By Angie Wootten, Teaching Fellow in Education (Deafness and Hearing Impairment)
School of Education, University of Birmingham
Rose and Giovanni have stolen the nation’s collective heart each week with their exquisite dancing on BBC’s Strictly and 11 million people watched the couple lift the glitterball trophy. Beyond her amazing footwork what’s particularly intriguing and inspiring is the fact that Rose is deaf and signing. We wondered how much of a role model she has been to deaf children in the UK and what effect she has had their aspirations and dreams?
Some research suggests that deaf young people have lower self-esteem and more limited aspirations than typically hearing youngsters. Added to this, employment levels are down compared with the hearing population. The standard practitioner answer to these issues is to introduce ‘deaf role models’ to deaf children – preferably famous ones. Moving swiftly past Helen Keller and Beethoven (who you can’t exactly invite round to the school) percussionist Evelyn Glennie, rugby players Ben Cohen and Jade Ounsley, and actress Sophie Stone are just a few favourites. There are many more – and that’s important – since deafness and communication modes (speech and sign) come in a range of different shapes and sizes. No one size fits all, just as no deaf child is the same as another. What’s more, deaf children have the same range of interests, talents and dreams as a typically hearing child. To be fair, sport does pretty well by deaf role models, which is great for the deaf child who loves football or swimming. But what about the deaf child whose ‘thing’ is music and dance? And yes, there are plenty of them.
Step onto the dancefloor, Rose Ayling-Ellis…
Rose, a deaf British actress, known for playing Frankie Lewis in Eastenders, has been wowing the judges and the British public in Strictly Come Dancing this season, with her partner Giovanni Pernice. With her infectious smile, sunny personality, not to mention her phenomenal dancing ability, she has dazzled us all. Communicating in Sign and speech, with the interpreter clearly in view, she has taken us on her journey. Yes, she wears a hearing aid, yes, she can hear a little, counting and feeling her partner’s body moving help her to cue into the moves. And Rose maintains consistently in interview that it is not the deafness that causes limitations but rather barriers imposed in the perceptions of others which curb aspiration and progress. Cue a search of our collective souls.
One dance which was a particular stand out moment for viewers was her couple’s choice choreography, when, for a few moments the music stopped but Rose and Giovanni kept dancing. Those few moments gave a window into the experience for Rose as a Deaf competitor but without pity or sentimentality – just as fact.
It seems that British people have taken the message of breaking down barriers to their hearts. On one weekend alone, Sign language courses saw a 3000 fold increase in the number of people applying.
Twitter abounds with enthusiastic deaf children and young people rooting and tooting for Rose and Giovanni every Saturday night. The National Deaf Children’s Society is the best place to look for a round up, since the organisation retweets from schools and provisions around the UK. Take your pick. The films of children are inspiring. Some children have even taken to the dance floor themselves! Check out Howes Primary School in Coventry and their appearance on BBC’s Newsround.
Meanwhile, older pupils reflect on the ‘Rose Effect’ on their own aspirations. One ITV news report featured deaf young people from Heathlands School for the Deaf in St Albans commenting on the Rose effect. One pupil commented:
‘You can do anything, and you’ve shown that deaf people can do it and we want to show the world that we can do it too’.
Pupils expressed the hope that Rose’s example will help to decrease the sense of isolation that many young deaf people suffer.
Rose and Giovanni did so much more than win the trophy on Saturday night. Her involvement in this year’s show has gone far beyond breaking down barriers between deaf and hearing people – she has become a role model. Rose has challenged society, shown us excellence, raised deaf children’s aspirations, and given their parents hope for the future.