Review: Rita Simons – My daughter, deafness and me (BBC1)

Posted on March 21, 2012

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Rita Simons and her husband Theo have twin daughters, who are five years old. One of them, Maiya, was born moderately deaf and has progressively lost more of her hearing since she was born.

This documentary, which is the latest instalment in the BBC’s Beyond Disability season, follows them as they explore the different options open to Maiya – from the possibility of attending a deaf primary school, to learning sign language, to potentially having a cochlear implant.

Rita tells us that Maiya is missing “nerve endings and parts of her cochlear that mean you can’t hear,” and how her speech is “lazy” with her hearing aids out.

She seems like a typical child though, with a hint of mischief which we see in the bath, when, as Rita says “Mummy” to see whether she can hear and repeat what she’s saying, Maiya answers “bum” instead.

The big fear for Rita and Theo is that she will lose more of her hearing. Maiya has been born with a widened vestibular aqueduct, “a deformity in her inner ear which causes hearing loss.” They have been told that a bang on the head could cause her to lose her hearing completely, and later, when she does bang her head, we see Rita anxiously trying to check whether Maiya can still hear her.

The first stop on their exploration of the routes Maiya could take is the visit of a sign language teacher. The whole family seem to embrace learning some basic signs – except for Maiya, who seems overawed and walks out. I hoped that wouldn’t be her last chance to learn.

Rita then meets a mother of a deaf child, who has embraced the deaf community and sign language for her daughter. She points out just from watching a video on Rita’s phone a moment where Maiya hides the fact that she hasn’t understood something, and emphasises the importance of deaf role models, something Maiya doesn’t have.

When Rita visits a primary school for deaf children, she meets pupils who perform on stage, are lively and engaging, and learn in an environment where they feel equal to their peers. When she sees how many of them wear cochlear implants, she begins to find out more, meeting a boy called Jack who later undergoes a CI operation.

This sends the film on a different course as it investigates cochlear implants. We hear what an implant sounds like and see Jack’s implant being turned on. As well as being given the positives, we find out the risks of the operation and who they are and aren’t suitable for.

There was a moment that made me cringe when a doctor said that with a cochlear implant, a deaf person who previously wouldn’t hear a chainsaw going off next to them, could go on to speak to a stranger on the phone. While I’m sure that’s true in some cases, this seemed like an oversimplification of the outlook for many deaf patients that could give a lot of people watching at home the impression that an implant is a ‘magic bullet.’

We were then told via voiceover that “cochlear implants are controversial,” and how deaf people would see Maiya having the operation as being “a rejection of their culture and language, BSL.”

Rita then visited a pub where she met some deaf people, then was told by one of them that giving your child a cochlear implant equates to child abuse. You could almost see her recoil from the deaf community there and then.

This was a disappointing moment for me. It felt extreme and I didn’t feel that the deaf people in the pub reflected the range of views within the deaf community, particularly as implants have become more prevalent among deaf children and an increasing number of deaf adults.

At the end of the film, we found out that Rita and Theo have decided that Maiya will have a cochlear implant later on in her childhood, when the level of sound she gets from her hearing aids is reduced.

In my view, the documentary was an interesting and eye-opening look at how some hearing parents of deaf children approach deafness and the routes they can take. I didn’t agree with all of Rita and Theo’s views, but I could understand how they wanted their daughter to fit in with their own lives and the life she was living at that point, using the hearing she had.

I did feel, however, like there were some major gaps in the film’s exploration of the options open to Maiya. I’d have loved to have seen her meet a deaf role model to see how she’d have related to them. It also would have been great for her to have the chance to meet other deaf children (such as those in the primary school) for an extended period of time.

The film focused more on the journey of her parents and along the way, I felt that Maiya missed several opportunities to reach out and connect with the deaf world.

For the next week, you can see the programme online via BBC iPlayer here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b01dwf9z/sign/Rita_Simons_My_Daughter_Deafness_and_Me/

This review by Charlie Swinbourne was commissioned by Disability Arts Online and is reproduced here by kind permission. To view this article on DAO’s website, click here.

Further reviews and blogs on the programme:
The Independent
The Guardian
NDCS response
Ni Gallant: Rita Simons… her personal journey to make her daughter hearing

What did you think of the programme? Leave your comments below.