By Vicki Kirwin, Audiology Adviser at the National Deaf Children’s Society
Five children will be born deaf today. Five more will enter the world able to hear perfectly, but be deaf by early adulthood. The same will happen tomorrow.
Along with all those who develop hearing loss in later adulthood, there are 12 million people across the UK who are deaf or live with a hearing loss. For one in six people, it’s a part of everyday life.
Despite the numbers though, seeing deafness depicted on television is quite rare. That’s why when EastEnders approached us at the National Deaf Children’s Society for help on their new storyline about hearing loss, we were delighted to accept.
Viewers will already have seen Ben Mitchell (played by Max Bowden), who went deaf in one ear during childhood, lose the hearing in his other ear after a dramatic boat crash. They’ll also have seen Frankie, a new deaf character, appear over the last week and she’ll go on to befriend Ben, showing him that deafness shouldn’t stop him living his life.
When EastEnders brought us in, our priorities were to try and make sure that deafness was reflected in an accurate and respectful way. As childhood deafness is quite uncommon, it’s perhaps unsurprising that there are quite a few myths surrounding it.
Did you know, for instance, that only around one in ten deaf children use sign language? Were you aware that rather than being unable to hear anything, most deaf children have some access to sound? Or that the vast majority don’t go to a deaf school, but instead attend their local school with hearing children, usually as the only deaf pupil?
Deaf children often grow up with very little access to people who have first-hand experience of what they’re going through, so it’s really important to see deafness represented on mainstream TV. We need deaf characters to inspire the younger generations and to show the public what it’s like to be deaf.
There’s no reason that deafness needs to hold someone back in their life, but there are barriers to growing up in a hearing world, and it can be difficult to adapt to deafness when you once could hear.
Ben is a great example of how this can happen to anyone, at any time, and as we’ve seen already, he’s struggling. We’ll watch on as he tries to cope with the challenges of communicating with his friends and loved ones.
It’s a struggle that many deaf children and young people will be able to relate to, and it reflects the difficulties they encounter every day. For those that have lost their hearing suddenly, they will see they’re not alone in finding the psychological impact challenging as they adapt to their new world.
Yet whilst we clearly need more deaf characters, it’s crucial to make sure they’re always portrayed accurately. EastEnders took this very seriously and they asked us to advise directly on set. We explained how his hospital appointments would work and discussed with cast members how Ben’s deafness and tinnitus would impact him.
We also gave advice on technical aspects of the storyline, like the types of hearing technology he could benefit from and how hearing tests would work. We also explained what Ben could be expected to hear (and not hear) before and after, which will be critical for the ground-breaking upcoming episode shot with sound that viewers will hear from Ben’s perspective.
We also put the script writers and Max Bowden (who plays Ben) in contact with a deaf young person to hear first-hand what it’s like.
The work is now done and as the storyline moves into full swing, we’re delighted to say the initial reaction has been really positive. Deaf young people can see a character reflecting their experiences on one of TV’s most popular shows. There’s media coverage everywhere. People are talking about, and perhaps more importantly, starting to understand a bit about what it’s like to be deaf. This will be welcome for all deaf people, whatever their age and wherever they are on their journey.
Yet amid this positivity, there are families right now who are still coming to terms with their child being deaf and what that might mean. There are many deaf children and young people experiencing the loneliness and isolation that deafness can bring, heightened during coronavirus. There are others who have fallen behind at school because they haven’t had the right support, or have been told they shouldn’t aim for their dream job just because they’re deaf.
So as you’re watching EastEnders and getting a glimpse into the life of a deaf person, remember that you can help too. You can include a deaf person in your conversations, be patient if they can’t hear you and repeat yourself when they need it. You can speak clearly, not accidentally cover your mouth, write things down when they need it and use gestures as you speak. You can also offer some friendly understanding and ask them what their communication needs are.
It might not sound like much, but it really will make a big difference to a deaf person. A little deaf awareness always goes a long way.
If any parents, deaf children or deaf young people need support, they can contact us via our Helpline on 0808 800 8880 (voice and text), on InterpreterNow (interpreternow.co.uk/ndcs), by email firstname.lastname@example.org or through our online chat at www.ndcs.org.uk/livechat.