Inspired by her Deaf mother, Joanna Poulton, 21, has championed the way Deaf people are portrayed in film and TV and is set on making a difference

Depressed, simple and with no personality. This is the way Deaf characters are often portrayed on film and TV,” says Joanna Poulton, a TV and film script writing student.

Surprised at the lack of Deaf awareness, Poulton was inspired to write her university dissertation on Deaf culture in mainstream drama.

“Sign language is so visual and such a large part of the Deaf community are interested in film, TV and visual forms of communication. It’s such a big platform for them to consume and so the media needs to reflect this and ensure programmes are catered for Deaf audiences.

“I wrote my dissertation on creating an authentic Deaf character, that is complex and nuanced just like hearing characters. Before I could even do that, I had to break down and explain what Deaf culture was. Before we can change things – we have to raise people’s understanding of what it means to be Deaf in a hearing world and what it means to be hearing in a Deaf world.”

Her mother, who is Deaf was “secretly proud” of her, she admits when she told her about her work. 

Growing up with Deaf mum, never really phased me. I never saw it as an issue – it was just my mum. Friends would come to visit when I was younger and there was a small level of anxiety, thinking to myself ‘will it be ok’? But you get to an age and you think, ‘I love my mum – I don’t care about that.’ It’s part of her and I really love it.

“Now, its totally the opposite. I love signing, it’s just such an interesting and cool thing to do. I love the reaction from people on the street when my mum and I are speaking. She is quite vocal and will speak to me and I’ll reply in sign language. People look confused as they’re trying to work out who the Deaf one is!”

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Joanna’s top three tips for bridging the gap between deafness and media

1. Deaf people are often portrayed as not having a personality or that they are depressed because of their disability. This is totally unrealistic and not authentic. Deaf characters need to be shown to have all the complexities and nuances as hearing people. Deaf people are happy and very social people. The foundation of sign language is story-telling and this needs to be conveyed in the media.

2. There aren’t enough Deaf advisors in the media industry to advise on aspects of characterization and behaviour that integrates Deaf culture. The more Deaf people we can get into the media, voicing their desires and their concerns – the more it will be transpose onto the screen and be integrated into wider society. 

3. I did a mini test on a Deaf character on EastEnders and not once did they ask another co-star to speak slower or to facilitate his communication in any way. They missed a real opportunity for raising Deaf awareness.

In response, Joanna wrote her own short film featuring Deaf characters. Watch it here

Published in BDN July 2014 issue