Blog: Deaf survivors and domestic abuse

Originally published on the Women’s Aid website on 7th December 2015. Part of their 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence campaign. Blog link here

At the national Women’s Aid conference this year, I was amazed to find I was the only Deaf survivor there. Despite a full house, there was no evidence of British Sign Language (BSL) users in attendance. I asked who in the room supported Deaf survivors – and shockingly, was met with silence.

Deaf women are twice as likely as their hearing peers to suffer domestic abuse. Around 22 Deaf women are at risk of abuse every day. Ironically, a key role in this is played by BSL, their preferred language – as every word and expression could be a potential trigger.

The history of BSL is itself laden with centuries of oppression of Deaf people. That it has survived, and continues to evolve as a living language (and has only now acquired formal legislation in Scotland) is testimony to the resolve of Deaf people themselves. After all, it’s their main form of communication – so they will bloody well use it, whatever the circumstances.

One in six of us are deaf or hard-of-hearing, and only around a third of us are part of a Deaf Community. Two-thirds of deaf or hard-of-hearing people don’t hang out with other deaf or hard-of-hearing people – they might wear hearing aids and lip read but they don’t sign, and they may prefer to integrate with hearing people. Many of those people become deaf through old age and are often isolated from other deaf people.

Moreover, if your perpetrator is active within the Deaf Community, they’ll know how to exploit your communication skills. This inhibits you from reaching out to even your closest Deaf friends – never mind your family (many of whom lack signing skills).

But the experience of domestic abuse for Deaf women is the same as hearing women. We are seduced by our perpetrator’s apparent sincerity, their psychological control – grooming us for abuse. By the time the violence turns physical, we’re emotionally and mentally paralysed, unable to articulate ourselves properly to those close to us.

Your trust, self-esteem and well-being thus broken, your signing breaks up too. You daren’t explain the smallest detail of your abuse to anyone, for fear word reaches your perpetrator (gossip spreads fast in the Deaf Community). With so many eyes on you, clear-headed objectivity feels impossible.

You cannot hide your emotions behind sign language quite like you can with the written word. Deaf people are well-known for bluntness, which doesn’t sit well with a democracy where justice must prevail, and people are innocent until proven guilty.

How best to address this issue? I was lucky enough to be able to access DeafHope, the UK’s first anti-domestic abuse service for Deaf survivors – but sadly, few will be in their London catchment area. The only advice I could give that day at the Women’s Aid conference was placing BSL clips on their websites (see example).

To that, I’d add Deaf awareness training and a few BSL classes. The more we can work together on the issue, the more chances will improve of Deaf survivors ‘speaking out’ like I did.

Scriptwriting with Deafinitely Theatre, Act II Scene I: From The Heart

Originally published in Disability Arts Online, 7 February 2014
Rain might have crashed down persistently, but it did not dampen that fun January morning in Starbucks a jot. Deafinitely Theatre’s Artistic Director Paula Garfield was in need of the office at London’s Diorama Arts Studios (which we’d previously used as our workshop space) so Andrew decided to treat us to coffee before getting back to – well, I’d call it dissecting our brains really, so hard did he work at stretching our imaginations.

‘Without looking, how many people do you think are in this cafe?’ he challenged us, and then it was, ‘Give us ten things about this place in two minutes.’ He seemed to work in ever-deepening layers, zooming into points of interest such as the two women chatting in the corner adjacent to ours, and getting us to create an imaginary character profile for each. From there he’d throw at us a situation with which to start the play, a second scene, additional characters and so on, encouraging us to develop our characters further.

For my character – a 32-year-old self-centred, career-minded woman with South American roots called Juanita, who drove a 4-wheel-drive, rented a flat in London’s Richmond, was not in a relationship and had no interest in children – Andrew decided that she had suddenly found herself pregnant after a one-night stand.

What would the play open with? What would she be doing? Where would she be? What would she be wearing, and why? From then on, the doors of my imagination just flew open, and I wrote so fast in my notebook the words were illegible.

And so it went on like that until each of three participants (one was unable to attend) had a lead character, a first and second scene – the latter which involved a dialogue with another character – and an ending, and they all drew inspiration from complete strangers in the cafe who had absolutely nothing to do with us. These were just exercises, not actual work on our monologues. No wonder we returned to Diorama Arts Studios with heads spinning.

A more physical, but no less intensive, challenge presented itself to us in the afternoon, when we presented our second draft monologues as a performance – and this is where I found myself most conflicted.

You see, I have a duality to my identity: my first language is English, because that’s what I was first exposed to (I was born hearing, although I am pre-lingually deaf), I come from a family of writers and artists, and I grew up in the ’70s when sign language was heavily oppressed. Yet my Deaf identity still managed to manifest itself in a variety of ways: through attending a partially hearing unit and then an oral deaf school (where I surreptitiously learnt the finger-spelling alphabet in a loo cubicle), being regularly cut off at the (hearing) family dinner-table, being oblivious to the jazz my mother often played on the radio, and finally finding myself more comfortable living, working and socialising with Deaf people.

As a result I have plenty of BSL skills that I’ve picked up over the years, but they are rather mangled. Although I adapt according to the company I’m in, my tendency is to speak and sign, with my spoken English emerging as the stronger denominator. Interestingly, when I’m speaking in public, I’m inclined to lean on my BSL more. I find that I can project my ‘voice’ (note the colloquial marks) much more effectively that way.

At least during my BSL gallery talks, I can, and do, rely on a little finger-spelling here and there for certain places and names. There is plenty of scope for ad-libbing too.

But performing straight from an English theatrical script? That is something else. My own writing, like Sannah’s (see earlier post) is steeped in the English language, in accordance with the mainstream MA studies I have undertaken – I am to date the only Deaf person to have completed and passed a Master of Arts postgraduate degree in Fashion Journalism and Promotion at Central Saint Martins. So in linguistic terms, my writing is very, very separate from how I express myself verbally – not just informally, but as a whole.

So when I delivered my monologue, there were whole chunks – words, phrases – that I simply found it impossible to translate to BSL terms. I either finger-spelt those words or their first letters, mouthed them, or waved about vaguely. I lost the drama of my own written words in my delivery. Even though BSL is not his first language either, I could see that Andrew was picking up on this.

‘This is beautiful poetry,’ he said afterwards. ‘Says a lot here’ – he brushed his hand over my script – ‘but it must come from the heart. If it doesn’t mean anything verbally, why say it?’ But that was exactly my trouble. Where did my heart lie – with BSL, or English? Would I be demeaning my personal written English values if I tweaked the script so to be more BSL-friendly?

Part of my dilemma came from the knowledge that once the showcase was over, Deafinitely Theatre would be uploading all our monologues onto a specific web server as a way of maximising work opportunities with mainstream theatre companies. After all, theatre directors had their own very busy schedules to keep and could not guarantee attendance of the showcase.

Nevertheless, the showcase was being presented to a mixed Deaf and hearing audience. Our monologues had to be accessible in some way. Of course, our scripts would be projected on a screen behind us, so we could deliver them in whichever way felt most comfortable to us. Sannah was getting an actor to perform hers, while the second participant, Lianne, being a BSL learner, was more inclined to deliver her monologue orally (probably with a BSL interpreter present on the night).

So the dilemma I have just described was mine alone. I could understand perfectly why Andrew had asked us to perform our monologues ourselves. But I was torn not just because of the inherent challenges in translating English to BSL without losing dramatic emphasis – but also because the writing was mine, and I am not an actor.

Scriptwriting with Deafinitely Theatre, Act I Scene II: Drafting

Deafinitely Theatre HUB participants. Left to right: Nadia Nadarajah, Sannah Gulamani, Donna Mullings, David Sands, Sandra Williams, Paula Garfield, Matty Gurney, Donna Williams

Originally published on Disability Arts Online, 4 February 2014

Even though it’s a work-in-progress, Stephen Collins’ delivery of his monologue is nevertheless mesmerising. He’s picked a childhood story retold by the character Baby in Jez Butterworth’s Mojo for Deafinitely Theatre’s forthcoming HUB showcase in late February, and Andrew has asked him and Donna Mullings – who has selected a monologue from Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard – to demonstrate to us writers how they would translate English scripts into BSL.

In both cases, I can see how pace, tone, rhythm, and context can shift in the transition. It’s not just that certain words, sometimes entire phrases, have to be abandoned in order to convey the message in BSL more effectively; the actor also has to consider a change of emphasis so to balance out the delivery appropriately and in accordance with the prevailing mood.

It’s not a premise I’m completely unfamiliar with, of course, having delivered BSL gallery talks that contained art theories steeped in spoken-language culture. The difference with theatrical monologues, of course, is that they are essentially the character’s inner thoughts, and therefore tend to spring from an English-literary mind.

It’s something I have given much consideration to since Day 2 of the HUB scriptwriting programme, when we began sharing our first draft monologues with each other. I can’t speak for the other three, but I was certainly nervous about showing mine (yes, I know – a first draft). Feedback was thankfully good, with Andrew calling it ‘poetic’, and a nice discussion around how I could maintain the ambiguity of my drowning theme to the end.

One of the draft monologues – written by fellow HUB writer Sannah Gulamani – was very interesting. At this stage I’m not at liberty to say what it was about, but I know most people who saw it would concur that it was stunningly written and read like a book, rather than a piece of theatre. Its descriptions were certainly evocative but, funnily enough, the pictures they conjured up in my mind were those of an English speaker, not a BSL user.

In fact I got the overwhelming sense that this was the beginning of the play, rather than the middle of it; the setting of the scene, if you like. So a lively brainstorming chat ensued where we all threw in a variety of ideas as to how Sannah could further dramatize her monologue; a Shakespearean singing narrator, getting another family member to deliver the monologue (it was set earlier on in the 20th century), swapping around bits here and there…

This particular workshop actually took place over two days, so that two of us (there are four of us altogether) got to show our monologues on each day. This naturally incurred a substantial amount of thinking that generated its own motivation for the next scriptwriting workshop – our third – which took place a fortnight later.

Scriptwriting with Deafinitely Theatre, Act I Scene I: Truth

Originally published on Disability Arts Online, 28th December 2013

I’m eight. I’m dreaming. I’m floating – I think I’m on top of the world. I change position, as if there is infinite space and nothingness around me, then I feel my head hitting a partition of some sort. It takes me by surprise, so much so that I stick out an arm to push it out of the way. I want there to still be nothingness.
Before I know it, I’m falling; I’m not dreaming that I am falling. The cool night air whooshing past my face tells me that I’ve woken up, but it’s too dark for me to see anything. I panic because I haven’t my hearing aids in and I can’t hear anything.
Again before I’ve composed myself, my nose hits something abrasive, like a Brillo pad, then the rest of my body follows. I taste blood in my mouth. I realise that I’ve hit the floor of a holiday caravan from the top bunk bed in the dark – but only because my mother switches on the light.

Silence. There are four faces staring at me slack-jawed. I worry that the extract from my childhood I’ve just described may be the worst thing I’ve ever written.
‘Wow,’ Deafinitely Theatre’s Andrew Muir finally says, and with that my paranoia subsides. I’m participating in the company’s first HUB scriptwriting workshop – part of a three-year initiative to nurture the skills of Deaf actors, writers and directors – and the description of a childhood memory is just one of the exercises we’ve been participating in. It’s going brilliantly, and I’m learning a lot about my fellow participants. We have four writers on board this year, and my understanding is that Deafinitely plans to bring in more for 2014.
For some time now I have been wanting to create a play. I already have an idea for one – but it’s probably too grand a vision to achieve on a shoestring at this tentative stage.
But when Andrew talks about writing ‘truth’ in the workshop, I know exactly what he means. In order to write a play that an audience can relate to, you need life experience. You can’t write in a vacuum. There has to be authenticity. Imagination is all very well – and believe you me, I have lots – but if you haven’t lived, what wisdom and knowledge can you draw inspiration from?
The key is to be aware of what you are experiencing, and its potential ramifications for not just you, but other people in your life. It could be something quite boring – like waking up to a sloping, plain white ceiling at home, like I did on the morning of the workshop – that you could spin interesting connotations off at a tangent.
Why is my ceiling white? Why does it slope? From this I can tell you that I live on a hill, on the fringe of the local woods overlooking a view of provincial rooftops and that my house has subsistence, but it’s never been as bad as my landlord has made out, even though they tried to use it as an excuse to put me off bidding for it (I am a social tenant) but I persevered, and that prior to my moving in 10 months later my landlord offered me a choice of colour scheme and I asked for all the walls to be painted white instead of the obligatory magnolia and that is why the ceiling I’m looking at within seconds of waking up is the colour it is.
There you have it: a background that will help shape your story and its accompanying characters. This is the kind of ‘truth’ that I think Andrew wants us to write.
But this workshop is just the beginning. Andrew isn’t keen for the four of us to create a play – at least, not yet. While there were certainly some brilliant set-pieces over the years, the trouble with Deafinitely’s 4Play scheme was how it made out to be about THE PLAY, with directors and actors and sets and props and lighting and costumes and so on when it should have focused instead on nurturing writers’ skills and confidence over time.
So, instead of a play, we are to write a character monologue as a work-in-progress. The HUB actors will have a separate workshop programme of their own to commit to (a couple of which I have already participated in by way of introduction to theatrical practice, and my, how enlightening those were too).
In lieu of what the writers are being asked to do, the turnaround will be short: some drafting of our monologues in January, followed by a collaboration with a Deaf actor where necessary, rehearsals, and then a performance in front of an invited audience made up of theatre professionals, family and friends in late February. Then when more writers join the HUB, we work on something bigger; the following year, it gets even bigger, and so forth.
As this is a work-in-progress, collaborations with actors in the development of our character monologues are not strictly necessary. Some of us are going to perform our own pieces as part of our professional development. I certainly am.
As I said earlier, I already have an idea for a drama, but it’s just too grand a vision to realise on a shoestring. What I can do – and this is what Andrew himself advises – is pick one of the characters that I want to people my play, and write a monologue for him or her (I haven’t decided which). Naturally it would be premature for me to tell you what it’s about – even though the theme of drowning will be relevant – but I can say, with my characteristic mix of excitement, confidence and resolution I suppose, that there will be ‘truth’.

‘A doubly emotionally-charged performance’: review of Deafinitely Theatre’s production of TWO

Originally published on Disability Arts Online, 18th December 2013


To be two-faced is human nature. To laugh, to cry; to show a public face, and hide a private side; to have in all our lives aspects of comedy and tragedy to varying degrees.

I suspect that this is the key to Jim Cartwright’s formulation of his play, TWO, as a two-hander. There are 14 characters in total – a pub landlord and landlady with a tragic secret, about to close their pub after many years of trade; a young boy looking for his dad; a mistress confronting her married lover; an ageing widower inclined to navel-gazing through the bottom of a glass; an older woman getting the shopping in; and a variety of couples, including one in an abusive relationship and another with a shared childlike enthusiasm for Elvis and B-movie extras – and they are all played by just two actors.

This conveys the message that human emotion is universal, even though the circumstances that give rise to it may not be the kind that you personally identify with. That all the characters meet in a pub over the course of a day is appropriate; it is, after all, the kind of place where you eventually reveal more of yourself to others than you’d like over a pint.

It is for good reason, then, that the number two – and the related terms ‘double’, ‘dual’ and ‘twice’ – weigh heavily in this piece.

Two-hander aside, the drama is in two parts, with a two-hour duration. Sometimes the actors double up, sometimes they don’t, and rather disconcertingly, weave in and out of a two-way discourse with us – the audience – and each other, thus giving us the unusual privilege of being both participant and spectator. It’s an ingenuous way of getting us all emotionally involved, which is what good theatre should be about.

For their own production of TWO – which ended its run at Southwark Playhouse last November – Deafinitely Theatre’s take was to double the number of actors to four: two speaking, two using BSL, and to have both couples almost mirror each other in the shifting role-play.

I said ‘almost’. Each of the four actors brought to TWO an individual style and delivery all of their own – which was a blessing, for it enabled them to focus on fleshing out each of the characters assigned to them, thus producing a true feast for the eyes. Ultimately, rather than two sets of stilted performers more concerned with synchronising each other’s movements, we got a doubly emotionally-charged performance where in the end, the only timing that mattered was the delivery of their lines.

RADA-trained Sophie Stone gave a classy speaking turn, while her BSL-using counterpart Paula Garfield was grittier, more raw in her portrayal. Meanwhile with his terrier-like verbal and physical energy, Jim Fish was a wonderful foil to Matthew Gurney’s looming big-man presence.

That said, the involvement of two languages reinforced the challenge of presenting the play in an accessible way without diluting the emotions being conveyed.

Speaker and signer were built into the production as equals. Nevertheless I sensed a temptation by the BSL users to jump into action once the speakers opened their mouths, which could have affected the calibre of their performances – but crucially, didn’t. As a bilingual Deaf CI user with public-speaking experience, I can ascertain that this took enormous skill on the part of the BSL actors, knowing how much easier it is to sign at your own pace when giving a presentation and let the interpreter follow you with his or her voice-over, rather than vice versa.

In one scene, Lesley (played simultaneously by Stone and Garfield) is confronted about her supposed infidelity by Roy (Fish and Gurney). The speakers sat to the left of the stage, the BSL users to the right, the two women sitting back-to-back on a shared stool, faces turned away towards their partners.

You could sense the simmering undercurrent of brutality as Roy manipulated Lesley every time she tried to react to his accusations, ensuring she was never able to get her plea of innocence across. The sight of two men simultaneously, psychologically abusing their female partners on stage certainly had twice the grip-the-edge-of-our-seats factor, and the tears I saw rolling down Garfield’s cheeks, while Gurney jabbed a finger within close spitting distance of her, were scarily real.

Many other moments in the play are vividly etched on my brain. The sight of Fish as a frightened eight-year-old boy – cute R2-D2 backpack enticing us to laugh – crying for his dad, while Garfield’s landlady struggled to communicate orally with him; Stone’s mistress, elegantly dressed in pussycat frills and spike heels, expressing her frustrated jealousy to her invisible paramour; the final, heart-wrenching scene between the pub landlord and landlady that once and for all prised out the tragic secret that blighted their marriage: the unacknowledged early death of a child.

Combine all those moments, throw bilingualism into the mix – and you get a production that positively explodes with duality, reminding you again and again that what you see in public is never the whole story.

What A Little Girl Taught Me About Humanity

Disability has much to teach us about humanity – much more than science or religion ever could, because of the way it tests our character. As the disability rights campaigner, model and athlete Aimee Mullins points out, Darwin has been misquoted. He actually says it is not the fittest, or the strongest, or the cleverest – but the most adaptable -that survives.

Certainly, that is what a little girl called Isobel – my first child – has taught me, and she’s only three-and-a-half.

To read more of this article, visit The Huffington Post.

Published on 2nd November 2012


The David Bowie Legacy

This edited version originally appeared in The Huffington Post on 13th October 2012.

By the first day of autumn, 2012 was already a big year for David Bowie.

First there was the unveiling of a plaque commemorating his iconic alter ego, Ziggy Stardust, on London’s Heddon Street, heralding the 40th anniversary reissue of his concept album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, last June.

There was the obligatory BBC4 documentary that summer, and a book written by GQ editor Dylan Jones. Then early last month, V&A announced a major new retrospective opening next year, with over 300 objects on loan from his personal archives.

Now, the latest event to commemorate rock’s best-known chameleon is Strange Fascination?, a three-day symposium taking place at Limerick University in a fortnight’s time, where not just Ziggy but also Scarecrow Jack, Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke and many other stage personae will undoubtedly be dissected many times over.

Such renewed interest in a former rock deity – who figuratively and effectively tumbled to earth with a thud following emergency heart surgery in 2004 and his last album, ironically called Reality – may bemuse some people today. What relevance does a man with silly red-sun glitter, who frankly did too much white-gloved mime, have to present-day youth?

Most of the reminiscences have been made by men in their fifties who witnessed Ziggy Stardust’s explosive debut on Top of the Pops as teenagers in 1972 – hardly the best candidates to get the kids on their side. I have had no such privilege. I was two back then; how could I? Having studied Bowie’s work as part of a BA fashion thesis in the Nineties, however, I can understand why Lady Gaga would find it so immersive.

The fiftysomething boffins may well say that Ziggy was 10 years in the making, the product of many phases of creative experimentation that didn’t quite catch the zeitgeist: Space Oddity, dressing like a girl for The Man Who Sold The World, the theatrical collaborations with Lindsay Kemp, the Anthony Newley influences.

Some, like Gary Kemp of Spandau Ballet or Jones himself, may talk about the liberation they felt at the sight of Bowie nonchalantly throwing his arm round guitarist Mick Ronson on Top of the Pops that day. Some may remind us that Vince Taylor was a major inspiration for the alien-cum-sci-fi-messiah concept.

But there is still the one crucial factor that finally made Ziggy twinkle as inspiration for future models, retail queens and fashion designers: an immaculate sense of style and presentation.

Serious music journalists may hate me for saying this, but all those years of experimentation had given Bowie a perpetual love of the bizarre. He became so enthusiastic about mime and performance that he began to see being a rock-star as a form of acting too. Attitude thus established, he got to work on the package, recruiting Freddie Burretti to design the costumes.

And it really was the whole package. Ultimately the singer was too shy to be himself on stage. He needed to hide behind a façade so out-of-this-world that he could, paradoxically, sing and play music with confidence.

Thus Bowie carried off the paprika-red mullet and some extraordinary costumes with enormous panache because he relished pretending to be someone so detached from reality. (Of course, having the build, poise, neck and cheekbones of a supermodel helped, but that wasn’t the whole point.)

Watching archive film footage of him back then, you can’t fail to notice how contemporary Bowie looks, despite (or because of?) the weirdness. He seems so comfortable with himself that his look transcends time. In contrast, rock contemporaries like Roy Wood of Wizzard and Marc Bolan appear old-fashioned. As a matter-of-fact, it is all-consuming image changes like this that has left Bowie open to accusations of shallow pretensions.

But he wasn’t just pretending. He immersed himself in the Ziggy character, living with him day-in, day-out – indicating an artistic integrity that ran far deeper than his stylistic pretenders could ever manage. As Caspar Llewellyn Smith of The Observer puts it:

Yes, image was crucial to Bowie, but it wasn’t just his look that mattered; through the invention of multiple, subsequent personalities, he invited a different perspective on his art – his music. Perhaps put it this way: Lady Gaga can change outfits umpteen times in the course of a show, but the pop she produces, for all its slick attraction, bears little relation to any sense of an evolving identity.

Eventually, as Bowie admitted to Arena journalist Tony Parsons in 1993, he’d ‘created a doppelgänger’ so seductive that he feared for his own sanity, and had to ‘retire’ Ziggy a year later.

But the damage had already been done. Ziggy Stardust had become a classic template for all-out alienation, spawning glam rock, goth, punk, New Wave, New Romantic and electro-pop. The combination of sexual nonchalance, androgyny, sci-fi fantasy, swagger and flair he exemplified felt so dangerously real that at once ’70s youth lost its inhibitions – and pop culture found itself with a seismic crack that it is still recovering from.

‘Oh no/Not me,’ David Bowie has sung numerous times. ‘I never lost control/You’re face to face with the man who sold the world.’ After 40 years, you’d better believe it.