Deaf young adult with deaf children at The Elizabeth Foundation

Celebrating Deaf Awareness Week 2024: Deaf role models inspire our children

To celebrate this year’s Deaf Awareness Week (6-12 May 2024), we are sharing an article we have just published in our Spring / Summer 2024 Listen! newsletter about the importance of good role models in shaping the lives of young deaf children and their families.

Role models encourage our deaf children to set their sights high

At The Elizabeth Foundation, we know how important good role models can be in shaping the lives of our young deaf pupils whilst also providing welcome support and reassurance to our families. Whether these individuals are people that we know, celebrities raising awareness and promoting a positive attitude towards deafness, or the deaf characters that we meet in books, films and TV programmes, they all play an important part encouraging our deaf children to set their sights high and know that they are a part of a wider deaf family.

We all need help!

Many of us can think of significant people who have influenced us during our lives. Perhaps they were an important family member that we looked up to, a caring teacher or someone who ran a club we attended. They might have provided inspiration, giving us the courage to try something new; they might have helped us make decisions when we needed a little push; or they might have provided support at a difficult time in our lives.

“Children are great imitators, so give them something great to imitate.”

Anonymous

Maybe these individuals showed a determination we admired, or worked in a role that got us thinking about what we were capable of doing. Or maybe they just listened to us without judgement. Whatever their impact, role models lift our spirits and show us a way forward when we might not be able to see it for ourselves.

Families matter

Each and every day at The Elizabeth Foundation we see the incredible role models our parents, caregivers and families are for their children. In fact, parents are young children’s most important role models. They provide vital examples of how to behave, how to enjoy and have fun, how to interact with others, how to respond to different situations, how to manage difficulties and problem-solve, and how to understand and interpret the world.

Why our children need deaf role models

Yet it is also true that most deaf children (95%) are born to hearing families who may have little or no previous experience of raising a deaf child and this can be daunting for parents. So it is also important that our children and families have deaf role models. They can help to reassure families and encourage them to see opportunities for their children rather than barriers, showing them that they must have high expectations for their children and providing examples of success.

They help the children develop a good understanding and pride in their deaf identity and encourage them to be ambitious for their futures. These deaf role models can come in many forms.

Those who return to the Foundation…

We are always delighted when previous Elizabeth Foundation students (such as Ruby and Ethan) come back to do work experience with us or volunteer. They provide the very best role models for our young children. In the classrooms, it is obvious how our young children look to these young deaf adults with curiosity when they first see their technology, and then how naturally and quickly they develop connections and seek them out. Having these young deaf students in the classrooms helps promote questions and conversations around deafness and our families love seeing how far these young people have already come, asking them about their journeys so far and recognising their excitement for their future. These are our alumni role models who we are rightly so proud of!

And at our Summer Residential, our panel of deaf young adults always provides parents with a fascinating insight into their personal experiences growing-up as well as inspiration about future career paths.

Those we see on our screens

Then there are those role models that we see on our screens that our deaf children can look up to and maybe see their future selves in, if only to see how proudly these personalities discuss their deafness and how it has not prevented them from achieving their dreams.

We are especially grateful for the ongoing interest and support that our former pupil, the amazing Jodie Ounsley gives The Elizabeth Foundation. Jodie, who recently retired as a professional rugby player, featured as Fury in the recent reboot of Gladiators on primetime BBC1 (available on BBC iPlayer).

“I’m really lucky as I have incredibly supportive parents. But I did struggle with my confidence because it wasn’t until I was in my teens that I became aware of any deaf role models. Now for kids there are so many people, and it means such a lot to have someone to look up to. Now I get sent messages and videos all the time. One five-year-old with a cochlear impact was jumping up and down and screaming, ‘I want to be a Gladiator.’ That really warmed my heart.”

Jodie Ounsley (Fury)

Another of our former students, Oliver Pritchard (shown in the photo at the top of this page), took part in the Red Nose and Spoon Race televised nightly on The One Show in March 2022. Oliver is a successful young triathlete, winning the Sprint Triathlon in his age group in the 2023 Europe Triathlon Championships Madrid.

We also welcome the positive influence other deaf personalities have had by featuring on our television screens. The best known in recent years has probably been Rose Ayling-Ellis (the former EastEnders actor who won BBC1’s Strictly Come Dancing in 2021), closely followed by Tasha Stones (who appeared in the 2023 series of Channel 4’s Great British Bake Off).

Rose (525,000 Instagram followers at time of writing), Jodie (196,000 TikTok followers at time of writing and over 40,000 on Instagram as Fury) and Tasha (96,000 Instagram followers at time of writing) are also highly visible on social media, frequently promoting deaf awareness alongside their other interests and passions.

These high-profile role models help our young children feel seen and understood. Equally importantly, these individuals show wider society what is possible, and encourage other deaf people to take pride in their deaf identity. They talk honestly and believably, shining a light on their experiences of growing up as a deaf person.

“My daughter who is aided in both ears has loved watching you (Fury) on Gladiators! She goes to The Elizabeth Foundation, your photo is on the board by the entrance, and she always goes up and says, ‘She has ears like me.’ Thank you for representing the deaf community and showing children like my daughter that they can do anything and be anyone they choose to be.”

Libby Suller, parent

Those who we come across in books or as toys

Deaf role models are not always real – they can also be imaginary! Thankfully we increasingly find deaf characters in books and stories acting well, being naughty, having adventures, getting into trouble, being superheroes and generally living their lives providing fun and focus for our deaf children. We are also starting to see more toys with hearing technology, including Lego mini-figures and Barbie. The joy of seeing a character in a book or playing with a toy wearing hearing aids or cochlear implants cannot be underestimated.

“You can’t be what you can’t see.”

Role models are important for young deaf children, because as Marian Wright Edelman wrote, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” So, whoever our children’s role models are, The Elizabeth Foundation celebrates them all, and in particular the deaf role models that help our children look positively at their world with excitement and ambition for their future.

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A version of this article was published in our Listen! Spring / Summer 2024 newsletter.

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