Voices: Rose and Giovanni’s Strictly victory is a win for the Deaf community – but let’s not lose momentum now

·4-min read
‘Rose didn’t win due to her deafness, she won because she formed an incredible relationship with her dance partner, Giovanni Pernice’ (PA)
‘Rose didn’t win due to her deafness, she won because she formed an incredible relationship with her dance partner, Giovanni Pernice’ (PA)

When EastEnders actress Rose Ayling-Ellis lifted the Glitterball at the end of Saturday’s Strictly Come Dancing final and became the first Deaf woman to win the dance show, she proved that with the right support in place, Deaf people can do anything.

Rose didn’t win because of her deafness. She won because she formed an incredible working relationship with her professional dance partner, Giovanni Pernice – which saw them break down access barriers and produce beautiful dances, week after week.

It underscores an integral point made by Deaf and disabled campaigners such as myself: accessibility benefits everyone.

Since the final, my social media has been awash with videos of Deaf people celebrating what has been a brilliant mainstream focus on Deaf issues over the past couple of months. What’s equally moving are the clips of Deaf young people who now have a new Deaf role model to look up to.

I’m also reminded of friends who identify as both Deaf and LGBTQ+, who felt like it was a win-win on Saturday when the final two couples represented these marginalised communities (Rose and Giovanni were up against The Great British Bake Off winner John Whaite and his professional partner Johannes Radebe).

Strictly said it themselves: representation wins this year. How refreshing it was that said-representation was centred around love, acceptance, dance and togetherness; when both communities are often covered in the media from a perspective of oppression, otherness or “difference”.

It’s why, in all honesty, I was initially apprehensive about the news of Rose’s involvement in Strictly, but only out of fear that a Deaf actress’s appearance on a musical show could prompt the papers to regurgitate the falsehood that Deaf people can’t engage and interact with music.

They very much can. And Rose proved that in this year’s series, using the method of counting to aid movement – instead of relying on a song which Rose couldn’t hear in a full capacity.

As a brief aside, I’m a Deaf drummer and a huge lover of electronic music. While lyrics can be hard for me to distinguish in amongst towering instrumentals, it’s the melodies and rhythm which connect with me the most.

If you speak to Deaf music fans, many will tell you about the bass-heavy tracks they can feel on such a deep and personal level. Strictly should be celebrated for emphasising the universal power of music – and indeed, dance – to connect and unite, and to transcend every accessibility barrier to connect with others.

Judge Motsi Mabuse put it perfectly during the final. Rose was able to connect with herself, with Giovanni and indeed, with everyone watching. We know that because searches for British Sign Language (BSL) reportedly increased by an astronomical 488 per cent during her time on the show.

Now, as the dust – or rather, confetti – settles on another series of Strictly, it’s important that we don’t lose that momentum in the weeks or months to come. Rose has planted the seed, and her success on Strictly is a huge step forward in terms of deaf awareness. Now it’s time to keep dancing and uplifting Deaf people.

Those who searched for sign language courses should commit to learning some basic signs from Deaf tutors to help break down communication barriers.

There’s still time to contact your MP about the BSL Bill proposed by Labour’s Rosie Cooper too, which gets its second reading in the House of Commons at the end of January. The UK government only officially recognised BSL back in 2003. If passed, it will finally grant legal status to BSL as a minority language.

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It will also place further emphasis on public services providing information in sign language, and we could certainly do with that, when our prime minister is still failing to appear with a sign language interpreter in the room.

I’d strongly recommend reading up on the BSL Act Now campaign from the British Deaf Association, and taking action now while it’s not too late.

Let us keep learning about Deaf issues, let us continue to connect with others, let us fight for the rights of marginalised communities and – most importantly – keep dancing.

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