On Monday 6th February, BBC3 are broadcasting a brand-new documentary about five deaf teenagers taking their first steps in the hearing world. Charlie Swinbourne previews the film.
What does it mean to be deaf in 2012? BBC3's 'Deaf Teen in a Hearing World' shows us that there isn't one single answer. This documentary follows five deaf teenagers who are about to take their first steps in the hearing world. While they may have deafness in common, they're taking their own personal journeys to adulthood.
Two of the teens start university with very different problems. Meghan has had a cochlear implant operation just weeks before term starts and begins lectures unable to hear a thing, because it hasn't been switched on yet. Meanwhile, Sara, who is profoundly deaf and uses sign language to communicate, worries that with an interpreter and a notetaker at each lecture, she won't fit in with the people on her course.
Next we meet Christianah, who is facing the crucial final year of her A-levels in a specialist deaf school where signing is banned. Despite the risk of being given a detention, she persistently refuses to wear her hearing aids. Then there's Jake, who is an identical twin – the only difference between him and his brother Adam being that Jake was born deaf. When the twins sit down to talk about how their futures might differ, some home truths start to emerge.
The fifth teen we follow is Asher, who is Sara's boyfriend. He's currently learning to drive, communicating through a mixture of mime, written instructions and lipreading with his hearing driving instructor. (There's a nice comedy moment when the instructor explains what he thinks deaf drivers and boy racers have in common.)
Where the documentary excels is in giving us a real insight into these teens' hopes and fears, their families and friends, and what they think of the wider, hearing world. Or more commonly, what the wider, hearing world seems to think of them. Always needing to correct other people's presumptions about deafness and feeling misunderstood are recurring themes here.
There are many moments that are true to deaf life. After Meghan's cochlear implant operation, a nurse forgets that she can't hear a thing and speaks to her while Meghan can't see her face. It's a real doh! moment. Then there's the remarkable excuse a notetaker gives Sara for not being able to stay for her whole lecture. It has to be seen to be believed.
We find out how influential family attitudes can be when Christianah tells us how her father made her and her sister hide their deafness from his friends. We also discover what Sara's mother thinks of cochlear implants just as we see Meghan having her operation, and how Jake's Dad remembers finding out that his son was deaf. Never mind the teens taking their journeys into the hearing world – their families all seem to be at different points on their own emotional journeys too.
The documentary features some clever use of sound - with the audio becoming muffled or silent at different points to give the hearing audience an impression of what being deaf can sound like. That said, the most effective and powerful scene is one where viewers are invited to try and lipread Meghan’s colleagues on her course as they chat casually in a group. The camera looks where a deaf person would look, and I can't get those shots out of my mind.
What makes 'Deaf Teens in a Hearing World' compelling is that the teenagers are allowed to take centre stage to tell us about their lives. They are engaging, honest and insightful, and because it comes from them, this film has the potential to truly unlock the reality of what being deaf means for a hearing audience.
Deaf Teens in a Hearing World will be shown on BBC3 at 4.25am (with sign language interpretation) and at 9pm on Monday 6th February 2012.