TV is about drama, education, and entertainment, and it’s an incredibly powerful way of introducing difficult, rare, or unknown topics into the public eye. As an example, Eastenders is one of our nation’s most popular soap operas, and is at the forefront of raising difficult topics, ranging from murder and abuse, to mental health issues, complications during pregnancy, cancer, and more. So when I heard that the BBC1 daytime drama series, ‘Doctors,’ had made an episode with a deaf theme, I was keen to watch and find out how the topic was tackled.
The general storyline consisted of a young couple, the boyfriend who had had a cochlear implant for an unspecified amount of time (but judging by the story, probably a few years at least), and the girlfriend who had been recently implanted. Interestingly, it ties in with my latest research about identity, because the recently implanted character (called Iona) hits a form of identity crisis as she’s torn between the Deaf (and signing) world, and hearing (and speaking) world*.
So, there I was, settling down with a cup of tea to watch with interest, but just 10 minutes in I could already point out a number of innacuracies. The first scene of her with her doctor showed them having a conversation with his back to her. That’s fine, I suppose, because everyone is different – some people can immediately understand everything when their CI is switched on, whereas others struggle a lot more, and may never be able to communicate without lipreading or other visual cues. My real gripes, however, started to grow following then – mainly caused by one scene where Iona used a pair of earbuds to listen to music**. Furthermore, the entire programme (with the influence of the boyfriend) portrayed Iona as no longer being deaf.
Airing programmes with a deaf theme is something that many people affected by deafness agree is needed. It raises awareness about the issues surrounding deafness, including social stigmas, confidence issues, identity, and different forms of communication. However, producers have to be careful not to reinforce stigma within the general population who might become very misinformed by a programme they watch. Although this episode of ‘Doctors’ was well intended, the innacuracies, I feel, might misinform the public to an extent where they see cochlear implants as a ‘fix’ for deafness, or a ‘miracle’. They also may believe that once a person is implanted, they’re no longer deaf and can hear perfectly (which is a common misconception surrounding hearing aids, too). My worry is that the public may be encouraged to view deafness as ‘bad’ and cochlear implants – the ‘miracle cure’ – as ‘good’ without being given the true balance or research they deserve.
So what did other Tree House members think of this programme? It was mainly a large mixture of views:
“I think I understand what they were trying to do but it just didn’t seem to work. As a hearing person who has deaf signing and non signing friends I think they were aiming for balance with the two different people with CI’s and trying to raise awareness of the [minority] them and us views that we all know exist.”
“It’s shame they made it look as if CI is some sort of miracle thing as they spoke so well however It’s good that they included signing which means that having CI doesn’t mean to stop signing.“
“I watched this on TV yesterday… I thought it was all a little bit dramatic. It was interesting that they put some emphasis on how the ‘oral deaf’ are not welcome at the deaf clubs!“
“Well it was a bit dramatised but there have been cases of people having an identity crisis of that kind. As the girl said, it is possible to be in both worlds, as I am. There is no need to have a reversal operation, I can just leave the machine off and I am pretty much totally deaf. There is no need for people to get in a crisis about it.”
In my opinion, this programme had the potential to give an accurate portrayal with a dramatic edge, but unfortunately accuracy was neglected – a real shame, I think. However, there’s not much room for moaning or negativity on my blogs, so you can watch it yourselves here (though within the next 5 days, or 30 days if you download it).
Deaf life continues, and positivity reigns! Each and every deaf person out there has the potential to touch the lives of everyone they meet, and to inspire them by being themselves. After all, being ourselves is the best way to educate the people around us!
*As portrayed in the drama, the deaf world with Deaf culture was no voice and signing only. In contrast, the hearing world was all oral with no real visual cues (something used in the lives of many deaf people). Although a ‘black and white’ view is good in some contexts, I feel that the world of deafness has so many shades of gray that at least some of these shades should have come through.
** Although recent developments in insertion technique for the electrodes of a CI means that in some people residual hearing is preserved, earbuds are very unlikely to get used for listening to music. This episode gave the impression that with her CI, all hearing had been restored and she could listen to music conventionally. In fact, cochlear implants bypass any natural mechanisms of the ear and therefore the ‘normal’ way of hearing is completely altered. Find out more here.