Around 150,000 people across the UK use British Sign Language. Photo: Louise Haywood-Schiefer
When Rose Ayling-Ellis became the first deaf contestant on Strictly Come Dancing last year, she was already used to breaking down barriers. The EastEnders star has been doing it all her life. On Strictly alone, she received a perfect score earlier in the competition than any other dancer in the show’s history, then went on to win the famous glitterball with dance partner Giovanni Pernice in an emotional final, demolishing preconceptions about deaf people. But she has only just begun.
“I am ambitious to make a difference. I feel like there’s so many barriers out there that need to be broken. And I’m quite happy to break them up! I think I’m addicted to it now,” she says, when she visits The Big Issue for her first major interview of 2022.
After a whirlwind few months on Strictly, Ayling-Ellis rested up over the festive period. “I went down to Devon, caught up with my family for the first time in ages, I ate a lot of food. I even swam in the sea on Christmas Day,” she says. Now she is raring to go.
Ayling-Ellis arrives at The Big Issue office in Finsbury Park, London, alongside her interpreter Kirsty in early January, brimming with energy. A new year full of possibility and opportunity stretches out in front of her. “Posture, posture, posture,” she hollers, mimicking her Strictly partner Pernice during the photoshoot. She looks at some of the images, delighting in her new jumper. “I’m so glad it arrived yesterday,” she says, before explaining why we can’t use some shots as her feet are not in the correct position. “Nope, I’ll get in trouble, Gio would tell me off.”
A big grin is rarely far from Ayling-Ellis’s face – even when we get her to dance across a zebra crossing in a drizzly and cold bus station (the glamour!), where shoppers, commuters and joggers, observing impeccable social distancing, fail to spot the Strictly star many of them will have voted to victory just a few weeks earlier.
Life is good, she says. And she is starting the year the right way – using her new profile for positivity, talking to The Big Issue and making changes for the better. “I want to use my platform, while everyone is looking at me, to reflect that attention on to the whole deaf community,” she says.
First on the agenda is giving her backing to a private members’ bill in parliament from Labour MP Rosie Cooper which seeks to make British Sign Language (BSL) an official language in England. The timing of the bill — after Ayling-Ellis’s appearance on Strictly prompted a 4,000 per cent increase in uptake of BSL classes – is not lost on the show’s winner.
“I’m backing it because this is my language. The fact that my country doesn’t see it that way is really sad and means we don’t get the respect we deserve and the language deserves,” she says.
“BSL is not an official language, legally, in this country. Which is outrageous. Because it is such a beautiful, rich language with its own structure, its own grammar, its own slang. It’s even got accents.
“It’s about having protection for the language. There’s such a long history of signing. We have come such a long way – in the olden days, at schools for deaf children, they would make them sit on their hands or whip them for signing.
“There are so many traumas in our history but also such a rich history. If it becomes an official language, which we’ve been fighting for all these years, it will be so emotional for us. Because of the massive interest in BSL recently, a lot of people don’t realise how much of a fight the deaf community have had.”
Through the course of the photoshoot and interview, Ayling-Ellis returns repeatedly to the importance of BSL. When we ask if she will sign “Buy The Big Issue” on video to help publicise the interview, she FaceTimes BSL consultant Jean St Clair to discuss the correct way to sign our name. Context is everything in BSL, she explains, and there are multiple ways of saying ‘issue’.
There are vital practical reasons for BSL to become an official language. When Ayling-Ellis talks us through a common situation that deaf people can find themselves in, it seems obvious that MPs should support it.
“We hear so many times that a child who has deaf parents will go to a doctor’s appointment with them and they will have asked for an interpreter but they are not provided, so they make the child translate for their parents. Sometimes they’re having to translate: ‘You’ve got cancer’, or: ‘You’re dying’. It’s not uncommon in the deaf community. So if the language becomes legal, you have more rights. Because no child should be in that situation. No family should be in that situation.
“So I am backing Rosie Cooper all the way. Finally an MP actually doing something about it. Because the government never really listens to us. Hopefully they will listen now.”
On the day the BSL Bill is being debated in Parliament, Ayling-Ellis will be doing two shows in Newcastle on the Strictly Come Dancing tour – which will feature a sign language interpreter on the big screen at every show for the first time. Another barrier broken down. During the tour, she will also be filming her long-awaited return to EastEnders, resuming the role of Frankie Lewis for the first time since August.
I’m so glad deaf children now have somebody to look up to – I just can’t believe it’s me
She grabs a copy of a Big Issue featuring her Eastenders screen dad Danny Dyer on the cover and sends him a picture. His reply includes (affectionately) calling her a “mug”. “Yes! I got a ‘mug’ from Danny Dyer,” she laughs.
Will the confidence she has picked up during her Strictly stint filter through to her Eastenders character?
“Frankie has always been brave. She was braver than me before Strictly,” she says. “But now I am just as brave as Frankie. I’m just excited to go back to normal life again because Strictly was like a dream with lots of glitter and smiling, while EastEnders is going to be lots of smashing glasses and shouting at each other. And no sequins.”
All of this is a world away from her expectations. As a youngster, Ayling-Ellis says, there were no deaf people on television to look up to. Instead, she was given countless books about pioneering disability rights author Helen Keller. “But she lived in Victorian times – and I didn’t want to be a Victorian woman,” she says. “What she did was incredible. But I couldn’t relate to her at all.”
Because she was not immersed in the deaf community, role models were few and far between. The career path she has forged is one she had no idea could even exist.
“I came from the hearing world. People who grew up in the deaf world have role models but they are not so public,” she says. “So I’m so glad deaf children now have somebody to look up to – I just can’t believe it’s me.
“I see videos of little girls dancing and looking at me on the telly. Some of them have started wearing their hair up to show off their hearing aids and they have kids at school asking what is the sign for this? So it suddenly became quite cool to be deaf. And I love that for children. Cool to be deaf? Amazing!”
A lot of agents don’t take on deaf or disabled people… That has got to change
Acting seemed impossible. The young Ayling-Ellis was too shy, she says, plus at school it would involve singing. “So I thought I was going to be an artist and maybe paint pictures to make people aware about the world that I live in,” she says. “But I did that in a completely different way. I’m not painting a picture, I’m acting it.
“I’m not really following anyone. I never did. Because nobody had done this in the UK. The older generation of actors fought so hard to get the acting class together that I turned up to. And I got more opportunities because of that. I’m so grateful for past deaf generations who stepped up and I want to carry on with that. So there will hopefully be young people now who have even more opportunities than I did.”
Everything changed for Ayling-Ellis at a National Deaf Children’s Society event. “I felt safe because everyone else was deaf,” she says. “So I tried acting and completely fell in love with it. Everything just went from there. I took up acting as a hobby – again, I didn’t see anyone on telly who had done it so didn’t think it could be a career for me. But I was in a short film, did a bit of radio, started meeting more people and it grew and grew. Then suddenly I’m in EastEnders and doing Strictly!”
It sounds easy when you say it quickly. But even getting an agent, when Ayling-Ellis was cast 2019’s Cold War miniseries Summer of Rockets was not straightforward.
“A lot of agents don’t take on deaf people or disabled people. Because they don’t think they’re going to give them a lot of work. That has got to change.”
We talk about the work of Jack Thorne and Underlying Health Condition, a disabled-led collective movement for change in the UK TV industry.
“He invited me to an event but I couldn’t go because I was on Strictly,” says Ayling-Ellis. “But I would like to meet him. Isn’t it great, someone like him speaking out? Diversity – everyone is talking about it. It is the hot topic. But we are still so far behind for people with disabilities.”
Which is why her performance on Strictly was so important this year.
“It was really nice to have AJ [Odudu], John [Whaite] and me in the final – although we really missed AJ when she couldn’t dance,” she says. “It’s the most diverse group, we all represent something. I think 20 years ago none of us would have made it this far. I don’t think the public would have voted for us. So the fact they wanted us in the final felt special. The final felt like a celebration. It was a celebration.”
Has there been a more compelling moment on British television in recent years than Rose and Giovanni dancing on as the music fell silent during their Couple’s Choice dance? A repeat of it in the final only added to its power.
There was barely a dry eye in the nation as more than 10 million viewers looked on in admiration while being gently educated into Ayling-Ellis’s experience of dancing.
“When we did the Viennese waltz it became clear we were doing more than just dancing. And it made such an impact on the deaf community. I knew I didn’t want our Couple’s Choice dance to be depressing, ‘Oh, I’m deaf, I’m so sad.’ It had to be joyful. Giovanni made sure the choreography told our story right,” says Ayling-Ellis, who describes her dance partner as a friend for life.
“People watched with a smile on their face and realised, actually, it’s not so bad to be deaf. It’s just a different world. And it is beautiful.”
Where she goes next is uncertain. But Strictly Come Dancing has taught her to dream big. “I could not imagine this happening. I’ve always been very logical and realistic so I think I would tell my younger self that it’s OK to dream a little bit more,” she says.
“You don’t have to be so realistic. Dream a bit more because then you can break these barriers. If you don’t dream, nothing really gets changed. So believe in it a bit more and you can be the change – and then those dreams might come true.
“I’m so excited to get working. I can’t wait to see what comes up. I love adventure. I love new things. I love meeting new people. So I can’t wait – but my agent is being very secretive about all the offers coming in.”
One thing is for sure, though, Ayling-Ellis is going to be around for a while.
“At the moment, I’m probably the most well-known deaf person in the UK. So that does come with a responsibility,” she says. “I want to use my platform in a good way because it’s so rare. It didn’t happen before. I want to break down more barriers and open more doors – not just for deaf people but disabled people. I can’t waste my platform.”
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