Rose Ayling-Ellis has urged TV channels to “fix their problem” and subtitle 100% of shows as she called on the entertainment industry to improve access and representation for deaf individuals.
The 27-year-old actress gave an honest account of the challenges she and other deaf individuals experience in the industry while delivering the Alternative MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh TV Festival, the first deaf person to do so.
Ayling-Ellis reinforced from the beginning of her speech that being deaf is her “proudest identity” but that the responsibility of often being the first deaf person cast in a show can be a “blessing but it can also be a curse”.
In The Pentland at 12.25, we're thrilled to welcome Rose Ayling-Ellis to deliver The Alternative MacTaggart sponsored by @BBCStudios @RoseAylingEllis ' address will reflect on the stark realities of life as a Deaf person working in TV #EdTVFest pic.twitter.com/Q6EtvCFMAI
— Edinburgh TV Festival (@EdinburghTVFest) August 26, 2022
The actress, who first found fame starring as Frankie Lewis in BBC soap EastEnders and went on to become the first deaf contestant to take part in and win Strictly Come Dancing last year, spoke about how she constantly feels she must present a “happy, positive” persona, but that the reality is that she has faced “countless barriers” to get to where she is now.
“My reality isn’t always nice. It is not nice when my access is compromised,” she explained, with a British Sign Language (BSL) interpreter on stage beside her.
“It is not nice to realise my presence is a token. It is not nice when my favourite TV shows don’t have subtitles.
“It is not nice to feel frustrated and unheard.”
Ayling-Ellis reflected on a number of the challenges she has faced while working on acting projects, including being expected to teach the rest of the cast BSL and time explaining how scripts could be improved to make them more accessible and authentic to a deaf person’s experience, but that her changes are often left out of the final cut.
She said: “I’m constantly fighting to have my deaf identity represented but end up being made to feel like my voice isn’t heard – I end up feeling torn.
“Torn between representing the deaf community and telling our story but wanting to have a career with good working relationships.”
Ayling-Ellis said one element which should be a must within the creative industry is to have a consultant involved at all stages when working with deaf people as she explained: “You can’t write about deaf people without a deaf person’s input.”
Turning to how she feels subtitles need to be improved, she explained that not all channels are required to subtitle 100% of their shows and stated that media watchdog Ofcom has said that “decisions on regulations are made on the basis of affordability and audience size, and occasionally technical difficulties”.
For comparison, she asked whether viewers would accept only having sound on their TV series for 80% of the time.
Following up, she said: “So, to all channels still subtitling less than 100%, please fix your problem and to all broadcasters, please think about your audience.”
Earlier this month, Ayling-Ellis announced that she would be leaving her role as Frankie Lewis in EastEnders. When she joined in 2020, she became the first deaf actor to play a regular character on the soap.
During her Alternative MacTaggart address, she said that she was “grateful” for the job and the opportunities it had given her, but that it could be “frustrating” as she was “playing a deaf character that is either written as a hearing person, or as a deaf stereotype”.
Ayling-Ellis also revealed she has created and is currently developing a new comedy-drama series that will be bilingual, of speech and BSL, and female-focused.
“Whatever is next for me, I know one thing for sure – I am done with being the token deaf character. I believe that diverse, rich, and fascinating deaf stories are ready to go mainstream and that we can do this, together,” she said.
She added: “I don’t know if anyone is going to listen to me, or if this will be lost to the hype.
“What I do know is that disabled people shouldn’t be responsible for curing non-disabled people of their ignorance.”
In a post-speech interview, Ayling-Ellis said she was “really excited” to create comedy-drama and wants it to be a story which has “not yet been told on TV”.
She also revealed that she was creating a documentary to capture her journey and that the film crew were at the festival as she wanted to show this side of her and document her delivering the speech.
The documentary will reveal the daily challenges, discrimination and barriers faced by deaf individuals.
The soap star has been a pioneer for the deaf community, including campaigning for BSL to be recognised as an official language, which was passed in the House of Lords earlier this year.
The Alternative MacTaggart lecture offers a platform for different and diverse voices in the television industry and has previously been delivered by actress and presenter Jameela Jamil, ex-Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and American TV host Jerry Springer.