Opinion

Saffron Barker’s hard of hearing documentary review – A problematic pity party

It shouldn’t be a surprise that a social media star, who still fails to caption her Instagram and YouTube content, expressed shock and pity at the challenges faced by the deaf and hard of hearing community.

People unfamiliar to the world of online content creation will instead recognise 19-year-old Saffron Barker from her appearance on BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing. Together with dance partner AJ Pritchard, she left secret messages to deaf fans in British Sign Language (BSL) during her time on the show.

Now, in her own contribution to YouTube’s Creator Spotlight series, Saffron reveals she was hard of hearing as a child, before deciding to explore “the deaf world I could have been a part of” and creating a music video to raise awareness of clear masks – a face mask with a clear window which can make it easier for deaf and hard of hearing people to lipread others.

For what it’s worth, there are some conversations in the video which are genuinely honest and insightful. Mum Wendy’s description of her emotional reaction to Saffron’s childhood deafness wasn’t far removed from my own initial reaction to being told I may benefit from having hearing aids. There’s also an important discussion with Saffron and her grandad Peter over loneliness and social isolation that can come from noisy environments. While we hear a lot about older people with deafness, and about this demographic suffering from loneliness, the intersection is rarely considered.

In exploring the challenges and problems faced by the deaf and hard of hearing community (of which the above are only two of several negative experiences shown or mentioned in the duration of the video), Saffron – with the help of Deaf YouTuber Jasmine ‘Jazzy’ Whipps, who introduces her to them – sees transparent face masks as the primary solution. Yet, as any deaf or hard of hearing person would tell you, there is more than just one thing you can do to be deaf aware and help the community – not least during the current coronavirus pandemic. Learning basic sign language, writing messages down on a phone and not talking with your backs to us are just some tips from a longer list of advice. It’s disappointing that none of these were mentioned, especially when not all deaf or hard of hearing people – myself included – rely mainly on lipreading during everyday conversations.

It isn’t the only unfortunate oversight by those involved in the project, either. The video describes the mini-documentary as Saffron looking into “what life is like for the hard-of-hearing”, failing to acknowledge the different identities which sit in the wider deaf community – namely hard of hearing and mildly/moderately/severely/profoundly deaf. BSL user Jazzy, for example, is the latter.

The lack of research or general knowledge of the deaf and hard of hearing community is painfully apparent. Saffron remarks that “no one knows [clear masks] are out there”, despite increased publicity around the issue from deaf charities and, most recently, the UK Government following the procurement of clear masks for healthcare workers.

Add to that the ‘problem and solution’ narrative underpinning the video, and the documentary’s approach becomes a lot more concerning.

“I think what I remember the most is how many things [it] didn’t allow me to do,” explains Saffron in a conversation about her childhood deafness with her Mum. In every conversation with a deaf or hard of hearing person which follows, the line of questions, or the framing, soon turn to the negative. “So what would you say, for you, is probably the biggest challenge,” Saffron asks Jazzy. “I think the worst thing is that grandad, he loves the social life,” reveals grandma Ivy.

“[This journey] really made me remember why I did feel lonely and frustrated and angry at times,” Barker concludes. “Meeting all of these amazing deaf people, it’s helped me see their frustration and how hard it is for them to communicate.” When your main takeaway from interacting with members of the deaf and hard of hearing community is not its beautiful culture and diversity, but how difficult their life can be, then you know you have a problem. Yes, deaf people like me encounter barriers to everyday conversation all the time – as does the wider disabled community – but there are also many positives. Dwelling on the challenges undermines your efforts to raise helpful and constructive deaf awareness, instead turning it into a pity party, with Saffron presented as a ‘hearing saviour’ by promoting clear masks to a wider audience.

Not only that, but with a heavy focus on the barriers, the potential for so-called ‘inspiration porn’ increases exponentially. Coined by the late Stella Young, the term details the fawning done by non-disabled person when an individual achieves something despite their disability, or a disabled person being viewed as inspirational simply for existing. We see a hint of this with Saffron commenting on the communication barriers Jazzy faces, remarking that it’s “incredible how she deals with that every single day”. Throw in a short music video at the end – which, to their credit and perhaps rather refreshingly, actually involves a Deaf person doing sign song – and it’s either that viewers pity deaf people, or view us as inspirations. Neither is appropriate.

Though as I browse the comments underneath Saffron’s video, it appears most of  her audience shares a similar perception of deafness after viewing the content. One describes it as a “hard topic”, while another writes that “it breaks my heart that Grandad is losing his hearing”. It’s one of many which uses ‘broken heart’ – or words to that effect – to describe the experience of Saffron’s Grandad. At first glance, few comments are made around clear masks and other methods to make communication accessible. It may seem harsh, but Saffron’s video genuinely seems to have caused more harm than good.

This view is strengthened when you consider, as I mentioned previously, that the presenter of the documentary can’t even caption her social media content for her deaf and hard of hearing audience after the video going live. Considering all of the above, one has to wonder just how much deaf awareness the Creator Spotlight managed to raise in the first place.

Saffron’s video is available to view online with captions now, over on her YouTube channel.


Photo: Saffron Barker/YouTube.

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