What you should know about my sign language interpreter 

I’ve had some veeeerrry irritating experiences regarding BSL interpreters and how people respond to me working with one. The comments, the questions, the behaviours. Honestly, I could write a book. 

At times it’s been so crazily annoying that I’ve pondered sending people a report of guidelines to read before they meet me a BSL interpreter.

I would call this imaginary report  “what you need to know about my sign language interpreter,” and the guidelines would be something along the lines of… 

  1. First of all, my BSL interpreter is called just that, an interpreter. Please do not call them a signer,  translator or worse – my helper. Interpreting is a professional vocation which takes many years of study and life experience – there’s a difference between someone who interprets and someone who signs, capisce? 
  2. BSL interpreters act as my voice or my ears – but not my brain. The words they speak are actually mine. So before you tell them how fabulous/awful their presentation was, remember it’s my content you’re referring to. They’re the messenger. Don’t shoot them. And if the work was good I’ll take the credit please 😉
  3. Interpreting is a demanding, highly skilled job so please do not expect them to work in impossible situations. Long, noisy hours without a break is not only harsh on them but actually effects the quality of the interpretation. They aren’t being diva’s when they request an hourly break – it’s not a crafty cigarette they want. It’s a much needed eye break and brain rest! 
  4. A lot of the time, I don’t know much about my interpreter. We aren’t best buddies and we don’t answer each other’s questions. It’s a professional relationship. You’re speaking to me through them, not about me to them. They don’t answer for me and sometimes don’t know me at all. So be sure to remember that before you pull them to one side and ask about my personal life. And if they do know me well, they wouldn’t dish any dirt to you. Nosy. 
  5. BSL interpreters are in great demand. So please don’t leave bookings until the last minute or expect me to “bring a signer” at the drop of a hat. And don’t say “oh I know a girl who can help you, she can sign!” when it’s an important meeting and the girl in question is about twelve years old. Do you research, give me notice and contact reputable agencies or freelancers only. 
  6. You can’t tell interpreters not to tell me certain things. If you’ve said something outloud, they’ll sign it. They provide access to everything, including any awkward/embarrassing/inappropriate comments. So watch what you’re saying, interpreters don’t come with an edit option I’m afraid. 
  7. And finally, whilst my interpreter is extremely adept at interpreting they are not superhuman. I can’t see them if you stand in front of them (!!!!!) and they can’t understand you if you’re mumbling. Accents and mannerisms affect how you sound to others. So if they ask you to repeat yourself or move out of my sight line it’s for a very good reason. So stay calm, be patient, and move aside – please. 

Ah. If only I could get that report published. 😉


A deaf or hearing Christmas? Have a happy one 😊

There are pine needles all over my living room floor. And we have technicolour lights draping from our roof. Yes, it can only mean one thing – it’s Christmas. 😀

I love chatting to people and finding out what their Christmas traditions are. Deaf or hearing, most of us are traditionalists at Christmas time. We usually do the same things year after year. It brings feelings of comfort, peace, and familiarity. 

My hearing family usually spend Christmas Eve at home before they attend a Christingle service at their local church. For them, christmas goes hand in hand with singing carols & playing music. It all seems to evoke feelings of bittersweet nostalgia. 

They then spend the night with close friends, indulging in a cheeky chinese takeaway & a few drinks before dropping off on the sofa at home, a Christmas concert on the telly. 

My husband’s deaf family and friends do things a little differently. 

They don’t bother with church and there aren’t any Christmas carols in their plans. Instead they hold annual gatherings on Christmas Eve at a Family pub where deaf families across the city can meet, eat, drink and be merry. 

Instead of the intimate setting my hearing family enjoy, this deaf gathering is loud, busy and extremely jolly. Oh, and it goes on for hours. 

So when my husband and I had our own children, we had to explore what our own traditions would be. The tricky thing being (as I’ve said before,) whilst I have one foot in the hearing and deaf worlds, my husband is a whopping great big capital D Deaf. 

Church service without an interpreter? Forget it. Pretend to lip-sync carols that he’s never seen before? I don’t think so. Spend the night surrounded by hearing people who can’t sign? Not happening. 

But we’ve found ways to satisfy all of our Christmassy needs. For the  children too. 😉

Instead of dreading the visit to see a bearded non-deaf-aware Santa, we now make a special appointment to visit the Signing Santa at the gorgeous Kedleston Hall. He signs, the location is magical, and his beard is real. Even my husband believes in Santa when he sees this one. 

We’ve also found a local event by a deaf children’s society that does Christmas sign songs. And I’ve worked -for the first time-  with a hearing singer to produce some signed song Christmas videos! The amount of BSL carols online is abysmal, so I’m excited to share songs that my kiddies can get involved with too. 

Browsing Facebook, we’ve found deaf clubs that still hold Christmas parties for children and many families travel hundreds of miles to enjoy these occasions together. 

Our son also has his first nativity this year (he’s a sheep!) and the school have provided us with a script, sign language access and the best seats in the church to watch the production. Result. 

So, thinking about it, deaf and hearing people don’t do things massively different at Christmas time – it’s just a matter of providing access. And let’s not forget as a deaf community we’re all individuals with unique tastes. 

While some of us may relish in the cheesy signed songs and the #so this is christmaaaaaaas# feeling, there will also be deaf people (like my hubby) who are happiest just signing away to family & friends, having a few bevvies & Yule logs without Slade blaring in the background. 
So it’ll be a signed carol service at an accessible church this Christmas Eve before we join the deaf families for food & fun. However you’re celebrating Christmas, I hope it’s a truly happy one for you and your family. 

All together now! #I’m dreaming of a whiiiiiite Christmas…#  😀

Merry Christmas.



The greatest barrier in society – in my opinion

I was having my lunch with some arts professionals and we were discussing what forthcoming projects we had lined up. I was the only deaf person present and I was interested to hear (lipread, rather 😉) what was everyone was doing. 

One lady said she had a ‘dilemma’ as she had been offered the chance to deliver workshops for people with learning disabilities – but she didn’t want to take the work. 

Why? We all asked her. “I’m not trained in this area,” she confessed. “And although the organisers have said they will offer me all the training I need… well..” and then she turned to me and said 

“No offence, but I’m not interested in working with special needs. It’s just not interesting.”

I was stumped. First of all, why was she looking at me? Did she assume deaf people had learning disabilities or were experts on the topic? 

And secondly, what an awfully closed minded comment to make. But funnily enough, a lot of her hearing colleagues seemed to agree with her. 

“I’d be the same,” they muttered. “I never know how to behave around them plus they don’t understand me.” 

“Learning disabilities – I haven’t got a clue! They scare me!” Someone else piped up. 

“Don’t they all use makaton?” Another person asked. 

In the end, the lady in question had resolved her dilemma and decided to turn down this uninteresting and frightening prospect of working with people who were different to herself. 

Fast forward a week and I was presenting at a carers forum and discussing what the greatest barriers in society were for disabled people. I thought back to my lunch break with those arts professionals and formed my own answer. 

In my opinion, the greatest barriers in our society are assumptions. 

When people assume they know about something or they form a generalised opinion without any life experience to back it up, they are practising ignorance. 

When we assume, we put people or things in a box and we don’t dare question the possibilities, the capabilities, the opportunities that may unfold. We live with our eyes half open. 

I’ve been a victim of assumptions many times. And my clearest memory of this happened when I was 15 years old. 

I was chatting to a careers advisor at school and she was asking me questions, trying to forge a career path for me. 

She began by asking me what I wanted to do. Well, at that time, I was obsessed with Pop Idol and the a*teens (a Swedish teen ABBA group) so I sheepishly confessed what I really wanted to do was sing. I practised every day after school and honestly, it brought me so much joy. 

But she shot me down. 

“You can’t be a singer, you’re deaf.” 

I went on to say that I quite liked acting and I was rather good at dancing too so I would be happy with something along those lines… 

Acting? My voice couldn’t be strong enough, she said. And dancing would never be a feasible career. 

All she could see as I sat in front of her was my deafness. She was blinded by the assumptions she had already formed around deafness and deaf people’s capabilities. 

She didn’t see my dogged determination. How absolutely crazy I was about music and lyrics. How I spent more time at dance classes than at friends houses after school. She had no idea. 

So thank goodness I didn’t listen to her. 

I’ve learnt several times that people continue to make assumptions about deafness. And it’s important that we too don’t fall into the trap of making assumptions about other people. How else will we know who they really are if we don’t ask? If we don’t delve straight in, eyes wide open, and find out. 

So, earlier this year, when I was asked to work on a dance project with a group of people with severe learning disabilities, I found myself challenging my own assumptions.

Initially I worried about how I may communicate with those who are visually impaired. Would I be able to project my voice enough? Would those who struggled with cognition actually understand me?  Could I – a deaf person – do this job? 

I thought back to the arts professionals again and I remembered the words of that careers advisor. And I said to myself, you know what, scrap those fears and assumptions. Maybe it’s time to work outside of my own comfort zone.  Maybe I’ll learn something? So I took the job. Fears, worries and all. 

I walked into the first day of the dance job with plenty of worries, but I felt completely ready to quash the preconceptions I had about being a deaf person working with a group of people who were another kind of different. 

It’s been five months now and I can honestly say I’m the fortunate one for having worked with this unique dance group who are very much all individuals. They have varying needs, alternate communication methods and very different abilities. 

If I’d have believed other people’s assumptions, I would never have accepted this work and thus not had the pleasure to work with some truly lovely people. 

The same can be said about deafness. The more we can remove the social stigma of being deaf or having access needs, the more we can eliminate false assumptions which imply our abilities are capped and that our life pathway is one-size-fits-all for all deaf people. 

If you don’t know about something please Ask. Enquire. Find out. Bombard me with questions! Whatever you do, do not assume. 

The divide between deaf and hearing worlds in the media… 

Growing up Deaf, I was warned by hearing friends that “most deaf people have a chip on their shoulder; they don’t like hearing people.”

As I delved further into the Deaf world, I saw another side to this argument. One that said “Hearing people will never understand us. Deaf people are always excluded.”

It’s an interesting thing, witnessing the interplays between the Deaf and hearing worlds. And I’ve noticed the brave pioneers that dare to build bridges between both. But judging by recent debates, I feel the divide between the hearing and deaf world still exists- however subtle it may be.

There are ongoing debates in the media world regarding the casting of deaf roles. Is it okay for hearing actors to play deaf characters? Or should these be for Deaf actors who can use their innate life experience to portray deafness authentically?

In addition to this there have been discussions about hearing professionals taking work that could/should be Deaf-led and how Deaf people are still being made to feel second best when it comes to working alongside hearing professionals.

A director friend of mine, John, contacted me a while ago and we start chatting about some issues that have been on our minds. John is a highly esteemed director, deaf and a sign language user. He works daily alongside hearing professionals, mostly in film and television. He had been upset by attitudes towards him and how he was expected to act ‘continually grateful’ towards his hearing colleagues for what he perceived to be his given right: clear access.

Rather than being valued as someone who is fluent in both sign language and English, John has had to hand over his ASL to English translation work to his hearing co-workers. “It’s because they’re hearing, they’re expected to have a better grasp of the English language than I am.”

In return, John is made to feel overly obliged to express his thanks for any communication support he receives, when this is actually is his right as a sign language user and not “some gift.” Delving into this further, John coined the term ‘hearing fragility’ in response to these conflicting attitudes.

He explained, “I don’t know if ‘hearing fragility’ is an appropriate phrase, since the social justice definition of the word fragility came from the issues of the black community, but it’s a place to start this conversation, at least.”

He continued, “sometimes I come across hearing directors who are not fluent in sign language or knowledgeable about deaf issues, but they’ve directed deaf actors and they feel entitled to say I’ve done all of this for the deaf community, where’s my thanks? Why are deaf people angry with me?”

This defensive response to accusations of oppressiveness is exactly why the term fragility has been used. It implies that the fine line between being supportive of and taking advantage of the deaf community is at risk of being crossed.

For example… The American TV series Switched at Birth won countless awards for featuring a major Deaf storyline, but there was incredible dissent amongst the American Deaf community who felt the portrayal was inaccurate and, at times, disrespectful.

Whilst the creators of this show may have had an ASL consultant, they did not have any Deaf creatives on their team. Perhaps if they hired someone like John who is a native sign language user and lives, breathes, and eats Deaf issues, they could have handled certain topics differently and maybe (just a thought!) they might have cast more real-life ASL users…

This feeling of being misrepresented can happen in a wide range of settings, not just in television. But as John pointed out, “I feel its important to address the influence arts and media has because this is the area that impacts the entire world. Film and TV are some of the greatest mind changers of the world and I think we need to start there – and see how we can change things in terms of mentalities in this area.”

But how do we know when someone genuinely cares about the deaf community and when they’re just… well, using us?

John feels “it comes down to their actual reasons for wanting to work with sign language or feature deaf issues.  For example, if I find a theatre director wants to work with sign language merely for its aesthetics without utilising the language or deaf characters, that strikes me as being an audism mindset right away.” 

With the increase of music videos featuring harshly edited ‘mumble jumble’ sign language, it is understandable that deaf people are insulted by the misuse of their language. Is sign language just a novelty to the mainstream world?

The trouble is most of the time when a production features a Deaf character or deaf issues, the creative team involved don’t have any deaf experience. They aren’t aware of the cultural implications of creating deaf roles and the huge responsibility that holds. We therefore need more Deaf consultants and creatives who are able to drive this process through.

Usually its sign language interpreters or sign language consultants that get hired to offer insight into deafness but they don’t have deaf perspective. As John agreed, “Deaf people should be valued for what they know better than hearing people – being Deaf or using sign language.”

Even at Edinburgh’s fringe festival, a highly acclaimed show was labelled as ‘accessible to sign language users’ but the gestures used were incomprehensible. If the producers on that show worked with a Deaf person or a team of deaf people while devising the work, they might have actually produced an accessible piece. Throwing in a few random signs is never going to work. 

However, a production in Leicester by theatre company Scuffed Shoes had the initiative to invite a group of Deaf people to an open rehearsal as they were using sign language for the first time. Here the deaf attendees had the chance to say whether or not they understood the piece. Their feedback was incredibly insightful and extremely helpful. Even though the deaf group weren’t artists, their knowledge of Deaf matters and sign language meant their views were invaluable when creating accessible work.

I am in no way implying deaf people are better than hearing people, but we are better at portraying and representing deafness because that is part and parcel of who we are.

I don’t believe all deaf people have a chip on their shoulder. It’s not that we dislike hearing people. We are just incredibly frustrated. We want to be represented truthfully and we yearn – most of all – to have our voices heard. 

We don’t want people – who haven’t walked in our Deaf shoes – to speak for us.

One of my bug bears is BSL interpreters or communicators referring to their work as ‘helping’ deaf people. John felt the same mentioning, “the classic stereotype is that hearing people are supposed to be the ones to help deaf people for their entire lives, and that deaf people are viewed as dependents.”

This hints at the whole power play that Deaf professionals are trying to avoid. We don’t want to feel as though we are inferior to hearing colleagues or – worse still – that we have to justify ourselves. We may work differently and have separate skill sets, that is absolutely fine. The trick is to play to our strengths and use access support where necessary. Access is not a luxury to be thankful for, its a basic right. So less of the helping – its facilitating communication, thank you.

Saying that, I do feel that we can and many of us do work alongside hearing professionals on an equal platform. If we are valued and given the chance to express our opinions, you will find we aren’t just a feisty bunch of signers who are impossible to please. We actually speak sense 😉

The deaf world and the hearing world are undoubtedly different. We cant pretend to play Hearing, just as no hearing person can ever Be Deaf. Let us share with you our valuable insights and the unique perspective that being deaf brings. It is our world, after all. Perhaps when the majority of the mainstream population begin to appreciate that, then the rift between us will begin to heal.

Accessibility at Fierce Festival 2017

I am pleased to see that more and more arts organisations seem to be considering accessibility in their programming. Online, there is even a forum called East meets West for arts organisations from the East and West Midlands to share resources and discuss ideas.

And lately, one of the hot topics is ” how can we welcome deaf/hard of hearing people?”

Which is great. Because despite not knowing exactly how to accommodate the varying needs of deaf people, questions are being asked.

I was approached by Pippa & Aaron of the Fierce Festival in Birmingham, and they wanted to discuss how their annual festival could be accessible to D/deaf and hard of hearing people.

Fierce is a ground breaking festival which appeals to both artists and art-lovers, and it has to be said that Fierce is notably one of the UK’s most respected festivals of live art and the leading organisation for live art in the West Midlands. So for them to be considering how deaf-friendly they are is very positive news for the Deaf arts community.

Explaining that all deaf people are different, the Fierce team and I discussed how the use of BSL interpretations, hearing aid loops (when indoors) and even just plain old visual information could be useful. Looking at the programme, which is highly varied in style and excitingly jam packed, I was interested to also note that one of their featured artists, Aaron Williamson, is actually hearing impaired himself.

(Aaron Williamson)

The festival features three performances with BSL interpretation and there is also a BSL signer at one of the ‘meet and greets’ where BSL users are welcome to ask any questions they may have. There are also numerous performances that are non-verbal.

Sure, not everything is immediately accessible, but for a festival with no prior knowledge or experience catering for the deaf community, this Inclusive journey has only just begun.

Fierce, and many other festivals nationwide need us, the deaf community, to feedback to them directly. If you would like to attend the Fierce festival but would like to know more about accessibility or if have any specific requirements, please email pippa@wearefierce.org

Fierce runs from 16-22nd October and you can read about their accessibility commitment here. https://wearefierce.org/blog/access-at-fierce-festival-2017/

Further details for the BSL interpretations and non-verbal pieces can be found below.


BSL interpretations:

Aaron Williamson – Demonstrating the World, Saturday 21st October, Victoria Square, 12pm -6pm

In Demonstrating the World, Aaron Williamson explores the ‘alien’ or ‘other’ through an absurdly elaborate, live reinterpretation of YouTube ‘How-To’ videos. 

This is a free durational performance, taking place in Victoria Square, Birmingham City Centre. You can pop along 12pm – 6pm and stay for as long or short amount of time as you want. 

There’s a captioned trailer here: https://youtu.be/y8fLQAi7gNI

Demi Nandra – I’m Sick and Tired of Being Sick and TiredSunday 22nd October, Birmingham Conservatoire, 3pm – 7pm

What if the depression we endure is not just about biochemical disfunction, but the result of political failure? I’m Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired examines historical traumas in the everyday felt sensations of our lives.

This is a free durational performance, taking place in Birmingham Conservatoire. You can pop along 1between 3pm – 7pm and stay for as long or short amount of time as you want. 

Everything Fits in the Room is a non-verbal piece, presented at the Hub on Saturday 21st (4pm) and Sunday 22nd October (4pm). There will be a BSL signer at the venue on Sunday 22nd October to meet and greet signers and answer any questions they might have. 

A free-standing wall, a roaming kitchen island and decaying bodies are part of a disruptive ecology that needs constant adjustment. This is an immersive experimental dance piece form Germany with incredible performer.

Trailer here: https://vimeo.com/210714105 (non-verbal)


Non verbal performances:

Lucy Suggate – Pilgrim

This is a solo dance performance exploring the relationship between contemporary club dance culture and pagan and folk cultures.

Last Yearz Interesting Negro / Jamila Johnstone-Small – i ride in colour and soft focus, no longer anywhere

A dance informed by everything and everyone Jamila has ever encountered, seen, heard, felt, been beside that has become part of her, as she tries to identify her own voice. 

Michele Rizzo – Higher

HIGHER is inspired by the experience of clubbing and club dancing. This form of dance, not easily ascribed to any category, takes the cultural role of a social dance and features various techniques, styles and influences and exemplifies what is the ultimate purpose of dancing: self expression.

Non-Verbal trailer: https://vimeo.com/167905371 

Mindfulness for Deaf Teens

“Deafness does not in itself cause emotional/behavioural or cognitive problems. However, children with hearing impairment are at greater risk of developing emotional/behavioural problems.” Nicoletta Gentili & Andrew Holwell

The above statement, taken from an article on mental health in children with severe hearing impairment, is rather concerning. It makes sense then to prioritise positive mental health for deaf children and teenagers.

The reasons why so many young deaf people experience poor mental health are varied, and this topic is too in-depth for me to explore in one article. But seeing as I am preparing a workshop on Mindfulness for deaf teenagers, I thought I could share some of my insights with you.

Mindfulness for teens is growing in popularity. Yet the delivery of it to a deaf audience is rather unheard of. With few resources online, I’ve been delving into my own experience as a deaf teenager and also as a mindfulness practitioner to create a bespoke plan for the deaf teens in Wales that I’ll be meeting later this month.

Mindfulness has been scientifically proven to lower anxiety, ease depression/prevent depressive spells and it also promotes positive self esteem. And judging by how turbulent the teenage years can be, I only wish it could have been offered when I was at school too.

Why? For teenagers, I believe there’s two main ways that Mindfulness can be useful.

Mindfulness helps to calm your body & mind

My teenage years were full of stress. If I wasn’t studying exams, I was rehearsing for a dance show, taking assessments and performing in shows. On top of that I was socially anxious and self conscious and I struggled to feel calm and centred. I was always on the go.

But today’s world is even crazier. When teens return home from school or college, they can’t seem to switch off from social interaction due to Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook,  Twitter and goodness knows what else. There’s a endless demand to keep an online profile.

The mind, then, is constantly stimulated. So it needs help learning how to relax. Teaching teens to unplug and be grounded can be really challenging especially when checking their notifications is an ingrained habit. But being constantly in a ‘virtual world’ can lead to feeling tired-but-wired, irritable and just plain cranky. In a nutshell, its not healthy.

Creating mindful spaces for teenagers gives their body and mind a chance to recharge. They’ll learn to stop living on adrenaline and actually breathe once in a while. Meditation has been said to help with revision and exam performance too – handy for those forthcoming GCSE’s or A Levels!

But what else are our deaf teens dealing with? Whether they learn through lip-reading, sign language or a mixture of both, school life is especially exhausting when you have a hearing loss. Whereas hearing teens can rely on their ears to receive information (and the ears have no muscles!) deaf teenagers are using their eyes – which do have muscles and are plain knackered.

Developing mindfulness in teens means encouraging them to understand when their fatigue is kicking in or when they’re having trouble understanding something and to express their needs appropriately. I never heard the term ‘eye break’ until my University days. I could have done with it a lot sooner.

Mindfulness exercises offers teens the chance to unwind and recharge both physically and mentally.

Mindfulness supports you to feel good about yourself

Teenagers are full of hormones, as we all know. A lot of their time is spent with their peers and so developing attractions to others is at the forefront of their minds too. But if you’re deaf and you have insecurities or hang ups about yourself, what can you do to help?

Mindfulness encourages you to notice when you have a negative or critical thought about yourself. So for example, if you wake up one morning and you notice a spot on your face… rather than break down in an hormonal frenzy of “I am so ugly, nobody will ever like me, everyone has perfect skin but not me!” – you can actually learn to speak to yourself a bit more kindly and develop a best friend relationship with yourself. “Okay so you got a massive zit, but toothpaste and concealer should do the trick!”

The same can be said for any challenges you’re having with your deaf identity. Being aware that its your deaf identity you’re struggling with when you don’t have the words to express yourself can be a great realisation. Getting to know your darkest thoughts or worries and writing them down in a mindful way can enable you to support yourself.

Navigating the teenage years can be a rollercoaster, and even more so if you have deafness or any kind of additional need. This world isn’t a one size fits all, and its important that deaf teens of today realise that. We are all different. You can gain some perspective from your problems and worries when you speak to a mindfulness practitioner and you can also gain professional help in more serious cases such as bullying, self harm or eating disorders.

Deaf teenagers can have the same insecurities or more as their hearing peers. We are ultimately all unique and so we respond to challenges in our own individual ways. But by delivering mindfulness in sign language and with visual cues, we can enable teenagers with deafness to become informed of positive methods that they can use to look after themselves.

To read about mindfulness for teens see http://www.mindfulnessforteens.com

And to be informed of future mindfulness workshops for deaf teens, keep an eye on my blog site http://www.rebeccaawithey.wordpress.com





Why I believe sign singing is not the same as Interpreting… 

I had a pretty awesome sign singing job this month. I was booked by Sky 1 to sign 24 songs for a new televised contest called Sing: Ultimate a Capella.

The contest shows a Capella groups from across the country competing to win the chance to record an album at London’s Abbey Road studios and release a single in time for Christmas.

Sky 1’s social team had previously seen sign performers translating songs for Snoop Dogg and Ed Sheeran and wanted to give their viewers the chance to see some of the songs in sign language too.

And that’s where I came in.

Usually when I get asked to work on signed songs, there’s lots of time for rehearsals and normally there’s just one song to study. Unless it’s for a live show then I usuallly have a clear set list and opportunities for sound checks, dress runs and lots of practice.

But seeing as this was a live show, with one episode being recorded per day, this was faaaar from the average sign song job.

The 24 songs were given to me the day before the first episode was set to shoot. None of the songs could be finalised or a set list given because it all depended on which singing group got through to each round. Each episode also had a guest act and several of these artists would not confirm their song or the actual lyrics until it was their sound check an hour before show time. Cue manic studying from me!

A few of the songs I was given weren’t really suited to BSL, and a lot of them were in the form of medleys which meant there were several songs all fused together with differing rhythms and varying sounds.
It was an unpredictable, highly challenging job but an exhilarating one at that.

Not only did I get to sign for the talented groups that were competing but also for the artists JP Cooper, Midge Ure, The Vamps, Gregory Porter and Imelda May. I felt honoured and humbled.

(Mid rehearsal above) 

Despite being deaf,  music is in my blood and I felt privileged to be sharing songs with some incredible voices. They sang, I signed.

The fact that Sky 1 recognised sign song enough to employ me to work for them is immensely encouraging. For too long sign song has been viewed as just a “fun thing to put on you tube” and it hasn’t been valued as the art form it really is.

I was asked during my work if I was a sign language interpreter, with several audience members who came to watch the contest coming over to me and attempting to speak in my ear. It was a surprise for them to discover that I’m actually deaf. And not a sign language interpreter.

I then had an interesting discussion with another artist regarding the difference between an interpreter and a sign singer. You need to be able to hear to be a formally qualified interpreter but to be a sign singer hearing is irrelevant.

If I was hearing, maybe my job at Sky 1 would have been processed differently. Perhaps when we weren’t given a set list, I could have simply listened to the artist when they began singing and translated as I heard the lyrics. It would have been a great back up plan if nothing else.

Instead, I had to memorise the entire songs beforehand (with the little time I had) and scrutinise the artists’ sound checks, using a communicator to work out if any changes had been made. I didn’t have a back up plan and as a deaf sign singer you never do. You have to study the songs and trust yourself, reacting to what you can feel, see and/or hear if anything.

There’s a vulnerability to being a sign singer, especially if you can’t hear what’s around you. And this is what makes it different to Interpreting. In my case, I work with a hearing communicator who acts as my visual cue for the music and keeps me in time.

Being deaf also means I am less stimulated by outside influence, so my relationship with the songs is intimate, personal and born from me. Hence why all sign singers have different approaches to a song.
Whether interpreters regard sign song as an art form or not, it is my belief that the best sign singers are not always those who are most proficient in the BSL language, but are those who have an innate connection to music and lyrics, and a desire to personify these. Whether they can hear or not is irrelevant.

(Above: all of the songs studied and performed)

This is why I regard my work with Sky1 as a sign performing job and not an Interpreting job. The nuances involved in sign singing are incredibly detailed and I suspect are not included in a regular BSL qualification anyhow.

With Interpreting there is usually a right way and a wrong to convey an idea. In sign singing, you have an artistic freedom to express lyrics while respecting the rhythmical placement of the words. It is not pure BSL because it’s being fused with music. But it’s this fusion that I find especially beautiful.

You can watch the sign performances online when the series is aired in mid September. And if you want to see more sign singing by deaf artists, why not make a trip to Derby on September 9th to see Caroline Parker, Colin Thomson and myself for an evening of sign song.  Email hello@sarahgatford.co.uk for ticket info

And now cue the compulsory fan pic (it’s me and with The Vamps!!! 😃)

Genetic testing for deafness, my view. 

The cause of my deafness has never been something that has bothered me. I have a sister who is deaf, but aside from her everyone in my family is hearing.

Growing up with my sister, neither of us dwelled on the reasons for our deafness, we just took it in our stride. I don’t even recall us having any memorable conversations about our hearing; we just plodded on, going to audiology, speech therapy trips together and taking it all as being part of our “normal” existence.

So when our parents took us to a centre in Nottingham for genetic counselling, this felt like just another mundane test that we had to do.

I remember the specialists looking at my hands, my hair, my eyes. And I remember feeling overwhelmed when I was asked if I wanted a cochlear implant and bursting into tears.

It turns out my parents were told it was down to a faulty gene that they both carried which produced deafness in myself and my sister.

No blood tests were taken, so no exact gene was named as the cause of this but I do remember being told “if you marry a hearing man, you’ll be more likely to have hearing children…”

Fast forward twenty something years and I am married to a deaf man and I have a son who is hearing and a daughter who is deaf. Both my husband and I knew that there would be a chance our children may be deaf, but this was never a huge concern to us. We are who we are and our children will be who they are born to be.

So earlier this week when I was asked by my daughters audiologist if they could have our permission to send her for genetic testing, my immediate response was “why?”

I was told that the test would (probably) tell us the exact cause for her deafness and also work out the chances of her passing deafness onto her children. She’s two years old and we’re thinking of her children already?! 

They then mentioned something about her hearing brother possibly being a carrier if the deafness is a genetic cause, and said how he could be tested in future too.

Now, I completely and utterly understand why parents may want to screen for health conditions / illnesses, but I do not feel that deafness is one of them. I am deaf, so my views on having a deaf child may be entirely different to a hearing parent who is faced with something completely new and unfamiliar.

But deafness is my familiar. And for all those involved in my immediate family, it’s our familiar too. So I do not see any real reason or benefit for finding out the medical reason for my daughters deafness. Her deafness will still remain unchanged. And whether she has deaf or hearing children, they will be accepted.

Browsing literature online, I noticed that I’m not alone in these feelings. The American Journal of Human Genetics surveyed parental attitudes towards genetic testing for paediatric deafness and stated,

“Deaf adults had a predominately negative attitude towards genetic testing for deafness, with the majority stating that such tests would do more harm than good.”

It reasoned that as the majority of deaf children were born to hearing parents, it was understandable that these parents were searching for a reason for this unexpected event. Just like my parents were.

That is not to say that deaf parents don’t participate in genetic testing (they do!) but more often than not the reasons for doing so stem more from curiosity than anything else.

One of my concerns about genetic testing was how the results would be received by hearing parents.  Some of the parents surveyed stated that the results of the genetic testing would impact their decision to have further children, with adoption being an option rather than

 “risk having a child who is deaf.”

This concern was echoed in the article by reports from the deaf community expressing their fear that an increase in genetic testing would lead to a decrease in the number of  congenitally deaf children.

Action on Hearing Loss actually completed a genetics testing project in 2012 with the results being published in the American Journal of Medical Genetics. They stated that;

“The project will help to determine the deafness genes that are the most common cause of deafness in Europeans. This knowledge is currently lacking and will also aid the development of treatments in future.”

A new idea I also came across was how most (62%) of the parents surveyed wanted prenatal screening for deafness to be offered. This would (apparently) enable an expectant parent to be better prepared by learning sign language or researching hearing loss.
But wouldn’t a prenatal screening also carry a risk of affected pregnancies being terminated?

It’s a deep and complicated topic and the concept of eugenics, of manipulating a “perfect” human race is one that makes me feel highly uncomfortable.

As a culturally Deaf person, I don’t wish to make my daughter or any deaf child feel that they have less of a right to be here than a hearing child. I believe very strongly in the social model of deafness as opposed to the medical model which tells me I’m broken and need fixing.

Even the NHS website states that it offers genetic counselling to couples where both individuals have a “hearing impairment.” This is in order to determine whether they will have a “hearing impaired child.” Are we going back to the time where deaf people were discouraged to marry for fear of continuing a deaf race?

I suppose I hadn’t realised how deeply ingrained my Deaf identity was until I came across this subject. And it’s clear that there are mixed views about the testing being carried out.

But this is my view. And I do not want my daughter being poked and prodded at the age of 2 for a cause that I’m not sure I even approve of.

Genetic testing for deafness; for who’s benefit?

You can read the quoted article here:


My first year as a ‘deaf playground Mum’

When my son started nursery last September I dreaded the compulsory ‘standing in the playground with other parents.’ Not because I dislike people, of course. It was the fact that I’d be expected to chat to / get to know the parents of my sons classmates for the remainder of the school year. 

Talk about being out of my comfort zone. To begin with I remember feeling self conscious, quiet and not really myself. 
To most parents making small talk and general chatter in the playground is fun, laidback and an enjoyable rite of passage. It’s a chance to speak to another adult for a fraction of your day and find some solace in the stresses of parenthood. 

But for me, it’s exhausting. Having to lipread, notice what’s happening around me AND keep track of a 2 year old and 4 year old leaves me feeling hyper vigilant and on edge. 

But verrrrry gradually I got the hang of it. As time went on I came out of my shell and began to feel comfortable with being surrounded by non-signers on a daily basis. 

I’ve done a lot in a school year. I’ve learnt most of my sons school friends names, conversed with several parents, attended kids’ birthday parties and struck up friendships with a few ladies too. Not bad for the only deaf mum in the playground…

Looking back, though, there was a pivotal moment that changed things for sure. It was the first time the other parents saw me with a sign language interpreter. 

We (the parents) were invited to a meeting about phonics and the school had booked an interpreter so I’d be able to participate in the talk. The look on the parents faces when I walked into the room, sat opposite the interpreter and began signing, was priceless. 

Oh, she’s deaaaaaaaf. I could almost feel the pennies dropping. 

I reckon some people had their suspicions beforehand, a few already knew (but hadn’t seen me sign) but most were clueless. 

There were a few friendly smiles, some stares and a couple of flummoxed faces. The following day, one of the Dads (who had previously never spoken to me) came up and started signing, “I heard you’re deaf. My uncle is deaf so I learnt to sign for him.”

Woweee. I thought. Finally I can sign to somebody!!! 

Admittedly, there were a couple of parents who began to avoid me, not wishing to make eye contact and generally acting frostily around me. No more hello’s from them, I noticed. 

And then on the opposite scale were the ones who overcompensated, rubbing my arm before speaking to me and slowing down their speech to aaaan extreeeemely diffficcculllt speeeeed toooo liiiipreeeeead. Bless ’em. 

But generally speaking, once it was ‘out’ that I was deaf AND a signer, it felt a whole lot easier to be myself. I seemed to attract the right people to talk to, some who knew sign, some who didn’t; but overall the good eggs who were happy to get to know somebody who was a bit different.

You know, making new friends as an adult is hard. And I find it even harder being deaf. I know there’s no rule that says you have to be friends with the other parents at school but it isn’t a nice feeling to be standing on your lonesome while others chat around you. 

And as my son begins a new school this September I face the prospect of starting all over again. Meeting new people, explaining I’m deaf, asking their names – several times – and still getting it wrong. 

I found out last week I’d been calling a girl ‘Millie’ for the whole school year when her actual name is Amelia. I’d called another Mum Sara instead of Sandra and I’m still not sure what my sons teaching assistant is called… (Mrs Dutsvord, Mrs Tutsford, Mrs Tuxford?!) so I’ll have to do my research before writing the end of year thank you cards… 😉

I’ve had whistling hearing aids, moments of completely misunderstanding people, and I’ve also had days where I’ve buried my head in my phone because I was too tired for strained interactions. 

But it hasn’t been all bad. I’ve met some really lovely people who I wouldn’t have known otherwise and my confidence has definitely grown. 

Because I’m so used to being around deaf people it’s been extremely insightful and such a learning curve to find myself interacting with hearing folk every day. 

I’ve realised that despite not always feeling 100% comfortable, I can do it. I can hold conversations with others (however brief or stilted,) I can say or wave hello and more importantly I can just be who I am, lip reading stumbles and all. I don’t wanna be friends with the prejudiced bad eggs anyway. 

And that’s the attitude I’m going to need in September when I begin this journey all over again. 

Wish me luck! 

Why being resilient is so important if you’re deaf…  

I do believe that having a dis-ability of any kind means that you’re either born with or develop a set of innate skills to get you through life’s inevitable challenges. 

I’ve always said a sense of humour seems to go hand in hand with deafness. That and a whooooole lot of patience. 

But the quality that I’m thinking of that’s the most relevant here is resilience. The actual definition of it is 

“The capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.” 

Becoming aware of my own resilience is not something that I was spoken to about as a child. But the notion of having to bounce back from let downs and overcome problems became a familiar one from a young age. 

Getting through the insecurity of deafness when with hearing peers, dealing with bullies, struggling with communication and social interactions; these are all common scenarios for deaf children. 

But like they say, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger right? 

Ha. I don’t feel strong at the moment. I’ve had a stressful week and I feel far from resilient right now. All I’ve been hearing/seeing is the word NO. 

“No, your daughter can’t have support from a teacher of the deaf; no, we can’t repair your hearing aid as you need to be reassessed and NO we will not renew your access to work support.”

Give me a break. 

I know that dealing with difficulties means breaking problems down, prioritising and making a plan of action. But when you’re being told no so many times and there’s no room for negotiation, there’s only so much positivity you can muster. 

Which is why I’ve been biding my time, gathering my energy and becoming objective about the situations I’m in. Resilience isn’t all about go go go and do do do, sometimes it’s pausing and breathing so that you feel strong enough to try again. 

I’m trying again with Access to Work but I’m in limbo land at the moment. I’ve been told my renewal for support has been rejected so I’ve sent it to be reconsidered and I’m awaiting a decision on that. If it’s another no, I need to go higher and speak to my local MP perhaps about how I can be supported if access to work are not willing to help.

It’s ironic that given how hard it is for deaf people to find good work, you’d expect support to be put on place immediately without a hitch. But nope. There’s a whole bunch of rules and points and a criteria that the advisors have to meet. 

And fortunately after pestering (what feels like) a hundred people, I’ve finally secured a Teacher of the Deaf & specialist support for my daughter. Even when so called professionals told me that she “didn’t meet the criteria for support.” This will be the first battle of many, I’m sure, but I’ll be ready. 

I am tired of fighting but I refuse to give up. Activists of any type are bound to experience despair and anger but they don’t lose sight of what they’re trying to achieve. Even if it means taking a few days off from it all to regain some perspective.

That type of wise resilience; of knowing when to pause and when to pounce, is something I really hope I can pass onto my children. Because with all the challenges, closed doors and NO’s in this world, I think they’re going to need it.