HearingLikeMe recently caught up with Gabriella Leon. We asked what life is like as a deaf actor on one of the most popular weekly series on British TV.
HLM: What type of hearing loss do you have and how does it affect you?
Gabriella: I have a neurosensorial hearing loss that is moderate to severe. I have constant tinnitus and a condition called hyperacusis. Due to damaged hair cells, I have a sensitivity to sounds above a certain frequency or volume that causes me pain. The mid-range frequency where human conversation takes place is where I’m affected the most. I lipread and have really good speech. Assumptions and judgements around deafness, in relation to me, is the biggest daily challenge I face and overcome. I’m really proud of being deaf and wouldn’t change a thing.
HLM: How long have you been deaf?
Gabriella: I have been deaf from birth. This wasn’t discovered until I was 18 after attending a music festival and feeling like I was having a different experience to my friends. I thought lipreading was normal! Not sure how I got through ¾ of my education without knowing, and therefore not having support and access. But here I am, not limiting myself to anything and affirming that you can do anything. Deaf people are so resilient and are so used to doing all the work in making sure communication with the hearing world is working. It’s time the roles changed and the importance of access and inclusivity is at the forefront of society (also so we don’t have to work so hard!).
When I found out I was deaf so much of my life so far made sense. I’ve been on such a journey discovering my deaf identity, learning and being involved with the deaf community and deaf culture, and I’m still enjoying discovering new things about myself and my deafness.
HLM: How often do you use British Sign Language (BSL) and when did you begin learning it?
Gabriella: Finding out I was deaf at 18, I didn’t have the privilege of accessing BSL growing up. But I love languages, so learning sign has been a very fulfilling and incredible thing. I love that there’s always more to learn. It’s insane how [much] clearer communicating is for me when sign language is involved. It is a beautiful language. Working with my interpreters and meeting other deaf actors in the industry [and] being friends with them is the best way to learn and practice. BSL is a part of my daily life as an extra tool with my lipreading.
Read more: How to learn sign language
HLM: You are a native Spanish speaker, as well as English, have you learned any Spanish Sign Language (Lengua de Signos Espanola, LSE)?
Gabriella: My Papa is Spanish, so he spoke to me in Spanish growing up, and my mum in English. I think it’s an incredible skill to lipread in two languages, so I’m really proud of that! Though I do get rusty! Sadly, I am the only deaf person in my family on both sides so I haven’t been able to access LSE to learn any, but perhaps this is something for the future.
HLM: Being deaf do you consider yourself as having a disability? if so, how does this affect your perception of yourself?
Gabriella: Yes, I do. Disability is not a bad or negative word. I have access needs and a [more] unique experience of the world than others. It is often my strength and not my weakness. Social, work, or environmental situations “disable” us when they are not accessible or deaf aware. Other than that, I continue to live my life in the way I want to live it.
HLM: What made you choose to go into acting as a career?
Gabriella: I’ve always loved telling stories and was performing and making shows in our living room with my sisters from a young age. I could never see myself doing anything else. I just always wanted to tell stories and be other people. Drama and dance classes were always seen as training for myself as well as something fun. I remember telling my mum at a really young age that I wanted to move to London and be an actor.
Read more: How my hearing loss helps my acting
HLM: Did you find it difficult being deaf at drama school? If yes, what were the challenges and how did you overcome them?
Gabriella: When I started training at drama school, I was less than six months into my diagnosis, had very little knowledge of my deaf identity, and what rights I had to access and support. I worked extremely hard in making sure my communication was smooth and easy, often bending backwards to accommodate others. People would have had no idea what was going on for me, getting used to my hearing aids and the difficulty I had just to appear unaffected. There’s a lot of “eyes closed” exercises in drama schools, so I would have to have both eyes open following the teacher’s lips round the room, so I could take part in the exercise.
I learned a lot about myself and my stamina. My deafness makes me a better actor. I’m a really great listener because listening is a completely active thing for deaf people. I graduated with a first-class honors degree and have many happy memories of my time training. So, yes it was difficult navigating drama school being deaf, but it never stopped me from achieving and attaining goals.
Read more: This British actress isn’t afraid to flaunt her hearing aids
HLM: At drama school did you associate with any other deaf students because of your understanding of the community and your personal experience?
Gabriella: I was the only person in my year at drama school who was deaf. So I only really found the community and my deaf identity once I’d left.
HLM: Hearing people all too often have low expectations for deaf people and assume that they cannot succeed in many areas where hearing is assumed to be crucial. However, you are a dancer and a singer. You are skilled in karate and kickboxing. You are also trained and skilled in physical theater. What is your secret?
Gabriella: I can’t deny that perhaps the sad narrative is, as a child I or others weren’t aware of my hearing loss. Therefore I was never discouraged to follow my dreams or do things I wanted to do like karate and drama classes etc. Because I wasn’t seen as having a disability, even though I’ve struggled all of my life, there was never any question that I couldn’t or shouldn’t do some things. So the secret is, only you know what you’re capable of. Honestly, the answer is everything! I always want to encourage children and young people to not limit themselves by assumptions and expectations that society imposes on them but to create their own immense standards and achieve incredible things.
If access and inclusivity were genuinely woven into the fabric of our every day lives, then there would only be “ability,” and people living and
experiencing things uniquely, without judgments on what someone can and can’t do. I am active in challenging negative assumptions around deaf people. If you’re deaf and you want to be a DJ, astronaut, marine biologist, dancer, or a nurse, you can be. There’s nothing stopping you.
HLM: How eager are you to see theaters open again?
Gabriella: It makes me emotional thinking about the return of theaters and live performances. I honestly can’t wait to be sat in those seats. I think for everyone in this industry, and those who love going to the theater, it’s going to be an extremely memorable event, full of emotions.
As the world is going through a sort of “rebirthing” process post-pandemic, I want to see theaters really commit to better representation. It’s not diverse if we are only seeing one of us on our stages. Seeing deaf/hard of hearing and people with disabilities on our stages will challenge attitudes and normalize us taking up space there, on platforms where we equally belong with the hearing and non-disabled world.
HLM: What are the differences sound-wise between television and theater as a deaf actor?
Gabriella: Television is a very intimate sound. I was really surprised just how quiet and intimate actors can be on screen. It’s obviously more difficult for me the quieter someone is speaking. Theater is all about projection and making your voice travel to the back of the theater so the sound reaches more people. It’s easier to hear people on stage. However often they’re not facing you in theater so lipreading becomes a challenge. Basically, you have to tune into what methods of working work for you, and ensure you have access at all times doing it.
HLM: Are you considering performing live in the future?
Gabriella: Absolutely! Actors are a box of tricks. I’d never settle for one art form and love theater as equally as TV and film. They’re just very different.
Read more: South African soap “Scandal!” casts its first deaf actor
HLM: Casualty is your first television part and what a gift your character Jade is. We’ve all seen Jade’s struggles during her different storylines. Tell us what have been some of your own difficulties and challenges as a deaf actor bringing the character to life?
Gabriella: Thanks very much. Jade is so special to me. It’s the first time I’m playing a character with my disability and it being about her deaf experience. It’s brilliant! I always strive for accuracy and authenticity, so it’s a lot of making sure I’m being true to Jade and what would happen in real life etc. It can be challenging breaking down Gaby reading the script and knowing what’s happening and what’s being said and whether Jade has heard or seen what’s been said in the world of Holby. Two different things and two different people! That’s always interesting to navigate.
HLM: Your character Jade has many nice comedic touches. Do you have any input where this is concerned? I note that you are a trained clown, so how important is comedy to you?
Gabriella: Thank you. I love clowning and comedy. It’s extremely special to me. I feel the most myself when I’m making others laugh. On set there’s definitely room to find or expand comedic moments in the script. We actors just try it out in rehearsal and see if the director likes it! Usually, they do.
HLM: Did you ever think you would one day be appearing in the longest-running medical drama on British TV?
Gabriella: I love the spontaneity of this industry and how you never know what show or part you’ll end up playing. So, to answer in short, no, it didn’t cross my mind that I would but I’m glad I am. The cast and crew are incredible to work with.
HLM: Do you feel a lot of pressure representing as you do the daily struggles of someone with hearing loss in such a high-profile weekly soap?
Gabriella: I definitely feel pressure representing a deaf character and deaf experience through Jade. Especially because deafness is such a vast spectrum and no individual experience is the same. But that just shows the richness of being deaf. I love that because Jade exists, she has opened doors for other deaf actors, and deaf creatives to be on the show- something I really wanted to achieve. I’m really proud to be the first regular with a disability on the show in its 36-year history.
“I’m really proud to be the first regular with a disability on the show in its 36-year history.”
HLM: As an actor do you feel obliged to highlight deaf issues or would it depend on the part?
Gabriella: I think that it’s dependent on the part and narrative that’s being told. I absolutely love championing and highlighting deaf issues when it serves the story purpose and I’m giving the audience an authentic experience that they can take something away from. But if it’s just showing for showing’s sake, and it doesn’t go deeper, it can feel performative and demonstrative. I love stories that have a deaf/hard of hearing or disabled person front and center of the narrative and it not orbit around the fact they are deaf. They just happen to be deaf and here’s a very layered and complex story that they’re involved in that’s unrelated to that. If deaf people are in roles, then deaf issues will be highlighted naturally through the performance of the deaf actor. Audiences will see things in perhaps an entirely new way from before.
HLM: How would you sum up your mission as an actor?
Gabriella: Just to do good work that people recognize. And always take the work seriously but never myself.
HLM: Are you involved in any deaf groups, organizations or charities?
Gabriella: I’m a proud member of DANC, which is the Disabled Artists Networking Community for all creatives with disabilities in the industry. It’s a fabulous community to be a part of. They host brilliant webinars, and celebrate all disabilities, and champion our differences. Our shared experiences and actions change within the industry amongst non-disabled individuals and companies for better representation, inclusivity and equity for creatives with disabilities. If you are a creative with a disability, join!
HLM: How have you coped with lockdown and the whole COVID 19 experience?
Gabriella: I mean, it’s been an extremely difficult and strange time navigating the pandemic for everyone. I think doing small tasks like making your bed during this time is a triumph. I’ve learnt to celebrate “everyday” things more. I am thankful to be alive and healthy. Starting some new hobbies, long walks, and finding joy in the little things has really helped keep me sane. Masks have made our communication almost impossible. I look forward to the day that people’s faces are freely seen again. I hope everyone reading this is looking after themselves and know that this isn’t forever.
HLM: What advice would you give to other deaf or hard of hearing actors?
Gabriella: Your experience is unique, valid, and needs to be represented and seen. We need you in the industry, you will add layers and depth in making work that extra special, that little bit more poignant and magnificent. Don’t rob audiences of the chance to see your talent. Younger people who are deaf/hard of hearing will see you and feel seen themselves. Go to drama classes, look at acting courses, watch theater, read plays, watch films, research agents. Grab opportunities with both hands.