Framing Deafness

A series of films by Alexandra Tomkins

1. Deaf frame of reference

2. Deaf dignity

3. Deafness is not ignorance

‘Language is central to culture, heritage and identity. The right to use your own language is an international human right’. (Human Rights Commission 2016).

‘The biggest challenge I’ve faced was living in a hearing community, where people don’t know sign language. That’s why it was so important for me to come to school and join a deaf community.’ (David, Personal Interview 2015) 

Over five percent of the world’s population are considered “hearing-disabled” among whom only twenty percent use sign language as their first language. Most deaf persons are located in economically disadvantaged parts of the world with low access to medical treatment, including significant numbers of youth who often lack access to specialist schools and are linguistically isolated, either because they or their family members do not know sign language. This is especially relevant to Sub-Saharan Africa where few specialist schools exist and the majority of the population lives in rural areas, meaning many deaf people go their whole lives without being exposed to sign language or meeting other deaf people.

‘Framing Deafness’ is shaped by the life stories of and made in collaboration with young deaf persons at Wakiso Secondary School for the Deaf, Uganda. It explores the relationship between deafness, language and community, with a special focus on the impacts of social and linguistic isolation, and how sign language and gesture has the potential to create and sustain modes of thought, empathy and communal experience among deaf young persons who are otherwise excluded from language and community.

The project brings to life how (sign) language acquisition impacts a deaf person’s sense of community and belonging, focusing on the critical moment at which a deaf person is introduced to sign-language, and the significance of sign-language as a non-verbal means for sustaining and creating community among deaf persons and their wider communities.

‘Framing Deafness’ offered a socially inclusive means of transferring key skills and including deaf young people within the learning process through the collaborative production of three short films: A Deaf Frame of Reference, Deaf Dignity and Deafness is not Ignorance. Each film is a representation of the shared experiences, and personal life stories, of deaf Ugandan youth, and were scripted, acted and filmed by the young people themselves. The young people grew in confidence and creativity throughout the film-making process, with many expressing an interest to continue photography and film-making as a hobby or future career.

As a deaf-led project, the film-making process provided key insights into deaf communication and the opportunity to explore a new film grammar suited to deaf ways of being. As a visual language, signers have to be in shot at all times directly addressing the camera. The direct nature of sign language builds another kind of affinity, and community, between the actors in the film and the viewers.

‘Framing Deafness’ questions and document perceptions and experiences of deafness, including deaf people’s place in society, and the transformative effect sign-language acquisition has on the social relations of deaf youth in Uganda.