23 Mar The Silent Child – inspiring the hearing community to break down the barrier of silence
When Rachel Shenton signed her acceptance speech at the Oscars ceremony earlier this month, she was focused on sharing this joyous occasion with one little girl in the audience, 6 year old Maisie Sly from Swindon, the profoundly deaf actress who starred in The Silent Child.
Shenton wrote the screenplay and acted in the short film as Joanne, a social worker who teaches sign language to Libby, a 4 year old girl who has been forced to lip read by her family and had no specialist support at school. This outdated view of not allowing a deaf child to communicate through BSL or ASL is more common than we would believe which Shenton has experienced through her work as an ambassador for the National Deaf Children’s Society.
Shenton’s dream to share the story of isolation in being deaf in a hearing society, and how learning sign language can open doors to communication has been building for over ten years. When she was twelve, Shenton’s father Geoff suddenly became deaf when he had chemotherapy. He lived the last two years of his life adapted to a silent life. Rachel learned BSL to communicate with her dad, and eventually qualified as a BSL interpreter.
“Deafness and sign language are extremely close to my heart. I always say deafness is a silent disability, you can’t see and it’s not life-threatening, so it has to touch your life in some way in order for it to be on your radar.”
Her whole adult life has been inspired by her desire to help deaf children to communicate and to educate others so that they can empower communication, teach and share experiences with deaf children. At Advance, we talk about having a “why” to inspire us to create and work towards a goal. Rachel Shenton’s “why” inspired her to not only be an ambassador for deaf children, but to write the screenplay for her short film with her fiancé Chris Overton, the director, to educate the general public to become aware of the importance of BSL to opening communication and learning channels for deaf individuals.
Rachel was inspired to make the film for a mainstream audience following her role in Switched At Birth which became the first mainstream television series to have multiple deaf and hard-of-hearing series regulars, and included whole scenes and even an entire episode shot in ASL. Shenton needed to be a voice for the children who the general public cannot understand.
“The more I got involved with it, the more I saw so many issues that just go unnoticed because it’s silent. There’s a huge lack of education. The thing that gets me all the time, and I say it to everybody, is it isn’t a learning difficulty. With the right support, a deaf child can do exactly the same as a hearing child, yet constantly they’re being failed.”
Shenton’s dream, shared by her fiancé Chris Overton, the film’s director, was to be as authentic as possible to tell the true story of deaf children isolated in some our schools today. The pair contacted every deaf organisation in the UK in their search for a profoundly deaf 5 year old child who wanted to act, and communicated in sign language.
“I’ve been involved in the deaf community for years, and my friends in the community that are actors or performers get very frustrated when they see hearing people portraying a deaf role,” she said. “So that was something that I was never gonna do.”
6 year old Maisie Sly beat over 100 other children to win the role with her acting abilities and charismatic personality. She was born profoundly deaf, the fourth profoundly deaf generation in her family which communicates entirely through BSL. Rachel had promised Maisie that she would give her Academiy Award acceptance speech in BSL if she won so that Maisie could be fully part of the experience.
The Silent Child is special, not just in its story or its young star, but the inspiration to be made, and how it was funded. This film was not given lots of promotional deals, or had a major studio backing it. Shenton and Overton raised £10,000 through the entrepreneur crowdfunding site Indiegogo. Shenton’s mum even held a bake sale to support her daughter so that she could tell this important story.
The UK will finally be able to see this ambitious short film inspired by so much passion and desire to communicate. Although not released in cinemas, The Silent Child will be shown on 30th March at 7.40 p.m. on BBC1.
For Shenton and Oliver, their well deserved Oscar win is the end of a first chapter as the pair are now in the early stages of writing a full length feature film on the same subject to share to a much larger mainstream audience. And in the meantime, her goal is to encourage US to communicate with Maisie and other children and adults like her, to break the silence.
“Everybody should learn sign language, or at least, ‘Hello, do you need help? How are you?’”