When I was just seven years old, the unthinkable happened. I was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive benign mass that was tearing its way through my eardrum: a cholesteatoma. Cholesteatoma affects just one in 100,00 – and is even rarer when it’s congenital (meaning you’re born with it, which my doctors are almost certain that I was).
When I was 7 and a half, I had my first surgery – what would be the first of many – to remove the tumour. When I woke up, my hearing was worse than it was before. The mass had caused irreparable damage. We tried many forms of treatment, including further surgeries, before I was referred to the audiology department, where I was fitted with my first-ever hearing aid.
Going deaf at a young age, when everyone in your family – and pretty much everyone you have ever known– are hearing is so hard. There is no one to look up to, no one to see that is also deaf that would show me that, while it would take a little while to come to terms with my deafness, I would be okay. That there was an amazing community and there was beauty within being deaf.
Of course, there was some media representation, though not a lot, and most of it was poorly done, ill-thought-out, and – in some cases – problematic.
The first that comes to mind is an American TV show called Switched at Birth – all of the Deaf/ Hard of Hearing (HoH) characters being played by actors that were also Deaf/HoH (which, of course, should be the standard, but very often isn’t the case) and showing that life doesn’t end, or even change all that much when you’re deaf and you have a hearing family.
More recently, in terms of positive representation, there is Marvel’s Eternals, in which there is a deaf superhero, Makkari. She is strong, powerful, and her deafness ties in with her superpowers, which was pretty darn awesome to see.
Bad representation includes movies such as The Extraordinary Playlist of Noise and Hush.
And there are some that teeter in between. Sound of Metal, while the movie was a great movie, admittedly, and there were some deaf cast members, the main character being played by a hearing actor (Riz Ahmed) did knock a couple of points off.
There’s representation in British soaps too, more namely Casualty (a deaf nurse – who has now left the show) and Eastenders (starting with Ben, and of course, Rose Ayling-Ellis’ own character, Frankie).
After my surgery, I was also diagnosed with multiple different chronic illnesses, which meant dancing was hard for me. So, this year when the line-up for Strictly was announced, and I saw Rose Ayling-Ellis on the cast, I was excited.
I was still desperate to dance and I tried to do lessons here and there. It didn’t feel the same. It went further than my chronic illness; it was just too difficult. My hearing wasn’t up to par, I couldn’t follow the beats as easily, and I fell behind in dance classes, so I quit. I closed that chapter in my life forever, and I miss it every single day.
In all honesty, I was hoping that watching Rose do well on the show would help me in more ways than one. I hoped that it would inspire me to get better at dealing with my deafness and that it would rekindle my dancing. All while showing me that, even though I am deaf it doesn’t mean I won’t ever dance again.
It’s very much safe to say Rose did that.
After seeing the announcement of her joining Strictly, I followed Rose on social media, and read a little bit about who she is. I saw her tweets and interviews with her where she spoke about how proud she was of her deafness, of the community that she’s a part of, and it touched me so deeply.
It made me feel empowered, almost.
From the moment she danced that very first week, I felt…I can’t explain it. No words seem to be able to express it enough, but I felt seen. Inspired. Enlightened. It was such a beautiful experience, to see these two sides of myself – my deafness and my ex-dancing self – represented through Rose. It was something that I never expected to see.
One of the things that I’ve learned while watching her on Strictly Come Dancing is that it’s almost impossible to watch Rose and not smile – not just her dancing but when she talks – be it on the show, in interviews, or anywhere else. She has such a warm, bubbly, and inviting energy that is so rare nowadays.
It’s so refreshing and makes her all the more wonderful to watch and support week after week.
Through the last ten weeks of Strictly being on air, I have moved forward so much in terms of acceptance and feeling more okay with my deafness. I have felt so much more comfortable with my level of hearing, with wearing my hearing aids.
Something Rose speaks about frequently on the show is the use of her own hearing aids; how it helps her, making me feel so much more comfortable with using my own.
I had always shied away because I didn’t want to look ‘too deaf’, but now I don’t feel that way.
That is because of Rose Ayling-Ellis.
Every single week, Rose gives the most incredible performance, and I am always blown away. She has shown me that just because I am deaf, doesn’t mean I need to say goodbye to performing. That it is possible to do these things while deaf. Not in spite of or despite my deafness, but while embracing it, being proud of it.
It is so rare to see deafness represented in a powerful way, but seeing Rose be so proud of her deafness and her community, makes me feel the same way.
It makes me feel like my deafness could be my own little superpower, a thought process I’ve never had before. She has completely changed my outlook on my own deafness and helped me to come to terms with it more than I ever thought was possible, in such a short space of time, too.
Though I may not be all the way there with accepting my deafness, because of Rose’s wonderful personality and advocacy for the deaf community – for her community – I am definitely one hell of a lot closer.
I owe her so much for that.