Turning up the volume on hidden disability
As long-running British medical drama Casualty dedicates an episode to its first regular deaf character, DQ speaks to actor Gabriella Leon and writers Charlie Swinbourne and Sophie Woolley about shining a light on this hidden disability.
Since it debuted on BBC1 in September 1986, medical drama Casualty has become a staple of the UK pubcaster’s Saturday night schedule. Set in the fictional Holby City Hospital, it follows the staff and numerous patients who pass through its Accident and Emergency department.
Now in its 34th season, the BBC Studios production has highlighted issues such as dementia, rape, OCD and organ donation, as well as becoming known for spectacular action scenes including fires and car, train and helicopter crashes. For the season 31 finale, Casualty also pushed production boundaries by filming an episode in a single take.
But in a new milestone for the show, its latest episode unfolds from the perspective of nurse Jade Lovall, the series’ first regular deaf character, as she reaches the conclusion of a storyline that has seen her searching for her birth mother.
Though it might be just another day on the emergency ward, with a cyclist being treated for head injuries and a heart transplant patient suffering dizzying collapses, viewers will spend the day with Jade and experience a small part of what life is like living with a hearing impairment when the episode airs tomorrow.
From waking to an alarm that uses flashing lights and vibrations to the muffled audio that only sharpens once she turns on her hearing aid, it is an eye-opening insight into Jade’s life. Loud noises trigger her hyperacusis (sensitivity to noise), while the ringing sound of tinnitus underneath dialogue punctuates the drama at regular intervals.
Seemingly simple tasks such as ordering a coffee are used to dramatise the struggle people with hearing difficulties can have when trying to communicate with those who are unaware of their hidden disability, while the episode also touches on the prejudices experienced by people who are hard of hearing.
Gabriella Leon, who plays Jade and has a hearing impairment in real life, joined the cast of Casualty in 2018 after answering an audition call for women who were not defined by their disability. “I identify with that,” she tells DQ.
Her character is “funny, endearing and perhaps a little clumsy,” she explains. “Jade’s a loyal friend and really cares about her patients and being a part of a team. She is a shining example of someone who is not defined by her invisible disability or her troubled upbringing and, despite the odds, has achieved what she has. Jade is always up for a laugh and a party.”
Though Casualty has previously featured guest characters with hearing impairments, Jade became the show’s first regular deaf character. Admitting she was surprised when she was told the news of her recurring part, Leon says she saw it as an opportunity to educate and normalise seeing characters with disabilities on screen. Her role off-screen involves ongoing conversations with the story team and writers about how to best portray Jade’s disability, which can often be based on her own real-life experiences.
“I always encourage working with a deaf team of creatives when specifically focusing on Jade’s disability, as it’s really important to me that everything is authentic,” she says. “It involves rehearsals with British Sign Language [BSL] monitors and interpreters to incorporate BSL and Sign Supported English, translating the script from English to BSL and making sure the signs we’re choosing are relevant and authentic for Jade and the person she’s signing with.”
Her current storyline sees Jade confronted by her past, as she decides the time is right to finally meet her birth mother. On the day of their meeting, she’s also dealing with a particularly hard day at work.
“This episode is really special. I have so many emotions!” Leon says. “There is such a lovely personal angle in the storytelling that I hope the audience can really get behind. Jade is faced with some overwhelming decisions and it’s a testament to herself, how she approaches these things. It’s a celebration of someone with a disability, in really being able to understand and experience what Jade is going through. It’s a triumph that the whole team should really be proud of.”
The episode is written by Charlie Swinbourne and Sophie Woolley and directed by John Maidens, all of whom are also deaf. Leon says she’d been pushing to do a story that would explore both a ‘day in the life of Jade’ and her character’s past spent in foster care, “and I’d said that deaf writers should do the episode,” she says. “We had a meeting to explore where we could see this going and it blossomed from there. There is something really satisfying and special working with people that share the same struggles and victories as you in terms of disability. Charlie and Sophie are wonderful to work with.”
In autumn 2018, after Swinbourne and Woolley had joined the BBC Writers Room’s Writers Access Group along with other writers with disabilities, they were invited to visit the set of BBC daytime drama Doctors in Birmingham, where Loretta Preece was the producer. When Preece moved to Casualty, Leon spoke to her about exploring Jade’s disability, and Swinbourne and Woolley came to Cardiff, where the show is filmed, to discuss potential stories.
At the same time, Swinbourne was also involved in writing stories for fellow BBC soap EastEnders, involving character Ben Mitchell coming to terms with hearing loss and the introduction of deaf character Frankie, played by deaf actor Rose Ayling-Ellis.
“The big difference was that for EastEnders, I wrote and pitched a long-running storyline that was going to play out over many months,” he says. “With Casualty, we were focusing on one day in Jade’s life, one episode, and I was co-writing the script.
“As with my previous work, the aim was to tell an authentic story about being deaf, how it goes beyond just not hearing things, or having to work hard to lipread, but also how it shifts everything. I wanted to take the audience into a world they might not have experienced before, and for them to see new sides of characters they might have felt they already knew.”
The writers collaborated over email, Skype and WhatsApp, putting their own lives and experiences into Jade’s story. “Deafness is a hidden disability and, for that reason, it’s often misunderstood,” Swinbourne says. “People just don’t see the work that goes on beneath the surface when you’re deaf in a hearing world. I hope that, through this episode, the audience will get a different sense of Jade, see her inner world and what her life is really like – not only through her deafness, but also by meeting her mother and finding out the truth about her early years.”
Woolley says she “loved every minute” of working on Casualty, her first TV writing credit, having previously acted and written for screen, radio and the stage.
“After visiting Cardiff and speaking with Gabriella about her experience and the research she’d done for her character about meeting her birth parents, we wrote a draft every two weeks and had notes from the script editor and the medical editor, with the comments from their medical advisors,” she says. “I was over the moon when I found out [deaf actor] Sophie Stone had been cast as well [as Jade’s birth mother Susie].”
Woolley, who went deaf over a 20-year period, reveals she has experienced a wide range of different deaf identities, from wearing hearing aids to lipreading and using BSL interpreters at work. She now has a cochlear implant, which helps her to hear well, but says she could relate a lot to Jade’s experience, which was made more authentic by the number of deaf creatives working on the episode.
“It makes a big difference in a show-making process to have more deaf people in all parts of the creative team,” she says. “If the only deaf person in the team is one deaf actor and they are asked to do an inauthentic line or directed to do something a deaf character would not do, it puts that deaf actor in a position of having to decide whether to say, ‘Actually, my character would never do this.’”
Working with director Maidens was “brilliant because, as a deaf director, he really understood everything in the script and related to it on a personal level,” Swinbourne says. “We were able to talk to him before filming about our intentions in certain scenes, how things might play out. I was also able to visit the set during filming and see him in action. He did an incredible job in this episode and made our script come to life.”
Leon also describes working with Maidens as “an absolute dream,” adding: “He’s one of the most prepared and creative directors I’ve ever worked with. He really made my experience so very memorable, and it was a really joyous set working on this. Again, it’s comforting to have other deaf creatives around me who understand. It makes the work so much more poignant, because they know themselves the best way to go about this.
“I want to see more d/Deaf [differentiating between deaf people who are hard of hearing and may lipread or use hearing aids, and deaf people who use sign language] and disabled creatives involved in episodes that aren’t necessarily connected to disability. A diversified set is rich and always makes the work better.”
For Swinbourne, the key to the success of the episode is authenticity. “Working with writers, directors and actors with experience of deafness and disability is key, because we’ve lived it, we know how complex it is and what’s interesting or novel about it,” he says. “This episode had two deaf writers and a deaf director, and starred two talented deaf actresses. Every one of us fed our own experiences into our area of work.
“Too often when deafness and disability is portrayed, there can be an illusion of representation, because often very few deaf or disabled people have been involved in making it, on screen or off. I hope this episode is a big step forward for the industry in realising what deaf talent can do, and I hope we are helping to open the door for more of our peers to follow behind us and show what they can do. There are so many talented people out there who deserve an opportunity.”
Leon’s message to those seeking to improve representation of disabled people in the television business is succinct: hire them. “It’s so important to actively go looking for d/Deaf and disabled talent for on and off-screen roles. It’s time for stories to be told by a different narrator and angle. Honour our stories by actually having people with disabilities play people with disabilities – the work and talent will be immense.
“Equally, it’s doubly imperative for them not just to be used as ‘disabled characters’ but ‘characters that happen to have a disability,’ where that fact isn’t integral or even mentioned in the plot. That is how the industry normalises having d/Deaf and disabled talent represented, and a new wave of layered incredible stories will emerge for our viewing pleasure.
“There needs to be a genuine want for change, for better inclusivity, and a want to learn and be educated. There also needs to be a continuation of establishing characters like Jade, who isn’t defined by her disability but it is a part of her and her experience of life, and having more narratives from people with disabilities, written and created by people with disabilities. This is why I’m so proud of this episode and the work Casualty are pushing to do more of.”