Making the arts deaf-friendly
Taking part in art activities can help deaf children and young people to:
- feel more confident
- learn new skills
- improve their communication
- explore and understand their emotions, identity and the world around them
- be creative and imaginative
- broaden their horizons
- have fun.
To be a deaf-friendly arts organisation you need to think about training and awareness for all staff members. This includes arts practitioners, administrators, ushers, helpers or volunteers and other group members. It is important that everyone can adapt activities so deaf children and young people are included in all aspects of the organisation, including at break times and social events.
To help deaf children and young people get the best from arts activities, there are lots of things to think about. This can include the set-up of the room or venue you are working in. Where possible, rearrange the room so that you have a circular or u-shaped set up, rather than blocks of tables, so that everyone can see you. Make sure you are in the centre of the room and that it is well lit. If the light is behind you, it can cause shadow on the face which causes difficulties with lipreading.
Clear signage is important, especially in public venues; if a deaf child is unsure of where to go they may not feel as comfortable to talk to reception staff as a hearing child. If you can, try and arrange a backstage tour ahead of watching a performance, can be useful for deaf children and young people as they can use the extra sensory information to support what they watch during the show.
Find out more about how to create good listening environments and some of the other adaptations you can implement to make the arts deaf-friendly below.
One of the main challenges for deaf young people is missing information or instructions. Take a look at our general communication advice below and further tips aimed at specific arts activities:
- Make sure there is enough light so your lips and body language can be read.
Use visual cues as much as possible and point to what or where you are talking about.
- Demonstrate the movement, position or gesture you would like the child to make. Remember not to speak at the same time.
- Use images and a variety of mixed media.
- If you or other children need to wear a face mask for your arts practice, take it off when talking or giving instructions.
- Ensure the child feels comfortable to ask you to repeat yourself if needed.
- Use a soundproof/quieter room if the young person is struggling or missing information – especially if you are in an echoey hall or studio.
- Turn off music or eliminate background noise.
- With aerial activities it may not be possible to give instructions once they are in the air.
- Give instructions at ground level and check for understanding before their ascent.
- Use pre-agreed signs once they are up high, or agree to gently tug/waggle the silk to get their attention.
- If using a low level tightrope, have someone at their destinations to communicate.
- When teaching skills or giving instructions, get all children to put down equipment before paying attention.
- Do not give demonstrations and speak at the same time.
- Be aware that some deaf children and young people may find balancing activities difficult.
- Balance can be additionally affected when hearing aid(s) or cochlear implant(s) aren’t being worn.
- Talk to the deaf child and their parent or carer and ask how their balance is affected.
Working from a script
- When reading a script for the first time with a group, sit in a circle so that everyone can be seen.
- Be aware a deaf young person may look down at their script and miss what is being said or important cues.
- Go at a steady pace and suggest people raise their hand when they are speaking.
- If it is necessary, you could use a communicator or interpreter to translate the text.
- If BSL is the first language for a deaf child, they may find it harder to work with English on a script so consider using an interpreter to help with this.
- If studying scripts in old English, such as Shakespeare, you can use accompanying guides (those used for GCSE or A-Level English) to translate the text into plain English, then into British Sign Language.
- Visual symbols can be used to support learning scripts, signs or stage directions. These can be drawn next to text.
Scriptwriting and devising
- Devising drama may be more accessible than working from a script. This way each person's communication method can be integrated into the play, for example, sign language users can sign their part, with another child providing the voice-over.
- When script writing, use visual approaches to develop the script, like creating a storyboard or tableaux or using mime.
- Maximise the use of visual cues.
- Check with the deaf child during rehearsals if they can hear auditory cues, as this varies with levels of deafness.
- Where auditory cues are needed, have someone on the opposite side of the stage/venue to signal when to go on stage.
- If you use a tannoy system to call performers to the stage you could consider these options:
- Buddy a deaf child up with another child who can hear the calls and relay the information.
- Designate a staff member, i.e. stage manager, to go to the child’s dressing room in person.
- Give directions before any blackouts.
- Tell deaf children and young people if a blackout will be taking place and how long it will be.
- During a blackout have a small lamp backstage.
- Make sure the deaf child or young person is with another person when the lights go out.
- Remember to ask the young person if they are comfortable/happy to have the light go out as some may find it distressing.
- After giving instructions allow time for the child to look at their camera before talking again.
- Consider providing a list of photography jargon and terms and the explanations in a visual way ahead of the lesson starting. If using an interpreter, they will need a copy too.
- When printing photographs in darkrooms, the lighting will be very low, so ask the young person what works for them. You may have to go outside to talk.
- Go through all instructions and darkroom rules before going into the darkroom. You could also provide written instructions students can take into the darkroom with them.
- Position yourself so that they can read your lips and see gestures clearly.
- Give verbal instructions first, without movement, whilst facing the deaf child/young person, followed by a practical demonstration.
- Practise the routine facing the class. If there are mirrors in the room, make sure the deaf child is placed where they can see you in the mirror too.
- Eliminate additional background noise by turning the music off before giving instructions.
- Dance routines can be broken down into clear rhythmical patterns such as ‘step, punch, flick and drop, 5, turn, jump and hold’ with a demonstration, rather than just counting. This helps to develop their sense of visual/kinaesthetic rhythm too.
- If using unfamiliar terminology to deaf children who rely on lipreading, it is very helpful to produce written/visual information that explains what is being said. For example, it will be very difficult to lip-read the words ‘demi-plié’ in a ballet class if they are not familiar with the language.
Music and dance
- It may be that the child or young person can hear the music or feel the bass/beat. Using a live drum/instrument can be more effective than a recorded track. If this is not the case, teach the young person to understand the beat/rhythm visually first and then introduce the music.
- Use visual clues, such as a hand movement or clap to signal the beat.
When sound is part of dance
If you teach dance where sound is part of the dance, such as Irish dancing or tap, a deaf student may not be able to hear the sound from their shoes. Read our tips for making Irish dance or tap deaf-friendly:
- You will need to teach them to understand how their foot feels when the correct sound is produced, therefore linking the association between foot movements/positioning and sound.
- A deaf dancer may be aware of the vibrations of the music. If this is the case, they may well be able to follow the music and rhythm. If the music is not reverberating enough, visual clues/cues could be used – a drum, for example.
- If the deaf child or young person can be taught how to count the beats, then even if they cannot access the music they can still dance in time by learning to beat their feet using the correct rhythm. Provided they start on time with the music, they should be able to stay in time.
- Learning to count in time with the music can be taught using simple clapping exercises, distinguishing between whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, eighth notes, sixteenth notes and accented notes with and without syncopation.