Rebecca-Anne Withey: The All Dance project and the influence of sign language on different groups

Posted on January 8, 2018

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I’ve been very fortunate lately working with a brilliant group of people who happen to have learning disabilities.

For eight weeks we’ve been working hard to choreograph a dance piece to perform at Deda (Derby Dance Centre.) This is all part of the All Dance project which promotes Dance as an inclusive activity.

It was my first time working with those who have learning disabilities and for my group it was the first time they had encountered deafness and sign language.

The first time I met the group they seemed unaware of my sign language interpreter and the fact that I was deaf so the following week we decided to highlight my access needs too.

I re-introduced myself with voice and sign and explained that the interpreter was there because I couldn’t hear them and I explained how they’d have to tap or wave if they needed my attention. They took all of this in their stride and off we went with the sessions.

Whenever I arrived each week, the group would turn and wave to me as I entered. One gentleman who was visually impaired would make a point of waving his arms so I knew he was speaking and another lady proudly showed me the makaton signs she knew. She fingerspelled her own name to me and very sweetly showed all of the other group members how to sign their names too.

A warm and friendly elderly gentleman, who was a wheelchair user, would often stop me throughout the class to do a “thumbs up” or a “high five.” He would look at me with his cheeky smile and we would both laugh, as though we were sharing a secret language. We seemed to have found a way of communicating that didn’t rely on hearing, it was tactile and visual.

A staff member mentioned she noticed how well the group had responded to sign language / having a deaf person present. Gradually I began to notice how my presence affected them too.

There was one young lady who was immobile, unable to speak or move anything except her head. No matter where I was in the room – if I was signing – her gaze would find me and her eyes would be transfixed on the signs.

I worked closely with another lady who was also immobile but she had speech and movement in her arms. She confessed to me how she had never signed before but she loved learning it. She often sang loudly along to songs during the session and her hands would naturally imitate the rhythm. She too was learning to communicate visually.

Then there was the gentleman with – what I feel was – the saddest background story of all. He had wandered into a session one day by accident and for some reason marched straight up to me and pointed to a chain he had around his neck.

Using my voice I asked him if he was okay. He responded frustratingly, shouting “no, no, no, no” and started throwing his right arm forward. A staff member quickly came over and she explained that this man had been neglected as a child and thus had no language as well as learning disabilities. She translated that the chain he pointed to was related to a bowling tournament he took part in. It seemed he was just trying to tell me about it.

So I started to sign. Simple, universal type signs. He followed my lead and started to gesture something else. Bit by bit we began to understand each other. He pointed at a garden sculpture outside of a man and as I signed “man” he copied me. The staff member was shocked and said that perhaps they needed to do some signing with him.

I have no idea if they followed through on that.

But as each week passed, this gentleman would often step into my session and take a seat. He just watched us work, watched me sign. And whenever I glanced over at him he would gesture at his bowling chain and do a thumbs up when he knew I understood him.

Some weeks the care staff wouldn’t allow other people to watch the dance session so I would see him peering through the window trying to get a glimpse of what we were doing.

It seemed to me that nobody really knew how to communicate fully with this gentleman. And you know what the worst thing is? It wasn’t until the end of the project that someone conveyed to me that actually this man is deaf. No wonder he was so drawn to sign language.

Throughout these 8 weeks I’ve seen first hand that the benefits of sign language aren’t exclusively for deaf people. Those without a spoken language benefit. Those who have physical disabilities but want to learn another language can enjoy doing so too. And from what I’ve seen, most people know how to communicate visually even if they don’t know any formal BSL.

Dance can be for everyone, and sign language most definitely can be too. I’m so glad I had the chance to work on All Dance, and I’d like to think that me being deaf actually enhanced the participants’ experience.

I’ve learnt so much from my time with the group; how to have confidence in my voice and how I communicate, how others with varying abilities experience movement and ultimately how to think outside the box and encourage a conpletely sensory experience of Dance.

Dance for all. All for Dance. However you phrase it we’re all in it together. Disabilities, abilities and all. Here’s to many more inclusive arts projects…

Rebecca-Anne Withey is a freelance writer with a background in Performing Arts & Holistic health. Read more of Rebecca’s articles for us here.

She is also profoundly deaf, a sign language user and pretty great lipreader. 

Her holistic practices and qualifications include Mindfulness, Professional Relaxation Therapy, Crystal Therapy and Reiki. 

She writes on varied topics close to her heart in the hope that they may serve to inspire others.

The Limping Chicken is the world's most popular Deaf blog, and is edited by Deaf journalist and filmmaker Charlie Swinbourne. 

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