed the lyrics and still honoured the timing of the song. I feel this strength in BSL performers is where attention must be poured in order for sign song to grow in popularity amongst deaf community. 

Another of my favourites was Vision signing choir from Kent. Their rendition of Phantom of the Opera remained with me for days after. I was only vaguely familiar with the song beforehand but the clarity of their signs transported me to the haunting setting of the Phantoms opera.  The way in which they portrayed the dramatic chord changes using their hands was brilliant and their faces of longing and desire depicted the ambience of the Phantom perfectly. I loved it. 

Another memorable group was Revolution signing choir who performed a funk routine and fused their signs into choreographed movements that helped me feel the beat and made me want to get up and dance.  They were fresh and innovative and I loved seeing the freedom of dance routines within their set. 

All of the choirs mentioned above had unique strengths which distinguished them from the rest with such a variety of performance styles. It was endearing to see so many people enjoying sign song and experimenting with its delivery. 

I’m aware a lot of sign choirs are formed as a practice group for those learning BSL and most perform at fundraising events for charities. They are raising the profile of sign language and deaf awareness. So regardless of how adept or not their signing may be, they clearly have a love for the language. 

Yet there’s an elephant in the room that I have to address. Where were all the deaf people?!

Out of the 14 choirs on the night I saw only one all deaf group and the rest had one or two but mostly zero deaf performers in their group. So what’s going on? After all, wasn’t it the deaf congregations in churches that sign song was born out of? Why are there so few deaf sign singers now? 

Speaking to audience members after the show, I began to get a clearer picture of why this may be. A deaf couple approached me and told me their views, asking me a question that sparked a lot of thought;

“Why do the hearing own signed song?”

Its our language! the couple told me. And yes, it is ours. But it’s ours to share. The real crux of the matter isn’t that hearing people own signed songs but that there is a serious lack of deaf representation when it comes to signing choirs. 

Deaf children don’t grow up watching signed choirs like hearing children do listening to pop groups. Therefore where’s the encouragement to perform going to come from? That’s why the group from Heathlands are especially inspiring because they are paving the way for a fresh take on sign singing, right from the hands of deaf children. 

I feel it’s not about taking ownership of sign song away from hearing people but claiming our stakes in it too. Don’t be afraid to try something just because of a preconception that it’s owned by those who can hear. 

Sure, being deaf means the task of learning a song’s intricate make up is harder. Rhythms have to be memorised or cues used. Beats have to be broken down and dynamics explained. But it’s not impossible. And a hearing person will have a whole other battle to contend with when learning sign song; the translation. 

So at the end of the day when it comes to being a good sign choir – it’s all about artistry. Whether you’re deaf or hearing, in my eyes, is irrelevant. A native user of sign language who embodies a song can be anyone. An all deaf group can do it just as well as a hearing one. 

So perhaps there’s hardly any deaf performers because there’s a preconception that it’s something only hearing people do. Or maybe it’s just because the groups are formed at centres where (predominantly hearing) people go and learn how to sign. Or maybe with so many deaf children dispersing into mainstream schools it’s harder to find them and thus introduce them to a sign choir. 

The possibilities are many but this fact is clear; there is no reason why we can’t have more deaf groups leading the way for sign choirs. It will require a change in viewpoint and it may need some deaf leaders to come forward and initiate a change in how the art form is delivered. As deaf people, we were the original sign singers so rather than seeing it as something only for those who can hear, why not be pioneers for a new way forward? 

The next national sign choir competition will take place in Liverpool in 2018. I think it’s time to get practising, dont you? See you there 🙂 

How a GCSE in BSL would’ve changed my time at school… 

When I sat my GCSE’s some fifteen years ago, I remember struggling to pass my French exam. The hearing impaired unit at the mainstream school I attended didn’t approve of me taking a French GCSE (probably due to low expectations) so I wasn’t given any support. Instead my class teacher gave me extra work to take home, one on one tuition and cassettes that I was supposed to listen to. 

The tapes didn’t work for me; I couldn’t hear them. And I found the class intimidating and nerve wracking especially when we were asked to stand and read segments of French text. My face would turn blood red as I tried not only to project my voice but get the French pronunciation correct. 

In order to take my listening exam my teacher arranged for me to sit the test separately, and to lipread him saying the phrases instead. Talk about pressure. 

I managed to (somehow) pass the GCSE but I’ve not retained any of the language skills nor been able to put them to use. 

So when I heard about a petition to make BSL a GCSE and part of the national curriculum I was really interested. If BSL was one of the options available when I was at school I know I would’ve jumped at it. And to be completely frank, I think it would have totally changed me. 

I went to a bustling mainstream with a unit for the hearing impaired. In my year alone there were around 150 hearing pupils and 4 of us were deaf. In the entire school the unit was made up of around 15-20 students with a hearing loss. It’s not a massive number but it means my classmates were used to seeing support workers, note takers, interpreters and so on. 

Yet sign language or deaf awareness were never mentioned to the rest of the school. I witnessed a few deaf students being mocked by their hearing peers for signing and although I was never bullied I remember being told that I “talk weird” and having classmates shout my name to check if I could hear them. 

Most of the deaf pupils were taken out of lessons to receive support and tuition in the unit base and that meant they were segregated from a lot of school events. I say “they” because I was never pulled out of a class – although I often wished I was. 

It’s not my intention to discuss whether mainstreaming is best for deaf children but I really feel that if BSL was made more accessible and deaf awareness shared amongst my peers that perhaps I wouldn’t have felt so different at school. Having a BSL GCSE would have changed my school experience for sure. How?

1. Well, communication would have been easier for a start. There were so many students and so many teachers that communicating with everyone fluently wasn’t just difficult; it was impossible somedays. By learning sign language my peers would’ve been able to use this language with me and other deaf students every day.  The language barrier between us would have been raised so it wouldn’t be us versus them anymore. I could have gotten to know more pupils and others could have gotten to know me. 

2. I reckon it would have given me a lot more confidence if deaf issues and sign language were spoken about during my teenage years. It would have normalised the whole thing, I could have developed a sense of humour about it earlier on and felt more comfortable with who I was. I hated the phonic aid equipment because I felt awkward and unattractive enough compared to my cool, popular year girls. But by having a tutor who was also deaf and shining a light on deaf issues I could have seen a whole other side to being deaf that wasn’t just full of misunderstandings and struggles. I could have even enjoyed the spotlight a little 😉 

3. I could have found a deaf role model; something that I never had. I was always fascinated by the term deaf culture and deaf history, but I felt they were out of reach to me. By learning about people such as Dot Miles and other prominent deaf people in history, I could have felt a sense of belonging, of purpose earlier on. I always had aspirations growing up but I approached them with a sense of overcoming my deafness instead of accepting and working with it. 
4. My sign language skills would have been more proficient from a younger age. Despite being amongst other deaf students and having support workers in class, we used SSE and my knowledge of BSL as a language was non existent. Your sign language skills depend on what you’re regularly exposed to and it meant that when I came across other deaf people I struggled to follow them and they would “fow” me. (Fow – the BSL for not having a clue what somebody’s said.) But by studying BSL I would have been given access to a language that was not only for people like me but would have opened many doors when it came to meeting others. 

5. Instead of struggling through a foreign language I could have excelled at one that was of enormous relevance to me. I could have finally sat through a class, engrossed, excited and for once feeling proud about my deafness. I would have delved into learning BSL and all things related and it would have added so much more enjoyment to my high school experience. I would’ve worked hard at it and who knows, maybe it would have shaped my education path differently.

I can wholeheartedly see BSL as a GCSE being of enormous benefit to our society. When you talk about things (especially when you’re young) it normalises those issues to a degree so it would become not so strange to see people signing or wearing an aid. 

With hearing loss being something that affects 1 in 7 people in the UK, you are very likely to bump into someone who is deaf or come across them in your line of work. So BSL would be a GCSE that’s not only extremely useful to the increasing number of deaf students going into mainstream schools but also to the rest of hearing society. 

The government have responded to the petition stating that as its a subject that would be difficult to “record” it’s not up for consideration to be part of the national curriculum yet. But Signature are trialling the subject in six schools and will be presenting evidence of its (hopefully) success afterwards. 

As something that could shape the school life of deaf generations to come, I will be watching the progress of this with eager eyes. 

Sign Language Interpreted Hansel & Gretl by Opera North – a review 

Last week I was fortunate enough to be invited to review a sign language interpreted performance of Hansel and Gretl. And not any old Hansel and Gretl show. Oh no. It was an opera. 

I admit when I first realised it was an opera I wasn’t very enthusiastic. I have never been to the opera. I’m a musical, dancing singing to Grease kind of girl! Attending an opera in my spare leisure time is just not something that ever struck me as enjoyable. 

Even when I told friends I was attending an opera they either laughed or attempted to imitate an impressive “la la la LAAAAA”  

But I went with an open mind and boy am I glad I did. Performed by Opera North at the beautiful Theatre Royal in Nottingham, the show told the story of Hansel & Gretl in a way that I had never seen. 

Set in modern day time, the actors playing Hansel & Gretl used a camera throughout the show to project live images and create visually stunning backgrounds, almost as though they were lost in a dangerous online world and their parents nowhere to be seen. 

The production very cleverly used videos and special effects to engage our attention despite the set not changing throughout. For literary fans this retelling of such a traditional tale was surprisingly moving, thought provoking and very current. 

And the only reason I know all of that is because the show was accessible. Not only did the production have two screens of captions but it was also sign language interpreted by Paul Whittaker who is now in his 25th year of working in theatre. 

Speaking to Paul before the show it became apparent that sign interpreted opera is not very popular at all. Why? 

“Well,” says Paul. “It’s harder to do due to the emotions being more sustained throughout. There are many complex musical changes but the words don’t develop visually very quickly.” 

I was also intrigued how Paul manages to interpret such a production especially when he is also profoundly deaf. He explained,

“I memorise everything. The lyrics, the dialogue. I went to rehearsals and they were brilliantly helpful. I watched the show twice and also had a DVD of the production which I could watch and revise at home. I practice becoming the characters and tell the story at the exact same time as its happening on stage.” 

It all sounded very impressive and I was eager to watch the show. But I still had my doubts. Can deaf people truly appreciate and access the opera when it’s unique selling point is actually just the voice? And – more importantly – can opera be made accessible? 

I was sat in the dress circle with Paul in a private box almost opposite me with an easy view of the orchestra below. 


One of the caption screens was in the same box as Paul so it was easy to glance over at them too. And as soon as the orchestra prelude faded and the show began, the BSL began in an energetic, charismatic flurry. 

It relentlessly matched verse after verse in exact timing, with Paul seamlessly shifting from character to character as the actors sang. Yet after a while, if I’m perfectly honest, my signing watching eyes got a bit tired. You see the thing I didn’t realise with opera was that they sing everything. Literally everything. In the same type of rhythm. So the signing is pretty much constant, non stop – no eye break! 

And here’s the other thing, if it wasn’t for the soprano voices ringing in my hearing aid I’m not sure I would have known otherwise that this was an operatic production. It seems the uniqueness of the opera is very difficult to convey in sign. 

Whilst there is such a thing as a vibrato operatic voice, I have not seen operatic style of signing. So how could a deaf audience appreciate the uniqueness of the opera if it’s lyrics look the same as any other show? Could this be why the production isn’t attracting a lot of deaf attendees? 

And then there’s the style of music to consider – classical. Depending on your level of hearing and exposure to music as well as personal taste, classical may not be the easiest music to follow. I brought my mother in law to the show (also profoundly deaf) and whilst I thought being able to watch the orchestra was enchanting, she said the 6 minute prelude was the “longest six minutes” of her life. 

It’s not an overpowering style of music, there’s no thumping bass you can nod along to or feel pounding on your chest. There’s no glitzy costume changes or a huge variety of sets.

Opera seems to simply (but stunningly) be about the stage, the orchestra and the voice. And while I feel our interpreter was incredibly skilled, I didn’t think it enhanced my opera experience as I relied mostly on the captions and what sound I could hear through my hearing aids. 

I loved the gentleness of the violin strings, the drama of the drums, the sways of the cello. Even the conductors movements were mesmerising. I couldn’t hear everything but visually I could see the rhythms and that was exciting for me. 

I could pick up the rhythmic flow of each stanza that was sung all in 4’s or 8’s but with BSL having a structure of its own it didn’t follow the rhythm that the hearing audience heard. So the musical delights, the rhymes and accentuated beats that are enjoyable to listen to were lost when translated into BSL. 

Lyrically, the words in the show are constant, which requires intense concentration to understand. It would have been better, too, if the interpreter was closer to the stage so one could glance at the actors on stage without missing huge segments of the translation. 

The translation was aesthetically very beautiful. Especially during the infamous angelic song that the children sing. But, truth be told, without the captions a lot of content would have been lost to me. The fast pace, continuous flow of lyrics and abstract words made this viewing more hard work than perhaps other shows that are attracting higher numbers of BSL users. 

The venue themselves had wondered why their opera shows were receiving low bookings from BSL users. And I had also pondered the question can opera be truly enjoyed by the deaf community? 

Summing up, I feel it really depends on your level of deafness and your exposure to and personal taste in music. I switched off my hearing aid halfway though the performance and I realised that without any sound at all it was hard for the production to keep my attention throughout.  

So can deaf people enjoy the opera? Oh yes. But whether they’d want to watch it signed straight for two hours is an entirely different matter. If a hearing  audience is paying to listen to a special kind of voice, I want to see a unique kind of signing. Something as dramatic and explosive as the powerhouses on stage. Sign opera. Not quite there yet, but never say never 😉  

You can see details of all the SLIP and captioned shows at the Royal concert hall by viewing their access page online.  

Special treatment? No thanks. 

I was sat in the school minibus, gleefully chatting and excited to be going on a trip when my friend beside me turned round to the girl sitting behind me and shouted at her.  

“That’s an awful thing to say!” My friend exclaimed.

It was then relayed to me in childlike terms that this class’mate’ of mine had uttered a complaint along the lines of 

“The only reason everyone likes her is because she’s deaf…”

I was eight years old and acutely aware that perhaps I had been – and likely always will be – treated differently to others because of my deafness. 

But I didn’t get angry and I didn’t feel hurt. I sat quietly as we drove off to a nearby museum and wondered how the girl may be right…

I did get more attention in school for one thing. The teachers always had to face me and chat to me throughout the day to ensure I was okay. And I got given extra books and resources to take home and I’d share these with my friends.

Each week a peripatetic teacher would visit my school and take me out of a boring class (like Maths!) to do fun art, music or history topics. I got to choose two lucky friends each time to join me. 

There were plenty of perks outside of school too. I got to do extra activities with the local deaf childrens society. I learnt to sign and taught my best friends the BSL alphabet so during assemblies we could “whisper” in our finger spelling code, often just spelling out b-o-r-i-n-g and giggling to each other.

So whilst I don’t think my friends only liked me because I was deaf, I do think that I enjoyed the perks and had fun sharing those with my buddies too. That girl in the minibus was probably just jealous… 

And as I’ve grown older I’ve become better at filtering out the people that treat me differently because of my deafness and I’m quicker to identify those who see me just as I am.

Because in actual truth, I don’t want to be treated differently. I’m not talking about meeting access requirements or adapting communication methods. I’m talking about plain old how you behave towards omeone… 

Even if they’re trying extra hard to be nice or friendly, I’m not comfortable with the notion that it’s only because I’m deaf. 

It’s a double edged sword, you see. Do you treat someone differently because you admire them? Or because you feel sorry for them? Or.. Even worse, because you’re afraid of them? 

I’ve experienced all of the above. My old neighbours, who I’ve written about previously, would avoid my husband and I like the plague because they “felt sorry” for us (their words!) and didn’t think we were worth talking to… I’ve also had university colleagues say they were afraid to sit beside me for fear they would have to talk to me… And I have mums in the school playground now that unknowingly patronise me with exaggerated speech and make a big fuss whenever I’m around. 

I know that some people mean well. And they don’t mean to treat me differently. But they do. 

And it’s because it’s all still a bit of a taboo. How do I talk to a deaf person? Do I act normally when she’s around? Should I invite her to the party? Should I say hello? What if she doesn’t hear me?  

And it’s probably due to a great lack of representation in mainstream media that most of the time people don’t have a clue how they should act around us. 

Each one of us – however deaf we are – are walking billboards for deaf awareness and just by being ourselves we are showing the world that we are all different in various ways. Its not something to run from or be afraid of. 

Yes, we will encounter idiots and prejudiced so and so’s all because they see an invisible “DEAF!!!!” sign whenever we are near. But it’s our duty to use our filters wisely, praise the good, and either ignore or speak out against the bad. 

Those who truly see us won’t just see our deafness. They’ll see us. And perhaps being quick to discover those people is the biggest perk of all. 

Mindfulness tips for deaf / hard of hearing people starting meditation… 

Spring is literally just round the corner and it’s probably the best time of the year to start or review a  new resolution. It’s the season to spring clean, start afresh, turn over a new leaf. You get the idea. 

One of my New Years resolutions was to maintain a Mindful practice in my life. Amidst the school runs, work deadlines and family duties, I wanted to find time to just be. 

I’m at an advantage because I’ve been on formal Mindfulness training but I’m aware that for a deaf person, starting a mindfulness journey isn’t as straightforward as if you were hearing… 

A friend of mine (hearing) was recently diagnosed with stress related anxiety and her doctor gave her access to free apps she could listen to for guided meditations that soothe, calm and re-centre the mind from its usual frantic thoughts. 

That’s great for her and the hearing population but if you’re deaf and you want to improve you mental wellbeing from the comfort of your home, what can you do that doesn’t rely on audio? 

In actual truth, not an awful lot. But there are some worthy resources out there. The following are my personal recommendations…

  1. Join an online community such as Trudi’s Mindfulness for the Deaf Community. Trudi is a trained counsellor, also deaf, and a worthy contact to have on your Facebook. It’s also a great place to ask questions and meet like minded folk on the same wellbeing pathway. https://m.facebook.com/trudimindfulness/?locale2=en_GB
  2. Check out the closed caption videos by the leaders of mindfulness teaching such as Jon Kabat-Zinn. Jon is highly valued in the field of mindfulness and a very wise and inspirational speaker.https://youtu.be/7kblkFJmriM
  3. For BSL users I highly recommend watching and following the videos uploaded by Ben Fletcher.  Clear and concise, these will give you a head start to a regular meditation practice. https://youtu.be/mrvTqSCidnw   
  4. Check out the national be mindful website for details of practitioners and courses. They do have online courses and some practitioners offer email / Skype consultation. This does vary according to location – find out what’s near you. https://bemindful.co.uk/
  5. YouTube does have quite a few guided meditation videos with text. You may have to try a few to find one that resonates with you but https://youtu.be/6p_yaNFSYao is a good starting point. 
  6. Read about it. I highly recommend The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle for its in depth writing on the benefits of becoming more present. I can also vouch for Wherever You Go There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn which is written in a relaxed style which allows you to dip in and out as it please. If you’re a bookworm you’re in luck as there’s Mindful books abound! 
  7. Join everyday mindfulness, a free website for people of all backgrounds and meditative levels where you can share information, ask tips and get advice from other like minded individuals. It is a mainstream site and heavily text based but a useful resource nonetheless. https://www.everyday-mindfulness.org/
  8. For movement based Mindfulness, Yoga is an excellent tool. There is BSL Yoga based in York which does travel for retreats and weekend workshops. There is also Sarah Scott who teaches yoga in London and Surrey using sign language too. https://m.facebook.com/bslyogayork/  https://www.deafyoga-co-uk.com/
  9. Check out Sign Health’a guide to Mindfulness. It has BSL videos that I filmed covering the concepts of being mindful and a short exercise to try at home. https://www.signhealth.org.uk/how-to-be-mindful-a-guide-in-sign-language/
  10. Breathe. Mindfulness isn’t complicated and can be practised anywhere. This isn’t really a resource but by simply sitting for 3 minutes every day and just watching the breath (feeling the sensation of breathing in & out but not trying to change it) we can begin a personal mindful practice that doesn’t rely on anyone else to guide us. 

If you know of any other resources please do share. Wishing you a mindful March! 

Grief and hearing loss 

When I was 18 I experienced a massive drop in my hearing. I’d gone from having a severe loss to a profound one but the drop was so sudden it was hard to deal with at first.

I’d changed from being someone who wore hearing aids when I felt like it to a person that couldn’t live without them. 

Nobody really explained why it happened the way it did. 

My sister and I were both born hearing (apparently- there were no newborn screenings then) and our high frequency hearing losses weren’t detected until we were at primary school. My parents were told it was likely our hearing would deteriorate as we got older due to the hairs in the cochlear that transmit sound slowly dying. 

So my loss of sound was a gradual one up until my eighteenth year. 

The drop in hearing I encountered was a big one. So much that I was offered counselling to come to terms with the loss and the therapist introduced the process of grief to me. 

I remember being confused. Grief? I haven’t suffered a bereavement? But they explained that losing a sense has similar effects to a physical loss and the process of accepting and adapting to this enormous change is almost identical. 

First there’s denial. I sure felt that. It was no big deal I kept saying to my Mum. I didn’t want to talk about how I couldn’t hear the TV anymore or even my own voice when I screamed… just get on with things. That was my initial response. 

But then came the anger. Anger at how unfair it was, how cruel life could be; feeling out of control and helpless to do anything as my hearing slipped away. 

The counsellor explained that the phases of grief are not linear and can return in waves throughout your life. The trick is to ride the waves as they came and not to fight them. 

Since those sessions I’ve come a long way and I’ve fully accepted what I can/can’t hear. Maybe it’s different when you’re born deaf as you may not know what you’re missing. But to have full hearing and then lose it the way I did is something that definitely has its moments of sadness.

It was a couple of years ago now, that my sister and I went to the Big Reunion concert; where all our favourite bands of the late 90s and early 00s played. We were beyond excited as we had grown up listening to these groups and singing them together. 

The opening act was A1 who performed a cover of Aha’s Take On Me. I adored the song and even performed to it as a young girl but as the show started and the crowd went crazy, I stared at the stage, confused. 

Nothing made sense acoustically. Where was the electro melody? The high pitched keyboard synthesiser? All I could hear was screams and a strange thumping bass. 

That’s when the grief hit me in the stomach. God I missed music.

I missed hearing it properly. Not with strained ears in a quiet room, focusing intently just to hear something familiar. I missed the ease of popping a song on and being instantly transported. I missed being involved in that world. 

I watched the rest of the concert in bittersweet nostalgia. Happy to see the bands and routines I recognised but sad that I could no longer participate in fully enjoying them. 

I still love music but my relationship with it has changed. I tend to stick to the oldies that my brain recognises and when I do learn a new song it takes me a while to study and revise all the layers; the lyrics, the melody, the rhythm, the overlapping sounds. It’s hard work but a labour of love. 

I know that I’m not alone in experiencing a sense of loss from time to time. I’m aware that amongst all the jokes and banter and the big D little d debates, there are individuals who are perhaps still coming to terms with a change in their hearing. 

So if you are struggling or if this deaf world is still new or alien to you, please don’t be afraid to get professional support.