Rose Ayling-Ellis delivers a powerful Alternative MacTaggart at the Edinburgh TV Festival

The industry needs to show Rose the respect she deserves, by listening carefully, taking responsibility and making real and sustained changes.


On Wednesday evening, as I entered the Lennox Suite at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre for this year’s James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture, delivered by Emily Maitlis, I spotted Rose Ayling-Ellis in the audience.


There’s been a greater effort this year to make the Edinburgh Television Festival more accessible. All sessions had BSL interpreters and live captions and all session rooms had step-free access and wheelchair spaces. Which was pleasing to see and a real step forward.


Fast-forward to the final day of the festival, and one of the closing sessions, The Alternative MacTaggart Lecture. Delivered by deaf actress Rose Ayling-Ellis, this was in my opinion worthy of the main event that usually closes the opening day of the festival.


Delivering a necessarily honest account of her experience in the industry, Rose called on productions to do better when it comes to deaf and disabled representation. And her words simply cannot go ignored.


Sharing similar sentiment to Jack Thorne’s enlightening and arresting MacTaggart lecture in 2021, it’s clear there’s still a lot of work that the television industry needs to do in this area. This is why, when looking around the room, it was a real shame to see such a large number of empty seats. Entire rows were empty, for one of the most important sessions at the festival.


Inevitable session clashes, transport issues and final day fatigue are bound to have played their part, and as press, we did receive the transcript in advance. But there’s something about showing up and listening that I felt was incredibly important. I sincerely hope ignorance or a reluctance to change, didn’t play a part for those who chose not to attend.


"It is not frustrating being deaf. Being deaf is my proudest identity. Having a disability is not a barrier. I am disabled because I live and work in a world that disables me." she said, to huge applause from the room.


As she started her lecture, Rose explained that before every new task or job, she asks herself the same question first. “Should I speak, or should I sign?”


“Today, for this speech, I have decided to speak.” she said “I am speaking because in my experience, this is the best way to get hearing people to listen and I want the hearing people in the room to really listen to this speech. Hearing people can learn a new language, they can learn to sign. I can never learn to hear. Yet, I’m the one making 110% effort to come into your world, to adapt to you and accommodate your discomfort. Where is your effort to enter my world?”


A powerful start. And she’s right of course. Those who can hear should make more of an effort to communicate with those who can’t. Recently, Rose successfully campaigned for BSL to be recognised as an official language in the UK which should go some way in addressing the imbalance.


Describing how petrified she was about delivering the Alternative MacTaggart, Rose said "I am terrified of how honest I am going to be. I’m scared to be the deaf actress standing here telling you, the most powerful people in this industry, the ways you have made my job difficult."


"I do feel a responsibility to make this speech comfortable and nice for you to hear. But my reality isn’t always nice. It is not nice when my access is compromised. 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."


We were appalled, quite rightly, by some of the stories Jack Thorne included in his lecture in 2021. I still regularly think about his words to this day and over the last 12 months, have seen the positive impact they have had on the industry. But despite significant change, there’s still some way to go.


I truly believe that the energy given around Jack’s words and experiences should also be applied to Rose. We should be just as appalled, shocked and empowered to do something as we were then.


Rose began her lecture by describing the "constant battle" she's had to face in order to get to where she is today, "I have to break through countless barriers ... It’s been a lonely, upsetting journey, and whilst winning Strictly was an amazing experience, it shouldn’t be allowed to conceal the hardships I have been through to get here."


"To hold the responsibility of being “the first deaf person” can be a blessing, but it can also be a curse. I feel the whole weight of my community resting on my shoulders and trust me, it is heavy."


Admitting that the phone call to take part in Strictly didn’t immediately leave her feeling excited, it was a conversation with producers, in which she pointed out the many ways the programme isn’t accessible to deaf viewers which was the most revealing. And thankfully, change did happen.


Rose went on to describe Strictly Come Dancing as “the most inclusive and supportive job I have ever had, and it has had a profound and lasting impact.” Adding “They let me share MY story in MY way and look what that did, we won a BAFTA for Must-See Moment of the year and online searches of BSL courses rose by 4000%."


Speaking about her time on EastEnders, Rose acknowledged that it's a job she’s extremely grateful for, but there were challenges. She explained, "I am almost always working with scripts that are written by hearing people. It can be frustrating, playing a hearing person’s perception of what a deaf person is like."


"They were the only programme prepared to take on a regular character who was deaf, so credit where credit is due."


With filming on soaps so fast-paced, Rose revealed that she would often receive a script that wasn’t quite right. "They will write my character in a room with a big group of people arguing with each other, following everything that is being said and even repeating things back to them."


"Or they will write my character as lipreading someone from impossibly far away - like I have a superpower, which is not realistic at all! I am playing a deaf character that is either written as a hearing person, or as a deaf stereotype."


"Even though I am not paid to do the extra work on top of my job, I try to fix the problem on set and a lot of the time people are very supportive and make changes based on my advice. But the problem is, it doesn't get added to the script. So, when it comes to editing, the editor follows the original script and the changes I make are left out of the final cut."


Explaining "This isn’t a one-off, it happens to me every week. 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."


One of the suggestions Rose made was for consultants to work on productions. "I have asked countless times for a deaf consultant to be brought in to work with the writing teams, to help advise on ways to incorporate and respect deaf culture. You can’t write about deaf people without a deaf person’s input. Nothing about us, without us."


"A consultant should be involved at all stages when working with deaf people. However, due to the speed of the working style and a high turnover over of staff, the importance of consultants is often forgotten."


"Recently, I have started to see small changes at work. They have asked me to come into the writing room and share my experiences as a deaf woman to help make sure their writing is realistic. By allowing me to make changes to the script means my ideas are portrayed in the final edit."


"But it shouldn’t have taken me two years of repeating my frustrations, using up my time and energy, to get to a point where I feel able to demand that my needs are met. It is another job on top of being an actor and it’s not optional; if my deafness is badly represented, it’s me that ends up getting the blame."


"You must remember, I am the only deaf person in the whole company and the only regular deaf actor in any returning drama on British TV. My one voice amongst so many in the company means I can get drowned out and truthfully, it can be lonely."


The pressure put on Rose since winning Strictly is felt throughout her lecture, with Rose admitting that she has "heard about programmes developed with a view to exploring deaf culture, being cancelled because I decided not to be a part of them."


"This attitude of “if Rose isn’t doing it, we don’t want to do it” puts massive pressure on me. It’s normal for actors not to say yes to everything they are offered and to choose work and projects that are right for them. For me, saying no meant other deaf people lost opportunities too and it leaves me feeling guilty and conflicted."


"My appearance on Strictly should have encouraged people to seek out other deaf talent, yet how many deaf characters have we seen on TV since? It’s not enough to only elevate me, there are so many talented deaf people out there and thousands of amazing deaf stories to be told."


"It’s not enough to make me a pioneer on my own without allowing other deaf people to have a platform, and not only in front of a camera or audience, but behind the scenes too. Remember when I said it’s not nice to realise that my presence is a token?"


She went on to ask "Why are we always portrayed as the solitary deaf person in a drama or soap? I work and socialise with deaf people; many deaf people have deaf families and friends – but how often is our community authentically represented on screen? How often do we see the diversity within the deaf community, such as different uses of sign language, hearing devices or races and cultures?"


"We want you to be open to listening to our experiences and working with us to tell stories that haven’t been told before, and that means portraying the reality of our experiences and painting our rich community, language and culture as it is."


Rose also called on the industry to subtitle all programmes, "to all channels still subtitling less than 100%, please fix your problem and to all broadcasters, please think about your audience."


"Ofcom regulates subtitles in the UK, but the requirements that broadcasters follow are different. The BBC is required to subtitle 100% of their shows, but ITV and Channel 4 are only required to subtitle 90% and other channels even less at only 80%. Subtitles for on- demand, whether catch up or streaming, is not currently regulated at all. Why? What is the explanation for this?"


"Netflix claim that 80% of their members use subtitles at least once a month. There is a growing market making use of subtitles, so it makes no business sense to make your programming inaccessible – not just to deaf people – but to the wider market."


Her parting words for the industry, those in the room, those who would read the stories and those who would hopefully watch this back online, were “Please have a good, hard look at your productions and ask yourself: where is the deaf and disabled talent? If you are working with deaf and disabled people, have you asked them if they feel that they are appropriately supported?”


“Are you matching that representation off camera too, in scripting and directing? By bringing in diverse talent, particularly disabled talent, which is so often disregarded, you’re opening up a whole new world of stories, ideas, viewpoints, characters, and talent.”


“It is no brainer! YOU have that power, NOT us. I hope you walk away from this and take action; I hope that you push yourselves to be braver and have the courage to make changes; and I hope that you reach out to us and to me, because I am SO ready for you to see what I can do, and I won’t stop until you listen.”


Following the recent news that Rose has filmed her final scenes for EastEnders, she also hinted at what’s to come during her lecture, revealing that she’s developing a comedy-drama series that she describes as “totally bilingual and female-focused.”


She made it clear that she’s “done with being the token deaf character.” believing that “diverse, rich, and fascinating deaf stories are ready to go mainstream and that we can do this, together. Let’s create together, to normalise deaf and disabled people on screen. I can only dream of the day where seeing other disabled people on screen isn’t a rare sight, or where I don’t get excited at the sight of other disabled people working behind the screen.”


And earlier this week, the BBC announced at the festival Sign For Change, a new hard-hitting documentary for BBC One, presented by Rose, in which she'll reveal the daily challenges, discrimination and barriers faced by deaf individuals. Full story, here.


In a post-lecture interview with the Edinburgh Television Festival’s Advisory Chair, Afua Hirsch, Rose spoke about her concerns about the effect her lecture will have on her career going forward. Of course, I’m not in charge of what happens next in her career, but with such adoration from the British public and the industry and a much-needed project in development, I can only see a bright future for Rose.


She may feel as though the whole weight of her community is resting on her shoulders, but hopefully because of the actions Rose has taken, her strength and intelligence to call the industry out in the hope for real and sustained changes, that weight will soon start to lift.