Deaf Role Model of the Month: Nadia Nadarajah

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 Nadia Nadarajah – someone who is truly a Global Citizen and an inspiration to many. Nadia brings her rich experiences to her work in the Creative Arts, as well as working tirelessly to improve the Rights and Access landscapes for deaf people – read on in BSL and English!

1. Please tell us a little about yourself?

First of all, may I say thank you for the privilege of being selected to be a deaf role model.

My name is Nadia Nadarajah. I was born deaf and raised in Luton, England. I have one deaf brother and both my parents are hearing, however we all used Sign Language at home.

I attended a mainstream school that had a PHU attached to it that had a number of deaf students. The students – both deaf and hearing – mixed well. There was good access and communication between those that used BSL and SSE, and those that used a spoken language. I myself use BSL.

I grew up attending deaf clubs, my parents would take us regularly. We would also attend NDCS events, which had a strong deaf community.

After finishing boarding school, I went to live in Australia for 5 years. I then moved to France where I got married, after which I returned to England. Once I was back in England, I fully immersed myself in the deaf community, where my family and I specifically campaigned for deaf rights, which we felt very strongly about.

2. What is your deaf story?

There is so much to share, but I will pick just one, my sign name, Nadia (palm of hand hitting forehead).

When I moved to Australia my first job there was teaching at a preschool. The children that attended the school were either deaf, a CODA (children of deaf adults) or they were hearing but had deaf siblings, their ages ranged from 2 to 5 years of age. One day they asked me for a story, so I signed one from one of the books.

The children were fully engaged, just sitting there absorbing every word. I suddenly realised after finishing that I had been using BSL, not AUSLAN, which is the official sign language used in Australia.

I thought to myself ‘oh no’ and smacked my forehead with the palm of my hand. Typically the children being deaf and being very visual didn’t miss this and said “that’s her sign name!” and that’s all it took, a one second sign had a big impact and it has stayed with me to this very day. All due to the strong deaf eyes of children!

Deaf Role Model Nadia on stage

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

As mentioned previously, I attended a mainstream school that had a PHU. I had a deaf teacher from the age of five who I really looked up to. My mother signed well, and she loved to make sure that we had the best education possible. I would have a regular one to one with a deaf tutor, who made sure I understood the English material I was given and reinforced the learning in BSL.

When I had the opportunity to join the mainstream students I was provided an interpreter, well actually it was a CSW, but they had very good receptive skills and were able to confidently voice over for me. As a result, I often felt like I was ahead of my hearing peers.

I do feel that my mother had a strong influence over my education too. For example, after school when I would get home she would sit me down and look over my books and discuss them with me in BSL, so I had access to both English and BSL.

Following primary school, I moved on to Mary Hare Boarding school for the deaf, which is an oral school. I must admit I did struggle a little bit with lipreading. But I had a wonderful year group – we were very supportive of each other which helped me to survive. My speech was not fluent, but it was ok, my lip reading comprehension was not as good, so I relied on writing things down. I managed this way for 5 years until I did my GCSEs.

After leaving secondary school I attended a local college to do my A Levels. It was brilliant – it was so accessible because it had a service for the deaf where they would provide interpreters.

I remember one occasion I was in a class where there were three deaf students. We were studying the same subject, but we were all at different levels and the interpreter struggled to meet all our needs, so the college provided three interpreters, one per student, so that we could all access the subject at our own level. That had such an impact on me, the college understood our right to access education and I felt so privileged to have my own interpreter. As a result the three of us were successful and achieved our A levels.

I then went on to university, but it was difficult to find interpreters. The university was happy to provide them, but I struggled to find available interpreters. In the end, I moved to Australia.

The provision there is outstanding, I didn’t have to worry about ESA limits or budgets. Australia really does have the best universities compared to England. I could relax knowing that I had full access.

So, my education was strongly influenced by BSL, except for my five years at Mary Hare, but after that I carried on and eventually achieved my degree.

4. Have you faced any obstacles or challenges from being deaf and how have you overcome these?

I’m just trying to recall some of the obstacles that I have faced. Personally, I think I would be lost without the deaf community; I wouldn’t have survived without it, I would be lost.

Looking back over my life, I feel my time in Australia did have some challenges.

When I was at university I studied Applied Arts, however the art world in Australia saw deaf people as far below hearing people and as a result they wouldn’t employ them. There are lots of opportunities for deaf teachers in Australia, that’s why so many deaf people go there. That wasn’t for me, I like teaching, but I studied art, I wanted a career as a curator, but there just weren’t any opportunities. I applied for lots of roles, but as soon as they saw I was deaf, the door just closed.

My university tutor suggested alternative ways of getting myself seen, but as soon as they saw that I was deaf and had an interpreter with me, they automatically assumed that I was of a lower standard than that of a hearing candidate. That was a big barrier for me and that’s why I decided to return to England as there are more opportunities here. It really was a shame, but that was over 20 years ago, I think now, in 2022 it is different. I’ve heard that there are more opportunities for deaf people in Australia now.

I would love to go back and find out. We are all human – whether we are deaf or hearing, all humans have a desire and the potential to be creative and use our imagination, to share it with the world. But that was over 20 years ago and there just weren’t any opportunities then.

5. You’ve lived and worked in several different countries – Australia, France, Reunion and the UK – how would you compare the Deaf Communities and what lessons could be taken from them to strengthen the UK Deaf Community?

Deaf communities all over the world have one similarity, that is that they are comfortable using sign language. They can meet up and communicate easily. They are all the same,  they don’t see skin colour, the priority is that they are deaf and use sign language.

One interesting thing that I have observed in England is that it is way ahead in terms of access, for example, we have Access to Work and VRS. Technology has helped us, it has improved access. But is the deaf community itself strong?

When I lived in Reunion Island the access was terrible, there were a lot of barriers for deaf people and it was rare to get an interpreter for day to day situations. The doctors and hospitals did provide interpreters, which is a better service than we currently have in England, but there were so many barriers in education and employment.

However, the deaf community there is well connected and strong. We looked after each other, we understood the oppression we faced, we forgot the barriers and had a laugh, we got on with things by coming together. We had strong deaf identities.

When I came back to England I was shocked: the access was better, but the question I found myself asking is “do deaf people here really understand their identity?” Living in Australia, France and Reunion gave me a strong deaf identity, it had a big influence on me, it helped me to understand my rights and the law relating to equality.

In comparison, there isn’t enough education in the UK. Do deaf people know the law and their rights here? It’s rare that they are educated about this or provided any information. It is not good enough! Compared to Australia, France and Reunion where there are workshops to explain this. Sometimes, I find myself wanting to bring those workshops here, bringing deaf people together, asking them “do you know your rights?” “Are you clear about your identity as a deaf person?” Many are not clear, there are some who are, but the majority are not and they need to be told that they are a part of this. It is not enough for the British deaf community to know the law, they need to know their rights and how it relates to them, they need a clear identity.

6. You’ve worked in education, campaigning and in the arts, do you think things have improved for deaf people in terms of representation and access?

I am not sure where education is right now? I think there’s still a long way to go, there needs to be more campaigning. We need to campaign for improvements in education and the arts, we need to keep it going.

But now, in 2022 I feel that a big change is slowly coming. I feel that a door is opening for hearing and non-disabled people to understand us better. We have been given opportunities to write and share our own stories.

I would like to say a big thank you to Access to Work for providing interpreters, this has opened up so many more opportunities for us.

Looking ahead, we now have the BSL Act which is a step in the in the right direction, and the first priority of this should be education. I want to see hearing people accept deaf people as just people who can’t hear rather than assigning us with the negative connotations that being deaf has at the moment.

Access has definitely improved and our representation in the arts is growing as well. It’s really interesting to see what will happen next. Attitudes seem to have changed and people are interested in hearing our stories.

Deaf Role Model Nadia on stage, looking at a mirror in front of a box with a number of items

7. You have worked as part of ‘deaf’ and ‘mixed’ companies in the Theatre – can you tell us about any impactful experiences?

The experiences are definitely different, but I have no preference in working with either a deaf or mixed company. I’ve loved working in all the companies and have learnt a lot from everyone, they all have different styles.

In a mixed company, the first thing I do is teach them not to have any fear of deaf people. It’s natural for hearing people to be wary of deaf people, but I tell them ‘it’s just me, Nadia, I’m just a person who can’t hear and uses a different language, BSL. We’re the same, we’re all human,’ and that helps them realise there’s nothing to be wary about. I’m lucky, in the theatre there is lots of time for bonding. After working with people for a few months they sometimes go on to learn BSL Level 1, 2 or even 3 and then we can work together more easily.

When I’m working with a deaf company, we can really incorporate deaf culture, look at things from different perspectives and have long discussions. It can be tiring, but it’s so worth it.

8. What is your approach as a BSL-using actor when approaching texts like Shakespeare and other classics which are so English-language rich?

I think the first thing to say is that BSL is such a rich language in its own right. The first thing I do is look at and try to understand the story. Not to translate the text, but just to understand what the story is about and to realise that it’s a human story.

The text Shakespeare wrote is like deaf conversations: full of details. Deaf people love to include lots of detail, for example, if we talked about a cake, it wouldn’t just be ‘I had a chocolate cake’, it would be ‘I had the most decadent, rich chocolate cake topped with pieces of delicate chocolate. I had the most mouth-wateringly delicious piece and I enjoyed it all the way down to my stomach’.

Hearing people find Shakespeare difficult because they don’t talk like that, deaf people talk like that. It’s best to change the Shakespeare texts straight into BSL, not into modern English and then BSL. We just find the meaning and then translate it into BSL. Often it helps hearing actors to see me sign a line because that helps them understand the meaning more fully. Working together makes them realise that BSL is a rich language just like Shakespeare. It’s the same with all the classics, like Charles Dickens a Christmas Carol, they’re beautiful and full of detail.

9. You have moved into Directing – how has this been and have you had to change any of your approaches when dealing with hearing actors or hearing audiences?

A community theatre received some Commonwealth funding and asked me to direct a piece for them which was a new challenge for me. The cast was deaf, but the biggest challenge was trying to see it from a hearing audience’s perspective.

We were starting from scratch with a new story. The actors were not professional actors, but part of the community, so they were learning new skills as well. They were learning to become actors and I was learning to become a director, all the while I was thinking of the hearing audience. We had a hearing interpreter to provide a voice over, but not a formal every day interpretation, but it was a more theatrical interpretation with intonation and emotion. This was a challenge.

The actors were brilliant, we had lighting that followed them round. I had to think about hearing people and how it appeared visually, I didn’t want them to rely on sound, I wanted them to be able to take in the visual aspects of the play too. It’s a challenge, but a fantastic experience for me.

In the future, I’m not sure I’ll go into directing, as I’m really keen on writing. I’ve got lots of stories from the deaf community. I think deaf people are lucky, we have such a rich culture and lots of diversity, different ethnicities, ages, genders, etc, all within our deaf community. It’s time to share our stories.

10. Do you see a next generation of Deaf talent coming through – if not, how can this be encouraged? If so, how can they be supported?

We definitely have a growing pool of talent across TV, film and theatre. In the UK we have over 122 deaf actors and deaf talent. There is plenty to choose from, the list is getting longer.

There are actors of all ethnicities, black, Asian, middle eastern, white, all using different forms of communication, BSL, SSE, some are oral, some are profoundly deaf, some hard of hearing, it’s beautiful. They’re all out there desperate to tell our stories.

11.You were quite involved in the #Whereistheinterpreter campaign, along with the BSL Act campaign – do you think these legal and legislative decisions will have real change? What needs to be done to build on them?

I am a strong campaigner, this is because both my parents both campaigned for a better education and better rights for me and this has influenced me. I don’t want the next generation to suffer like we did and the generations before us, I want things to improve for them and for us as we get older.

The #wherestheinterpreter campaign is still ongoing. We have a new Prime Minister who is Asian and born in Britain, just like me, but still no interpreter on screen when he talks. I’m jealous of Scotland, as their First Minister always has an interpreter on screen. We can read the English subtitles, but we don’t get the full meaning from that, we need the information clearly in BSL. We are not giving up.

The BSL Act is wonderful, it’s fantastic that it’s been recognised, but it is a first step. There are two big areas that need addressing: education and the NHS. Both are so important and we need to improve access to both; access to the arts needs some work too, but we can focus on that later, education and health services are the most important areas to work on first. However, we can use the arts and write stories to help improve these services. Art is free, we have free speech, we can show people what it is like and our experiences using the arts to campaign for change. The BSL Act is only the start, hopefully it will make positive changes over the next 10 years.

We are not giving up; we will keep campaigning.  Hopefully in 100 years my name will be in the history books as a campaigner for deaf rights.

12.Who insires you and why?

There are two people who inspire me. The first is Dot Miles, she wrote BSL poetry. She is such an inspiration to me. I first saw her on See Hear in the 80s signing her poem Trio and I was hooked. My mother loved to write poetry but the English was hard for me to fully understand. I saw Dot Miles and realised that we could write poetry in BSL. I felt that I was seeing myself on screen, that’s who I am. I told my mum and she saw that creativity in me too and encouraged me to write poetry in BSL.

The second person who inspires me is Liisa Kauppinen, she is a campaigner and the first female President of the WFD, World Federation of the Deaf. She was influential in campaigning for deaf women’s rights. She has influenced me as a woman, she made me reflect upon my campaigning, deaf men are oppressed, but deaf women are even more so, so we need to empower them, we need to do more to promote our rights.

13.What ways do you think hearing people can be allies to the deaf community? Any DOs and DON’Ts?

DON’T film yourself signing a song – we’re not interested in you promoting yourself or showing off that you can sign. What are you trying to do? Why are you learning sign language? To communicate with deaf people.

DO learn sign language and sit and have a conversation or share stories with a deaf person.

DON’T teach sign language, even if you are fluent and involved in the deaf community. Don’t teach sign language if you are hearing.

DO create videos and vlogs with deaf people. You can explain the sounds to them and they can teach signs and share meanings. I would like to see more of that.

14. 3 top tips for deaf people?

1. Believe in yourself, be proud of who you are and build confidence in yourself.

2. Let people see you and accept you for you who are. Don’t change for other people, be yourself. If you’re deaf, oral, hard of hearing, so what? We’re all different. People should accept you for who you are.

3. If you have a dream, do it! Believe in yourself and follow your dreams.

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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