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Watch: Strictly stars use sign language for Rose Ayling-Ellis
Actor, comedienne and singer Caroline Parker recalls the first moment she realised she wanted a career on the stage.
"I was very young and went to see my older sister appear in the nativity play," says Caroline, 59, from Cheshire. "She came on and I must have squealed because I remember a lot of faces turning round to look at me and before my mum could stop me I ran onto the stage, got hold of my sister’s hand, turned round and beamed at the audience. But I knew that I was ‘at home’. Being on stage was where I was meant to be."
Now a veteran of the performing world, Caroline has appeared in hundreds of plays and productions as well as TV shows including Murphy’s Law and Doctors.
But her path to success has been anything but conventional. Like 26-year-old Rose Ayling-Ellis, the deaf actress who is wowing audiences in Strictly Come Dancing, Caroline is also deaf. Like Rose, she relies on a hearing aid and sign language to communicate with others.
"I’m thrilled for Rose because she deserves all the success and she’s very talented," says Caroline. "It’s really good to have someone in such a high profile position spread more awareness and she’s the bridge in between the deaf world and the hearing world. After one of her dances, nearly 50,000 people Googled ‘sign language’.
"I really hope she wins and hopefully people will see us more as human beings rather than aliens, just because we communicate in a different way."
Caroline, who has been awarded and MBE for her services to theatre, was born and raised in Cheshire in the 1960s to hearing parents Wendy and Geoff, who owned a restaurant.
"They were very open about my deafness and didn’t brush it under the carpet but it took my mum four years to even convince the doctors that I was actually deaf and they said she was being paranoid," says Caroline. "It was only when I was being treated for diabetes, that a teacher in the hospital realised the truth and I was given a hearing aid.
"The advice at the time was that children shouldn’t learn sign language so my childhood felt like I was constantly trying to fathom out the world. But that’s the same for any child. Mum did get speech therapy for me - which is why my speech is so clear - but I always knew I was different as I was the only child in my village with a hearing aid."
Convincing her teachers at school that she could make a career out of performing was also a challenge.
"When I was choosing subjects for exams, I wanted to study music because I love percussion and rhythm but the teachers said no, you’re deaf, you can’t study music," she says. "When I went to see my careers advisor, I was advised to go to catering college because of my parents’ background. So I took the prospectus and smiled and nodded but then found out there was a drama course at Salford. I applied and got in."
She has never looked back, especially after learning sign language in her mid-twenties. "I don’t blame my mum and dad at all for not allowing me to learn sign language because they were told it was for the best but I had to say to them: ‘Look, I can speak but I can’t hear and I need sign language to be able to communicate. And my mum - bless her - went and learned sign language too."
Now Caroline has performed plays and workshops for nearly forty years. She says she loves ‘showing off and getting paid for it’ but admits she still, occasionally, comes up against prejudice
"I certainly think some people don't expect me to be able to do my job as well as they can," she says. "I was once working with a prestigious actor in a show. And he jokingly said: ‘You know I'll be upstaging you all the time’. I just looked at him and I said: ‘You can try, because I am queen of upstaging - as he found out days later.
"But hopefully now there's less and less of those attitudes. People don't realise that sign language is a communication tool. And it can be creative. I have had people come up to me and say: ‘I saw you sign songs and I now want to learn sign language too - and that’s wonderful."
Caroline’s next performance will be at the free online Yorkshire Festival of Story on 13th November.
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