How Dad's Deafness Inspired Me to Learn Sign Language

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), August 7, 2011 | Go to article overview

How Dad's Deafness Inspired Me to Learn Sign Language


Byline: Bonnie Estridge

Rachel Shenton was just 12 years old when her father Geoff lost his hearing. The Hollyoaks actress, who plays aspiring WAG Ann 'Mitzeee' Minniver (a character insiders claim is based on Cheryl Cole) in the series, says: 'Dad went deaf in his right ear overnight. He had made a full recovery from throat cancer when he was 59 but his hearing was badly damaged.

'His doctors put this down to the chemotherapy treatment he was having, but told us they believed this would be a temporary side effect and were adamant it wouldn't happen to the other ear. Unfortunately, ten months later, the hearing in Dad's left ear did fail and he spent the last two years of his life until he died in 2001 profoundly deaf.' Rachel, now 24, says her father was philosophical about his hearing as he had made such a good recovery from cancer, and did not become depressed despite what had happened.

However, she was so affected by his plight that two years after his death, of causes unrelated to the cancer, she trained as a British Sign Language (BSL) interpreter - and today has agreed to become ambassador for Viewtalk, a new 'chatroom' website designed especially for the deaf. Users are able to upload film clips of video-conferences in real time, and in the future the service will be used to offer online courses in BSL.

'Dad could speak with a strong voice,' recalls Rachel. 'And luckily he was very good at lip-reading so he was able to disguise his deafness well. He tried various hearing aids but would find them fiddly and uncomfortable and, worse, they often made horrible high-pitched noises.

'It would upset me when we watched TV because the programmes are rarely subtitled. It could be difficult for him to keep up sometimes.' Rachel, who grew up in Caverswall near Stoke-on-Trent, was eight years old when she persuaded her parents to let her take drama lessons, going on to gain a National Diploma in Performing Arts at her local college. By the time she was 17, she had landed a lead role as a young AIDS sufferer in BBC hospital drama Holby City, followed by appearances in Waterloo Road, Sofia's Diary and Doctors. But Rachel's father's plight had affected her deeply and at the age of 16 - two years after his death - she decided to enrol for evening classes in BSL.

'Dad was always in my thoughts, of course, and I wanted to be able to help people who were deaf to communicate well enough so that they would not feel isolated, as I'm sure he must have done at times. At first I simply wanted to get a basic understanding of sign language, but as time went on I really got the bug and wanted to become proficient so that I could make good use of my skills. …

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