As Strictly Come Dancing’s Rose Ayling-Ellis stands a chance of being crowned the show’s first deaf winner on Saturday, the deaf community is celebrating her for “smashing stereotypes”, “breaking barriers” and inspiring those with disabilities.
The actress, 27, is due to take to the dancefloor in the grand finale of the BBC One show with her professional dance partner Giovanni Pernice.
Ayling-Ellis, Strictly’s first deaf contestant, won over viewers with an emotional contemporary routine featuring 10 seconds of silence in tribute to the deaf community, which she will be performing again in the final.
Her success on the show has been credited with inspiring young deaf people and breaking down the stereotype that they cannot dance.
Jasper Williams, a profoundly deaf dancer living in Newcastle, said a victory for Ayling-Ellis would show society that “deaf people of any age and ability have the potential to do anything that they want to”.
The 27-year-old told the PA news agency: “I really wish I had a Rose growing up telling me I could dance.
“Since week one Rose has been breaking down the stereotypes and barriers regarding society’s attitude to understand that deaf dancers do exist and can experience music.
“Dance is not just an audio experience – it’s visual, emotional, lyrical and motion. There are many forms, from ballet to hip-hop, so the way in which you dance isn’t as important – I can dance as a deaf wheelchair user, even if that’s different to some of the mainstream dancing techniques.”
Mr Williams said her victory would prove that “with the right partnership, such as Rose and Gio, deaf and hearing people can work together”.
“Not in spite of being deaf, because deaf is a positive thing, but that their deafness will actually help them, to think in creative ways and work around society obstacles,” he added.
The show has boosted the public’s interest in learning British Sign Language (BSL), and Mr Williams said many of his friends have recently signed up for a course too.
Paige Parsons, 29, from Redcar and Cleveland in North Yorkshire, was born profoundly deaf and has been taking part in dance classes from a young age.
She said it has been difficult in the past to explain to hearing people that she used vibrations to listen and later became able to hear music and lyrics through years of practice.
“Now whenever people do ask, I direct them to the videos of Rose and Gio dancing and just say ‘exactly like that’,” she said.
Ms Parsons said she had a soft spot for Ayling-Ellis because “we’ve come from the same place, we’ve gone through pretty much the same kind of struggles, likely heard the same kind of ableism or hate thrown at us just for being deaf.”
Her victory would “prove to the haters that they’re wrong – deaf people can hear music and goddamn, we can dance too”, she added.
Charlotte Joyce, 35, an administration officer at a further education college from Watford in Hertfordshire, said Ayling-Ellis has inspired millions of people to consider how to adapt communication through BSL at an important time.
She said: “Deaf people have really struggled in everyday life with communicating due to masks being worn and being unable to lipread or see facial expressions, which are so important to facilitate communication.
“Seeing Rose and Giovanni incorporate BSL into their dance routine as part of the storyline felt euphoric because that has never happened before and millions of deaf people were able to understand the context without any words being spoken at all.
“The ‘silent moment’ was such an incredibly beautiful and poignant moment, because my family and friends turned to me and said ‘I didn’t know what you go through with your hearing loss and now I understand’.”
Paula Garfield, the founder of Deafinitely Theatre – the UK’s first deaf-led theatre company that runs the youth theatre Ayling-Ellis trained at, said her achievement will “open doors to many more young deaf people”.
She said: “My hope is that this will also inspire parents of deaf children to learn sign language to communicate directly with their children. Deaf children and young adults encounter so many barriers everyday, and this must change.”
Sam Caiels, deaf studies coordinator at Hamilton Lodge – a school for deaf children in Brighton, said: “The Deaf Community has always valued BSL but now more and more people are realising this too. Hopefully the new interest in learning BSL will grow and grow.”
She said Ayling-Ellis has given deaf people “the confidence to believe in ourselves”.
Ms Caiels added that it was “such a proud moment” to see a video message from pupils and staff at Hamilton Lodge broadcast on Strictly.
Liam O’Dell, 24, a deaf freelance journalist and campaigner from Bedfordshire, told PA: “Throughout this series, Rose has completely smashed stereotypes around deafness and delivered stunning dances in the process.
“As well as casually illustrating what life is like as a deaf person – a ‘joy’, to use her words – she’s shown that with the right support, deaf people can achieve anything.
“If Rose wins tonight, it won’t be ‘because of’ her deafness, it will be because of the incredible teamwork between her and Giovanni, to take down any barriers and challenges which came their way during the competition.”
That sentiment was echoed by disabled rights campaigner Michaela Hollywood, 31, from Crossgar, who has the congenital muscle wasting condition spinal muscular atrophy and was born with no inner or outer ears.
She said: “What I’ve loved most is the fact it hasn’t been what we call ‘inspiration porn’ and making Rose inspiring because she’s deaf. But inspiring through dance which is something very big.”
Ms Hollywood added that seeing Ayling-Ellis use sign language and talking had spoken to her as someone with an “unusual identity within the community”.
“This is the first time in my 31 years I’ve seen someone remotely like me on Strictly and we need more of it in the diversity revolution.”
Danielle Hudson, a phlebotomist from Great Yarmouth, said: “I’ve been partially deaf since I was five, I’m now 40 – I wear hearing aids and have had surgery.
“It’s been amazing watching rose she is inspirational for those with disabilities proving that you can do or be anything and it doesn’t hold you back.
“I work in the NHS as a phlebotomist and I’ve proved that it doesn’t hold you back.”