Deaf Role Model of the Month: Deepa Shastri

Deaf Role Models banner with black and white image of woman in striped top, smiling

Each month we invite an inspirational or outstanding deaf role model to share their story. From what they’ve learnt, to what they wish they’d have known and their best deaf tips. 

Our role model this month is Deepa Shastri. You may recognise her from her presenting role on BSL Zone, or her other work across the arts industries, but here we get to find out more about the journey of this inspirational woman. Read her story here or watch the BSL version below. 

Hello, my name is Deepa. Thank you for selecting me to be a Deaf Role Model of the Month – I’m really honoured.  

1. Please tell us a little about yourself?

I’ve been working in the arts industry for almost 20 years, and I’m a mother with two daughters. My journey has been really varied but along the way I have had lots of opportunities and successes that I am proud of; in particular, two things – firstly having my two girls and secondly, performing a signed song at the London 2012 Paralympics Opening Ceremony. I remember standing on stage with a huge audience enveloped all around it was over 80,000 people watching me perform as well as audiences from across the world. I was performing with a blind singer and signing the song next to them. It was an incredible feeling, swelling with pride and achievement. 

A woman in a green dress singing stands next to a woman in a blue dress signing

Photo credit: Classic FM

2. Did you grow up in the Deaf Community or come to it later in life?

I’ve had deaf friends since I was around 7 years old, but I feel I became a full member of the Deaf Community around the year 2000, when I went on the BSL Sign Language Recognition march. That was when I felt I truly belonged in the Community. 

Growing up my deaf identity was there in the background, but really, I was just in a small bubble with my friends and school. For me, the Deaf Community means being part of a bigger group, knowing that you are part of a larger group of people who share the same values and beliefs, and who are all aiming for the same goal. That’s why for me, the BSL rally was the moment where I really claimed my deaf identity.  

3. What was your experience of education as a deaf person?

From when I was born, up until the age of 7, I struggled through trying to lipread. At pre-school and nursery, I had one or two deaf interactions, but really I can’t remember how I communicated with deaf or hearing people. Then, when I was 7, I moved to a deaf school. My mother had seen me interacting and playing with my two best friends, who were hearing, and we all were equal and on the same level. However, when she received my school results, I was far behind my two hearing friends. She could see that I was smart, so she wanted to find out why I was not progressing as well as my peers. My mum was very determined and marched straight into school – ignoring protests – and into the classroom where I was being taught so she could see for herself what was happening. She sat at the back of the class and watched. I was sat at the front, wearing my radio hearing aid. The teacher had a microphone connected to my radio aid, but they stood writing on the blackboard, speaking with their back to me. Of course, this meant that it was impossible for me to lipread and follow. From this, my mother realised that the PHU (Partially Hearing Unit or Deaf Unit as it is now known) was not the right environment for me. In the PHU I went back and forth in learning between mainstream hearing environments and the PHU. What I really needed was to be fully immersed in a deaf environment. So, she did lots of research looking for the right placement for me, including visiting lots of different schools, and in the end chose Mill Hall School for the Deaf in Haywards Heath (an oral deaf school). This was far away from where we lived and she felt emotional about having to leave me there, but she thought this was the best education for me at the time. I know how difficult she must have found it, to drop me off and leave me there. But when I was there the doors of BSL opened to me. There were deaf children who had deaf families that signed at home and then brought that language with them to school. I was so desperate for language and so keen to learn it, that I absorbed it very quickly.  

For secondary school, lots of us moved naturally from Mill Hall to Mary Hare Grammar at that time. It was an oral method of education, but it had a strong culture of signing; between students – we would use sign language to speak to each other, and then use speech to answer the teachers in class. I had a wonderful time and formed strong friendships.  

After secondary school, I went on to university. When I started, I was shocked by the huge difference. It’s true my secondary education was delivered orally, but it had adaptations to support deaf students, such as classrooms with seating arranged in a circle, and the teacher having an overhead projector so they could write but still be seen speaking by all the students for lipreading. There were lots of small adjustments for deaf students like this, including the use of headphones (although personally I didn’t like the headphones) – but still, it was a deaf environment. Later at university it was very different: it was the first time I had to use an interpreter. I thought I knew sign language, but I didn’t know how to receive and understand someone using full BSL with its grammar and structure. I had to apologise and ask if they could use SSE (Sign Supported English), and bit by bit they adjusted as did I. It was hard at that time. 

When I was looking for a University, I had an interesting experience. I had a list of questions that I wanted to ask, to check they matched my requirements. For example: did they have a department of good disability services? How were interpreters booked and managed – would I be responsible for booking, or was there an admin team who sorted this out for you? Would I have deaf friends, so after struggling through my interactions with hearing people I could then be able to relax and be natural and communicate with my deaf friends? All these things were important for me, along with making sure the university and course were of a high level. I finally decided on Coventry University, because it was one of the top 10 business schools at the time. Business is so far away from what I do now, but at the time my parents thought it was a great skill that was transferable to other areas. 

It was the best time. I gave my course timetable to Tile Hill College, who were contracted by the university to arrange interpreters for students. They arranged all my communication support – like CSWs for seminars, and interpreters and notetakers for lectures – and afterwards gave me a list with the names of the people I would be working with. It took me a while to adjust, to slowly move over to BSL from SSE when I had more confidence.  

I had a rollercoaster ride of highs and lows, encountering several problems along the way. In my first year I had glandular fever and fell behind. I missed about 3 months and had to try and learn from my bed, reading notes from the notetaker and try and keep up, and be part of projects still. Then in my second year I became a student rep. The students voted for me – I don’t know why, possibly because I was deaf. During my time there, I didn’t just stick to one friendship group, I always moved between groups, meaning they all knew me, and I had a relationship with everyone. And when people voted for me – I was touched and honoured. I also experienced death when I was at university, which was difficult.  

I also experienced work – filming of the first deaf drama series, called Rush on Channel 4. That was when the BSL march happened, and someone asked me if I wanted to be involved in the production.  I wasn’t sure because I was still at university, and I didn’t know how I would juggle work and studying. It was my mother who suggested I ask the university and see what they said. I reluctantly did and they were very open to it. They said it was not the first time – that they had other students who also worked and studied. They suggested that I delay my dissertation by a year, so I could just focus on my exams and lectures. They were flexible, and so this meant that for two years of university I studied and worked, while acting on Rush. It was the best time, and, also, a crazy time! It taught me a lot. 

4. You’re probably most well-known within the deaf community for your work in the arts as an actor, theatre-maker, BSL consultant and presenter. Did you go straight from education into these roles? What was your journey like to working in the creative industries? 

Really, it was through luck. I’d started when I was a teenager. I went to a drama club in London at the weekend, travelling there from boarding school. My teachers at the time were Ray Harrison Graham and Sarah Scott (now a yoga teacher). Growing up I learned about signed song and acting from them – they were brilliant, skilled teachers. It was Ray who wrote the television series Rush and who then asked me to be involved, so really things progressed from there. When I finished filming for Rush, I went travelling. When I got back, I worked for a deaf organisation. I didn’t particularly know what I wanted to do. At that time the BSL Recognition Act had passed, and then one year later BDA had Sign TV presented in BSL. They needed to hire a presenter, and they chose me! I was shocked – I thought ‘there are lots of people more advanced, more experienced than me’, but they wanted me. They gave me the opportunity and told me I must translate everything for my work. I was terrified, but they kept pushing me because they believed I could do it.  

I later looked for a job and found one at Stagetext (a captioning service for theatres). Originally, I applied because it was very close to my home, only 20 minutes away! It was an administrative role. I didn’t get the job but they could see I had skills and potential and offered me a job for 3 months working on a short project. The 3 months kept getting extended and I ended up working for Stagetext for 16 years! I learned so much in that role about arts administration and how everything worked, including funding, access, sensitive negotiations, marketing, development – all the complexities. From there throughout my career, I’d always either worked full time or part time at Stagetext. 

After maternity leave, I was part time there but also worked on other freelance projects, including acting jobs that came up and translation work. (Back then there weren’t strict rules about translation qualifications – purple or yellow translator badges – they just hired people with a bit of translation or BSL moderator experience. Now it’s part of a profession, and you should use someone who has had the proper training and is registered.)  It’s been such an interesting journey – with different opportunities and directions to choose from.  

After I went on maternity leave, I thought I would relax and take a bit of a break. No chance of that! So many opportunities came up with varying kinds of work. I wasn’t sure – could I bring my baby with me? I was told “Of course!” and from that point on my career rocketed! 

I would say my main skill as a producer is on budgets, this is the area I am particularly knowledgeable about. It’s interesting how my journey has woven, bringing me to this point now. I also worked on deaf awareness training while I worked at Stagetext, travelling nationally to deliver it – another example of how all my work has built my current skillset and where I am today.  

Now I work for the Arts Council as a Relationships Manager. I feel I have built and gained skills and experiences because I have always pushed and challenged myself.  

A woman stands signing, with a man next to her holding a book open for her reference

Photo credit: David Monteith-Hodge for Clerc’s Inferno

5. You also work within arts administration, such as a projects manager with Stagetext and now a Relationship Manager with Arts Council. What have those roles been like? How do you juggle that work with your creative work?

I’ve already answered some of this already!   

I decided to leave Stagetext because I wanted to challenge myself. My work at the Arts Council is different and I have more of an overview.  I can try and influence from the inside. In the past, I was on the outside, experiencing barriers. Now one of my aims is to try and break down those barriers and to build bridges between the Arts Council and the deaf community, to make things accessible and deaf friendly. I am learning a lot from the Arts Council and there are a lot of development opportunities, training opportunities, and chances to broaden my horizons and open your mindset further. It’s fantastic advancement.  

6. You’ve undertaken various leadership training schemes. What has your experience been like accessing leadership roles and your sense of leadership as a deaf woman? Have you encountered many challenges?

I’ve been involved in quite a few leadership programmes: the two main ones being the Cultural Leadership programme and Sync leadership programme. I always think it’s worthwhile for everyone to have time to self-evaluate, and to think about your own professional development and leadership. It’s the same as mental health, or a regular health check. Time to think about where you are in your career, how you can do better going forwards. In the past, I didn’t know how to control my career, what steps I needed to take to achieve my career path.  From these funds, I personally financed coaching and I also took producing courses, which helped me steer a clear pathway to progression. It was great. 

Sync was also a good course – it was grounded in who you are. I learnt that leadership doesn’t mean having a title – whatever level you are at you can be a leader. I learnt a lot, especially as a deaf, Asian woman. I have always felt unsure how I could be a leader, but this course made me feel confident and determined that I could be and that I can do that without a title.  

7. In the past you’ve been a trustee of DEWA (Deaf Ethnic Women’s Association). What has your experience been like growing up and accessing the world of work as a deaf, ethnic woman?

This is an interesting question. Yes, I know I am a deaf, Asian woman, but when I look inside and see myself, I don’t see myself as ‘brown’, I see myself as Deepa.  I have progressed throughout my career with my skills not because of my ethnicity. Naturally, I grew up as part of an Indian family with Indian culture and that is part of who I am.  When I am out in the world meeting people, I can empathise, and feel a shared experience. It’s lovely – I always feel at home when I am with other Asian people, due to our shared cultural background. I do have a mix of friends; I am not only involved in the deaf Asian community. And work is the same – I understand what it is like being part of a marginalised group, and the barriers you encounter. I understand this because my experience has been the same, facing lots of barriers. This means I can be assertive in explaining what that experience is like, and I can help. Organisations and society are now trying to be more inclusive, so it’s a really good time to be in a position where I can let people know my own experiences to date, and people can listen, affect change, and maybe become more inclusive.  

8. You present the powerful ‘Getting Personal’ series on BSL Zone – with some inspirational guests and emotional interviews. What was your experience like on this project? Have you taken anything from the interviews into your everyday life?

I absolutely love working on these interviews – it’s one of my favourite things to do. You can see that sometimes I get emotional when interviewing. It’s hard not to let it affect you – it’s human stories, life! I love connecting with different people – seeing what they’ve been through, but also what they have achieved by the end. Life isn’t always rosy, and I want to show the strength of each person – the strength and determination inside to keep going. I want to show that these are qualities that deaf people have – inner strength, a thick skin, and determination to keep moving forwards and progressing.  I have sometimes become friends with my interviewees after I have interviewed them, which is nice. Or some others I feel close to afterwards because I’ve learnt so much about them and I have so much respect for them. 

In my life I try to take on their approach, and the way they cope through things. I try to remember those two things especially.  

A woman sits on a sofa with a cup of tea, looking into the distance

Photo credit: Becky Bailey for BSLBT

9. Amongst all this amazing work, you are also a mum. How have you found juggling your career and motherhood? And what has your experience of motherhood been like as a deaf mother? 

I have to say, if I had to cope on my own it would have been hard – much, much harder. So, I thank my husband Johnathan. He’s been a fantastic help and support – he’s a wonderful person.   We are also lucky in that we’ve had family support from both sides.  

The truth is – it’s not easy! It is not easy juggling a career with motherhood. Most important is that children feel loved, they are fed, they have a warm roof over their heads, that we have happy moments and cherish our time with them – especially when they are young. There’s been a couple of times in my life where I’ve got carried away with work and career, and I’ve had to remind myself to put the handbrake on and think about my children.  If I had no dependents that would be fine, but I do – I have a family and I need to always think twice about career choices.  

My experience as a deaf mother? Gosh at the start – being pregnant, giving birth – I encountered so many barriers through maternity services. Through so many bad experiences I had to become assertive and fight for change to improve access for other deaf mothers. For example, the hospital said they weren’t allowed to provide an interpreter at the weekend as the interpreting services were only contracted to provide access during office hours. But I can’t stop my contractions from occurring through the weekend! The hospital also said I had to use their contracted interpreter/s. I wanted to use the interpreters of my choice, whom I feel comfortable with. It is such a personal thing! I was happy to make sure they were booked via the contracted agency using the hospital’s system.  It wasn’t clear about when or how to book interpreters for when my contractions started and so I set up my own WhatsApp group of registered preferred interpreters, and then let the hospital know, and a nurse then joined this group – we could sort out the bureaucracy and paperwork afterwards! It was very complicated. I know I am not the only one – a few other deaf mothers I know have had a similar experience of repeated barriers. So, we are all trying to improve the system.  

I have also experienced some hurdles at my daughter’s school. When there is a public event they hire an interpreter, and also for a one-to-one meeting with a teacher.   Unfortunately, the school does not get any funding from the local council for Deaf parents who want to take an active involvement in their child’s education so it’s challenging. We’ve tried other ways around this, such as printing out paper – of lyrics or scripts of what the children are singing for the Christmas concert or a script of what the teachers are going to say.  We try following along and we manage to get through but it’s not the same and not full access for all parties.  It is the same at social events with hearing parents. Sometimes it is fine, but other times I wish there were more deaf mothers there. We have deaf mothers in my local area, so that’s good. It means I have a mixture of both, and I can get advice and talk about problems with both groups.  

10. In the past you’ve said how passionate you are about deaf and BSL representation in the arts. Why do you think it’s important? And what do you think the deaf and hearing communities need to do to achieve greater representation?

Yes, I have always said this. We need to show the hearing world what is real life for deaf people.  Currently there is so little deaf representation in TV, film and on stage. We need to open a lens into deaf life. The deaf community is a real mix of representation, through this it will mean society has a better understanding of deaf people and will create stronger connections. It can be viewed that the deaf community is like a ‘ghetto’, separate from the hearing world – they have no idea or understanding of us which means that when they meet a deaf person, they are shocked and panic about how to interact with us. The more deaf lives are seen out there and have exposure, the more normal and natural it becomes. Maybe we will even grow the number of people signing, and we will all appreciate each other more.  

I feel that the arts industry has not yet seen the best of deaf people, community, and culture. I feel we have so much to offer the arts industry. We need more deaf directors in TV film and theatre – we have some, but we need to grow the numbers. I’m so excited for when that happens. Also, we need more deaf producers like me, to make sure everything is done properly, all the access is smooth, and the schedule is sorted out. I know what it’s like through my lived experience! The more hearing people support us and are our allies, the more doors will open for us, and the more people can come in through those doors.  

I feel that people’s minds are slowly opening. You need to choose the right people, not waste your energy on people who keep creating barriers for you – but there are people who will open the doors and help guide you through. These people can see deaf people have skills and understanding – we are appreciated for who we are, but also for our skills, understanding of a different world and a different perspective. Society is always looking for new stories, so this is a perfect place to go from.  

11. Who inspires you and why?

First, I have to say my mum. I know that’s boring, but it’s true. She was so determined and strong, fighting her way through life, and I get that quality from her. I also have a couple of friends I feel inspired by. One is Louise Stern – I feel very inspired by her. I have a few other friends I regularly meet up with and they are all smart, strong, and determined – fearless women, who really support me. I really respect and cherish my friends.  

12. 3 top tips for deaf people?

  1. Grab at opportunities that come your way, especially when you are new. Later in life you can slow down, knowing which projects are right for you to choose. But for now, learn as much as possible. Don’t be frightened, or worried that you don’t know how. You will – and you’ll see how it is done and take that with you as you keep moving forwards. Every day I was getting involved in projects that I didn’t know how to do but it’s fine – you will work it out! Everyone is the same!  
  2. Go travelling and see the world – absorb that knowledge. Meet other people from around the world and make connections. Because maybe later in life you won’t have time. 
  3. Look after yourself – your wellbeing is important. I’m not very good at this. But I am always saying I need to have time, to look after myself, to relax, to do things that I enjoy. It can’t all be work, work, work – you need to have a balance.  

Good luck! 

To read more inspirational role model interviews, take a look here. If you would like to be an ally to the deaf community and learn sign language, check out our courses here.

Looking for more support? We’ve made it our mission to improve the lives of deaf people everywhere. Check out Deaf Unity’s projects to find out what we can do for you. If you’d like to get in touch, contact us here.

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