Charlie Swinbourne: The reaction to Wogan and Bowie’s deaths reveals a cultural divide between deaf and hearing people (BSL)

Posted on February 2, 2016

I was cycling in the gym on Sunday morning when a face kept appearing on the TV screen. It was Terry Wogan.

I still hadn’t quite woken up, and at first, I didn’t think anything of it, but then I looked again, and saw the information on the screen – saying that the TV presenter had died.

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Instantly, I felt really sad. He was someone I grew up seeing on screen – almost like someone I knew, part of the wallpaper of my life.

Cue numerous tributes on TV and in the press. The surprising thing though was seeing some deaf people’s responses on Facebook yesterday, asking who Terry Wogan was, or for more information about him.

There might be two reasons for Wogan being less known in the deaf world than the hearing, ‘mainstream’ world.

One is that a lot of his appearances on TV were at live events – such as Children in Need or the annual Eurovision Song Contests. Both are made accessible through (unpopular) live subtitles, which often contain mistakes and have a delay, so may not be viewed by a high number of deaf people.

Second, much of his work, especially in the last few years, was on radio rather than on TV – which isn’t accessible to deaf people at all.

Realising how Terry Wogan was so much less known in the deaf world than the hearing one – despite his fame, made me think about another recent celebrity death – of the musician, Davie Bowie.

Now, I knew about Terry Wogan pretty well, but David Bowie is someone who really passed me by.

Sure, I knew his face, saw him on TV a lot, and remember his appearance in the film Labyrinth (which I saw growing up). But was I aware of what he was actually well  known for – his music? Not really.

The only song of his I know is Life on Mars, and that’s because it was the title song for a well-known BBC series.

So when people were so sad, shocked and upset at his death, calling him a genius (and it was a huge outpouring of grief for some of my friends), I felt like I didn’t get it. Like I’d really missed out on something.

I grew up in a deaf family and we didn’t really have music at home. When I was 11, I got into the Beatles and became interested in music, got a sense of most major artists and musical styles, but I missed out on David Bowie completely.

So, for me, it was revealing how these two recent deaths, of these two celebrities in Britain, seeing so many people talking about them and feeling so upset, showed how deaf people find themselves just a bit outside during these kinds of events, not so involved, and that might be because we’re not aware, or interested, or it might be because of communication and access issues when it comes to accessing TV or music, over many years.

Charlie is the editor of Limping Chicken, as well as being an award-winning filmmaker. He directed the comedies The Kiss and Four Deaf Yorkshiremen go to Blackpool, and his documentary Found, about people discovering the Deaf world, came out last year. As a journalist, he has written for the Guardian and BBC Online.

The Limping Chicken is the UK’s deaf blogs and news website, and is the world’s most popular deaf blog. 

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