As part of Deaf awareness week (14th - 20th of May) we were lucky enough to have Genevieve Barr come in and talk to our Year 7 and 8 students. Genevieve is a deaf actress who you may know from the BBC One program the Silence. Having a successful deaf actress come in and talk to our students was really inspiring and offered a completely fresh insight into her life which the students found really compelling.
After the presentations we were lucky enough to sit down with Genevieve and gather a real insight into her life and how she has overcome so many challenges.
Q. Being deaf clearly hasn’t held you back in your career, what sort of challenges did you face when you were at school?
A. Sitting at the front all the time was definitely a challenge. Since I have to look at the teacher in order to lipread, it meant that every time the teacher caught me looking at anything else, they assumed I wasn't listening and I would get into trouble. So you become very good at concentrating and being disciplined at making yourself focus and work.
I played a lot of sport at school and shouting out for the ball doesn't generally work with me (I would have ignored you) so we had all of these fun hand signals that left the other team mystified. Most of the hand signals didn't actually mean anything but it would distract them enough for one of us to sneak in and score!
One particular challenge I did face (that only got harder as I grew older) was keeping up with conversations amongst friends. If you imagine watching a game of tennis at Wimbledon - and your head moving from one player to the other, that's exactly what it's like for someone who can't hear as well - they have to watch the conversation as well as listen. It can get very tiring and you have to become very good at predicting who is going to speak next (you know which of your friends are the chatterboxes). But also - people tend to talk on top of each other especially when they are excited. When you are shy or less confident, preventing this can be really difficult - but the only thing you can do really is to assert yourself in the conversation - (some deaf people want to be quiet and sit in the corner). But if you put yourself confidently in there and take part in the conversation (even if you're faking it), people will naturally adapt to engage with you. Be the king or queen of confidence, once or twice, and you will be rewarded when people automatically make sure you're a part of the conversation. (Habits are formed by repetition).
Q. In your presentation to our students, you emphasised the importance of embracing difference and being proud to be unique. Having overcome a disability yourself, what would you say are the advantages of being different that perhaps you might not have experienced otherwise?
A. When you are looking at competition - whether that be for jobs, for sports teams or university offers - you want to be different. By the time you turn 17 you will be begging to stand out - because that's how employers, coaches, academic staff will remember you. (It's about being different in a good way). When people are picking out candidates from hundreds/thousands of boys and girls the same age, same background, same subjects at school, same interests (football or fashion), they will struggle to pay attention. You want to stand out from the crowd.
Yes - disability can be difficult and what you read in the media might suggest that you are at a disadvantage being different in this way. That's not been my experience - it's about how you respond to having a disability/being different - how do you turn that difference into a positive? And how do you communicate that to others when you are being interviewed? If you have any kind of disability, like I do, you will have worked harder, fought more battles, had to find different ways of doing things. That's a good thing! Think about how well that equips you for later in life - you're already experienced in the art of fighting for what you want - you're LEVELS ahead of others in the game of life.
Lastly, I would say - I haven't "overcome a disability" - I'm still overcoming it, I'm still learning, I have bad days; there are still battles to be fought and won. But that's ok. Bring it on.
Q) Why is it important that we see a wide range of role models represented in high profile roles?
A) If we look at our society - it is made up of people of different ages, genders, skin colours, ethnic backgrounds, appearances, interests. When you look at people in high profile roles - too often we see male, white, privately educated, wealthy. We need role models to inspire all of us. But also we need them to understand and appreciate the power of diversity in our society - so they can better represent us.
The same goes for what we see on television and film. This is a very exciting space at the moment where women are standing up for better representation, Black Panther exploded with impact on our screens. We want lots of different stories to be told and when the stories are being made by the same people (male, white, privately educated, wealthy), the stories become monotonous (the same) and it's boring.
Q) How has the education system changed since you were a child in terms of how hearing impaired students are supported?
A) There is so much more support - we didn't have SEN teachers, or teacher assistants. If you wanted that - you had to go to a school for the deaf or for people with special educational needs. Or you had to pay for it yourself. When I was at school, dyslexia for example was only just being diagnosed - it wasn't something that teachers were that aware of. We got given extra time in exams but not adapted reading materials.
Technology is different too now - it makes me feel dreadfully old saying this (I finished school 14 years ago) - but only a few had mobile phones, most people had pagers. Computers were enormous and I.T was typing lessons - we didn't learn about how to use the internet. We didn't have social media. We had blackboards - whiteboards were fairly modern. We didn't have loop systems for deaf students and there were no subtitles on videos - I spent a lot of time trying not to fall asleep during films whilst the other students were delighted not to have to work.
Q) What words of wisdom would you like to share with deaf and hearing impaired students?
A) This might not necessarily be the most comforting, but you are your own worst enemy. Don't let other people make you feel bad about yourself, don't lose spirit or hope during your struggle to keep up with everyone. Be strong in yourself and never give up. It is your choice - you can decide not to let yourself feel sorry or bad about yourself. If you pity yourself, you're letting others win. And you need to be strong in yourself - it's your life and your choice how you live it.
Q) How can students be more deaf aware when with their deaf friends? What advice can you give?
A)Even when they don't ask - look at people when you're talking to them (deaf or hearing). Care about what you say - mumbling, speaking low or covering your mouth are the signs of someone who saying something boring. Never grow a moustache!
But then - be careful about doing the reverse. Speaking loudly and over-enunciating your words can be very patronising - not nice. Your granny may not mind it, but your peers definitely will. In the long run, this won't help your deaf friends - you won't be able to do it for a long time and they should be able to understand you at normal volume and pace.
Lastly - if you are friends with a deaf person - you will know when they are struggling. Show your support the way you would with all your other friends, repeat something for them if you think they need help catching up in the conversation, ask them if they are ok, give them a hug (or whatever boys do - punch them on the arm?) Thoughtfulness is like a gold mine - you can never have too much and it's one of the best things you can offer.