My mother said learn­ing I was deaf was worse than when she had can­cer

With a string of roles in hit TV dra­mas, she’s prov­ing her dis­abil­ity is no bar­rier to suc­cess — yet in this mov­ing in­ter­view ac­tress Genevieve Barr re­veals...

Scottish Daily Mail - - Fe­mail Style - by Jenny John­ston

EV­ERY ac­tor knows how to draw on real-life ex­pe­ri­ences for a role. Genevieve Barr is talk­ing about the re­verse — how a part helped her pre­pare for a mo­men­tous chap­ter in her own life.

The role was as a deaf and mute mother-to-be in Call The Mid­wife, who com­mu­ni­cates in sign lan­guage dur­ing labour and has con­flict­ing emo­tions about her baby. will the child be born hear­ing, or deaf? The char­ac­ter, June, is torn, know­ing that ei­ther way she will never be able to con­verse with her baby.

Genevieve — cur­rently star­ring along­side Sarah Lan­cashire in Chan­nel 4 drama The Ac­ci­dent — needed lessons to play June. Al­though the 33-year-old has been deaf since birth she’d never learned sign lan­guage, so an ex­pert was drafted in. Five years on, she is a mother. Her lit­tle boy is one year old. She says that tele­vi­sion trial run was good prepa­ra­tion for his ar­rival.

‘I spent a lot of time when I was preg­nant think­ing about whether he’d be deaf or not. I was so ner­vous when they did the hear­ing tests. But be­cause of Call The Mid­wife I’d thought about it. I knew that, if any­thing, I’d be at an ad­van­tage if the baby was deaf — since it would be a shared ex­pe­ri­ence.’

Her lit­tle boy is not deaf, as it hap­pens, which brings a new set of con­cerns. She says now her big­gest worry is whether she can keep up with his speech de­vel­op­ment.

A hear­ing aid gives her a cer­tain level of am­pli­fi­ca­tion, but around 50 per cent of her com­mu­ni­ca­tion comes from lip read­ing. Tricky with tod­dlers.

‘I did worry I wouldn’t be able to fully un­der­stand him. I lis­ten to other tod­dlers and I have no idea what they are say­ing — they flum­mox me. But hope­fully be­cause I’m there with him at ev­ery stage, pick­ing up on ev­ery sound as it hap­pens, it will be dif­fer­ent.’

There are other chal­lenges, which may not be im­me­di­ately ob­vi­ous. Genevieve has a vi­brat­ing baby mon­i­tor, for in­stance. But it’s her son who is her great­est ally, al­though he doesn’t yet know — or care — that his mother can­not hear.

‘He’s quite a pushy, bossy child. If he feels I’m ig­nor­ing him, he will push my legs, or come right up to my face. He’s good at get­ting my at­ten­tion.’

De­spite be­ing able to hear, he will grow up with sub­ti­tles on the TV. ‘I can’t lip-read the car­toons,’ she laughs. ‘So he is go­ing to be stuck with the sub­ti­tles.’

Genevieve is used to tak­ing chal­lenges in her stride. She was preg­nant when she was of­fered the part of Deb­bie Kethin in The Ac­ci­dent, and so had to stop breast-feed­ing the day be­fore film­ing started. Dif­fi­cult tim­ing, but the job was one she sim­ply couldn’t turn down.

Deb­bie lives in a close knit town, her hus­band has died in a con­struc­tion ac­ci­dent which has hit the com­mu­nity hard and there are ques­tions over whether he was to blame.

Most of her ma­jor act­ing jobs be­fore had been play­ing char­ac­ters whose deaf­ness was nec­es­sary for the plot (she made her BBC de­but in the crit­i­cally-ac­claimed The Si­lence in 2010, play­ing a deaf teenager who wit­nesses a mur­der). This part is dif­fer­ent.

Her char­ac­ter Deb­bie Kethin is deaf, but she didn’t need to be for the pur­poses of the story — the show’s cre­ator Jack Thorne sim­ply wanted Genevieve to have the part.

In­ter­est­ingly, if there were ever go­ing to be bar­ri­ers in her way in the act­ing world, it wasn’t be­cause of her in­abil­ity to hear.

Rather, the is­sue has al­ways been about her speech. ‘It’s the first thing peo­ple no­tice,’ she says.

Her voice is recog­nis­ably that of a deaf per­son — slightly nasal and some­times muf­fled. It is not a voice we are used to hear­ing on TV.

‘You just don’t hear voices like mine in the me­dia,’ she agrees. ‘Rarely on TV. Never on ra­dio. I think that’s ter­ri­ble. I’d like us to be in a po­si­tion where hear­ing a deaf voice is nor­mal, just like hear­ing an­other ac­cent.’

How much she should strive to sound ‘nor­mal’ (by which we mean like a hear­ing per­son) is quite the con­ver­sa­tion point to­day.

For most of her life she has had speech ther­a­pists. Un­til five years ago she had a voice coach, who sadly died. Since then, she hasn’t worked with a re­place­ment. ‘It’s a dif­fi­cult one,’ she says.

‘How can I put this? Me work­ing with a voice coach isn’t like an ac­tor work­ing on an ac­cent they can drop af­ter a par­tic­u­lar job. For me it’s a life­long thing. But there’s a care­ful bal­ance to be had.

‘Yes, I have to work to im­prove my voice, so the pub­lic can un­der­stand what I’m say­ing, but I also need a healthy men­tal­ity about it. If I as­pire to sound just like a hear­ing per­son, that sug­gests I can’t ac­cept my­self for who I am — and the deaf iden­tity I have.’

So work­ing on her voice to the point where peo­ple can­not tell she’s deaf would be sell­ing out? ‘Yes,

I think so. It sug­gests I should be ashamed of my voice, and that’s wrong.’

Genevieve never set out to be an ac­tress but fell into the world when a friend, who had writ­ten a screen­play with a deaf char­ac­ter, asked her to help out — and she was smit­ten.

It was an easy first break, which — rather sweetly — she sounds apolo­getic about. she wor­ries that she got the part

be­cause she was deaf. ‘some peo­ple could call it op­por­tunis­tic, but then again I wasn’t go­ing to let it go. When things come your way you have to go with it, with ev­ery fi­bre of your be­ing.’

From child­hood, Genevieve was a high-achiever. The el­dest of four sib­lings, she grew up on a farm near Har­ro­gate (‘let’s face it — the most mid­dle-class, most white, most priv­i­leged place you can get’). Her fa­ther Robert is a com­pany di­rec­tor, work­ing in the travel and trans­port in­dus­tries and her mother Caro­line is a writer. They were floored when they were told their first­born was pro­foundly deaf. ‘It’s weird, as an adult who is deaf, when your par­ents talk about how dis­traught they were that you were born deaf. I think about it now and won­der “was it that bad re­ally?”.’

A few years ago, her mother was di­ag­nosed with breast can­cer. In a con­ver­sa­tion about the di­ag­no­sis, she con­fided some­thing that left Genevieve reel­ing: that re­ceiv­ing the news that her baby was deaf was more dev­as­tat­ing than the news she had can­cer.

‘It struck a nerve,’ Genevieve ad­mits now. ‘How could the phys­i­cal tri­als and fear that goes with hav­ing can­cer be re­motely equiv­a­lent to be­ing born deaf?’

Yet the way her par­ents dealt with her deaf­ness was ex­tra­or­di­nary. The fam­ily didn’t know any other deaf peo­ple (‘there weren’t any — other than old peo­ple’) and she grew up very much in a ‘hear­ing world’.

‘My par­ents’ at­ti­tude was very much “you are deaf, but it doesn’t mat­ter. You will just have to work harder than every­one else, but hard work is good for you”. They tried hard to cre­ate a safe space for me to be hap­pily deaf.’

There are vary­ing the­o­ries on how to raise a deaf child. some rec­om­mend the use of sign lan­guage over speech. Other ex­perts push learn­ing to lis­ten as a pri­or­ity, be­fore try­ing to speak.

Her par­ents thought she needed to speak to fit into a hear­ing world, so her mum spent end­less hours talk­ing to her with an in­flated bal­loon held be­tween them, so she could feel the vi­bra­tions of her speech.

‘My mum used to sing nurs­ery rhymes, and I’d mouth the words back. I learned that mov­ing the lips was a form of com­mu­ni­ca­tion long be­fore I learned that there was sound be­hind it.’ sign lan­guage was never part of the pic­ture.

At school, she was aca­dem­i­cally gifted (a straight-A stu­dent, she went on to study English at Ed­in­burgh Univer­sity). she was also sporty.

AT 15, she rep­re­sented Eng­land at rounders, At univer­sity she was lacrosse cap­tain, and played for the scot­tish na­tional team. she met her hus­band, Alex, on the rugby pitch.

‘Dis­abil­ity, what dis­abil­ity?’ some might say. It may be the ap­proach she was brought up with, and one that has served her well, but her at­ti­tude has since grown more com­pli­cated.

‘Dis­abil­ity is still not a spo­ken-out-loud thing in this coun­try, and I think it should be,’ she says. ‘When I was grow­ing up it was al­ways a lit­tle bit slipped-un­der-the-ta­ble.’

Her voice falls to a whis­per: ‘“Oh she’s deaf; she’s dis­abled”. I think the more I met other deaf peo­ple, the more I had to rene­go­ti­ate what be­ing deaf meant.

‘It wasn’t about say­ing “I am deaf”, and park­ing it. It was about demon­strat­ing that you can have a dis­abil­ity and have it be a fas­ci­nat­ing pos­i­tive thing.

I’ve come to ap­pre­ci­ate how proud the deaf com­mu­nity is. It’s who you are, who I am.’

Her big­gest gripe is when her deaf­ness is pre­sented as a prob­lem to be solved. ‘It’s not. Peo­ple who live with a dis­abil­ity don’t want to see them­selves as strug­gling, but as thriv­ing.’

Peo­ple who live with a dis­abil­ity also want to see them­selves rep­re­sented on screen. ‘We’ve had this strug­gle in terms of gen­der and race, but we are still fight­ing it in terms of dis­abil­ity.’

sur­pris­ingly, the Os­car win­ner lists are awash with big names who have played char­ac­ters with a dis­abil­ity to ac­claim — such as Dustin Hoff­man, Tom Hanks and Daniel Day Lewis.

‘The sta­tis­tics are amaz­ing,’ she says. ‘If there is an Os­car nom­i­nee who is play­ing a dis­abled char­ac­ter, they are more likely to win. But some­thing like 80 per cent of dis­abled char­ac­ters are played by ac­tors who are not dis­abled.’

Does she think such char­ac­ters should only be played by dis­abled ac­tors, then?

‘No — but I think there should be a level play­ing field.’

she does, how­ever, think we’re mak­ing progress. ‘I’m not sure I’ve bro­ken through the glass ceil­ing,’ she says.

‘But per­haps I’m nudg­ing it. At least my head is against it.’

THE Ac­ci­dent is on Chan­nel 4 tonight at 9pm.

Big break: Genevieve and Dou­glas Hen­shall in The Si­lence

New drama: (From left) Genevieve Barr, Sarah Lan­cashire and Mark Lewis-Jones in The Ac­ci­dent shown on Chan­nel 4

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