Claudia McKell is an actress with hearing loss who visited AVUK to talk to us about her upcoming debut film ‘Just a Girl’. Here she talks about her experience of growing up with tonal hearing loss:

My auntie noticed that I wasn't joining in at nursery school with the other children and that I was sitting on the side, on my own.  Also, my language development had been slow and I often made no sense when I spoke.

My mum decided I should go to an ear nose and throat specialist and I was diagnosed with severe glue ear and underwent surgery and had grommets. My mum was convinced that I was cured and hearing normally and did not realise this was not the case until years later and that issues throughout my schooling were due to my lack of hearing properly. 

It became apparent quite early on at primary school that I was bright but was struggling to read and wrote backwards and could not see certain colours on a whiteboard.  I was really fortunate that I went to a small village school with an incredible teacher Sue Dodds who saw my potential and put me through the Toe by Toe programme to help get to the level of my other classmates so I would be ready for secondary school.  But I was still having issues at school I was calling out in the classroom, losing my temper and had become very frustrated.  Although I was well-liked and doing well at school I was constantly on report for my behaviour.

My mum realised something was wrong and took me to a child psychologist who explained I had some dyslexia and dyspraxia learning difficulties but she felt there was something that didn't quite add up to the usual cases. My mum mentioned that when I was younger I had had hearing problems, straight away the psychologist said to go back to the audiologist. It was then discovered I had been left with tonal hearing loss which meant that I was missing out in the classroom and struggling to keep up with my peers. Once people knew what I was dealing with they could make allowances and so the issues could be resolved. There is sometimes an assumption that people with learning difficulties and hearing problems are stupid, which I have always found hard because I wasn't. It just took me longer and I had to work differently to my other classmates. 

My mum also thought I needed to express myself in different ways rather than just in the confines of learning at school so she took me to dance classes at Essex Dance Theatre, I had piano and cello lessons and karate and swimming lessons, all of which gave me the chance to fit in and not feel like the one who was always writing lines because she was frustrated that she couldn't learn the way others could.

My parents decided in order to give me the best opportunity at secondary school they would send me to a small private girls’ school, St Mary's in Colchester. Again from the support of my teachers, I got 9 GCSE's A*-C, with two A's in English literature and English language. I was allowed a small amount of extra time because of my hearing issues and had to be in a different room for my exams. I also did have to ask to be put at the front of the classroom so as not to miss half of the lessons.  But I was a fun and confident student because I felt l had support there but there were still some teachers who did not understand how I could be such a high achiever and be in both the choir, the chamber choir and have a grade 8 in singing yet sometimes I could not hear what they were saying.  It is assumed that it would be too hard for someone like me be able to do any of those things. However, because I came from a family who feel you can be whatever you want to be if you work hard, I had this inner belief to just do everything regardless of how hard it might be. 

But I was lucky I had dance. I remember going into my dance classes sometimes upset and very angry because of my day at school, my brain was working overtime just to keep up. Let alone the social aspect of school, dance gave me that space to breathe. Dance is your own language, everyone moves differently. I think that's why I connect so strongly with dance. I decided to take my love of dance further and apply to dance college to do a degree in dance and musical theatre. At dance college my hearing sometimes affected me, I really struggled when a big group of us were learning harmonies together. I would record it on my phone and learn from muscle memory. It also made me much more aware of the lyrics in songs. I now look at the lyrics to get the mood and tone of the piece as sometimes in music I don't get every single note. 

I didn't tell any of my friends that I struggled with my hearing until I asked a friend to repeat something for the fifth time, it was on a busy road and she was covering her face. I said the narrative in my head "I have this hearing thing, sometimes I can't hear or I miss things", but instead of saying it aloud I just nodded and said "yeah" to which she replied, "Are you deaf?". Sometimes when you tell someone you have a hearing problem, they think it defines you. You get asked, "Why don't you just get hearing aids?"  "Can you sign?"  "But you don't look deaf".  As well as all these questions, comments are made by people speaking loudly, slowly or standing really close to you. So for a long time, I just smiled and nodded when I missed something, I am confident enough now to explain the narrative I'm comfortable with. Most of the time people just aren't aware, they’re not being unkind. Many people have a set idea of what being deaf or having hearing problems means.

Actually, there are many different ways people deal with hearing loss. You have to find what is right for you, for me dance provided me with that communication I was lacking. For others, it may be entirely different and we should support each other in those quests and nourish rather than shame. 

This year I wrote, directed and produced my debut short film 'Just A Girl' about a young woman losing her hearing. It showcases the support network of family and outside interests, in particular, karate. It looks at the awkwardness of starting relationships with hearing loss, self-esteem and encourages the notion of never allowing hearing loss to stop you from achieving your hopes and dreams, whether that be falling in love or becoming a karate champion.