Information Age at the Science Museum: The Web Brings Freedom and Equality to Deaf People

Last October I was invited to the opening of the new ‘Information Age’ exhibition at the Science Museum in London. I felt really honoured to be part of this event, which was opened by Her Majesty the Queen, who sent her first ever tweet. It was the culmination of a project I had been involved in lasting several months, with a group of hard of hearing people working with the Science Museum.

Information Age blog_Queen

The project’s aim was to help the Science Museum tell the stories of how the World Wide Web has changed the lives of hard of hearing people. We worked together on this project, sharing our ideas about how the Internet has transformed our lives, making it much easier for us to communicate with others on an equal basis, find out and share information and socialise with other people. You can find out more about the project here.

The Internet has really opened up the world to many deaf and hard of hearing people. It makes you feel part of a wider online community and support network. I know it really helped me to be able to communicate with other people and seek deaf peer support when I became deafened a few years ago and I felt very isolated.

Some members of this group made short films about how the Internet has had a massive impact on them and changed their lives. These films are now being shown at the exhibition in the Science Museum, as part of an interactive digital screen display, which is captioned and interpreted into BSL. I worked with my friend Andrew on one of the videos shown at the exhibition.

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In it, Andrew, who is hard of hearing, describes how without access to the web, there are huge barriers to communication for him. Asking directions for him, when he is in an unfamiliar area, is a nerve-wracking experience, as, like most deaf and hard of hearing people, he finds it difficult to follow what other people are saying. He describes how it is so much easier for him to search for directions and maps on his smartphone, and to arrange to meet up with people for a drink or to watch the football in a pub, for instance, through instant messaging and texting.

Information Age blog_Andrew

It reminds me of when I wanted to watch my football team Manchester City play in the FA Cup Final a few years ago. At that time I didn’t want to go out or socialise with anyone apart from my wife and immediate family because I found it too difficult to follow and communicate with anyone, so it was much less frustrating for me to stay at home. But it would be the first time that City had been in the FA Cup final for thirty-five years, so I really didn’t want to miss out on the opportunity of finally seeing my team playing in the Cup Final at Wembley. In the end I was lucky to get my ticket from a friend online and I arranged to meet my friends and family there through social media. It would have been impossible for me to make the arrangements without the web and in the end Manchester City beat Stoke 1-0, which was fantastic! I had a really great day, even though I could hear very little.

Information Age blog_RT + Andrew

In another video we see Ruby, who is hard of hearing, using Skype to speak to her friends and family. “The web has changed my life, by making me feel equal to everyone”, she says. I think that communicating on equal terms to everyone else is one of the most important and powerful aspects of the web for deaf and hard of hearing people.

In her video Lidia expands on this idea of the web bringing the deaf and hard of hearing community together and empowering them. She describes how empowering it is to get the information you need from the web. “Being given the information you need empowers you in some ways and gives you the chance to take charge of your life”, she explains.

I went back to see the ‘Information Age’ exhibition with my wife last week. It celebrates 200 years of innovation in communication and information technologies and it is divided into six zones, each representing a different information and communication technology network: The Cable, The Telephone Exchange, Broadcast, The Constellation, The Cell and The Web.

Information Age_Richard

The whole exhibition is completely accessible to deaf and hard of hearing people and in each zone, there are lots of interactive videos, which are captioned and interpreted on screen into BSL. There are also very clear hearing loops throughout the exhibition. The videos explain the stories behind these groundbreaking historic technical inventions and new communication media.

We spent a couple of hours wandering around the exhibition. It was absolutely fascinating and well worth a visit. Some of my highlights were looking at the first telephone inventions, some of the very first radios and TV sets of the 1940s and 1950s, the first computers and mobile phones right up to the present day with social media and the latest smartphones.

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Some of it makes me feel really old! I can remember having a BBC computer in the 1980s, which was state-of-the-art at the time but now looks almost like an antique. I can also remember having a ‘121’ mobile phone in the early 1990s, which now looks like a brick compared to the compact smartphone I have today.

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One section had the original NeXT computer, which was developed by Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple Computers. It showed the original Internet interface from 1990. The display described how British man Tim Berners Lee, who worked at CERN in Switzerland, invented the idea of a ‘WorldWideWeb’ a year earlier in 1989 as a global information management system for CERN. He described a ‘web’ of ‘hypertext documents that could be viewed by browsers. It is incredible how much and how rapidly the web has developed since those early days.

Information Age blog_Tim Berners Lee

I also found it fascinating to discover the story of Alexander Graham Bell there, who invented the telephone, and learn about his connection to the deaf community. He was born in Edinburgh in 1847. His mother was profoundly deaf, so he learned to communicate with her through basic sign language. His mother’s deafness led him to become preoccupied with studying acoustics and the idea of transmitting speech by turning electricity into sound.

Later, he moved with his family to the US where he became a teacher at a Deaf school in Boston. There he met a profoundly Deaf student called Mabel Hubbard, who later became his wife. In 1875 after researching and studying the physics of sound technology and transmitting speech he invented a simple receiver for turning electricity into sound.

Information Age_Bell exhibition

A year later, in 1876, he set up the Bell Telephone Co and his device was patented. It became the first satisfactory working telephone and it quickly became a common sight in households across America. Despite this, he considered his most famous invention an intrusion on his real work as a scientist and teacher of the Deaf. He even refused to have a telephone in his own study. I didn’t know his story before and how he invented the telephone as a direct result of his lifelong research into hearing and speech because of his wife and mother’s deafness.

This exhibition makes you realise how much information technology and communication has moved on in the last two hundred years. In fact, it has only been in the last twenty to twenty-five years that digital technology, such as the Internet, social media and mobile phones, has had such a massive impact on our lives. It has been a real game-changer in terms of giving deaf and hard of hearing people the opportunity to communicate with others on an equal basis, giving us a voice and breaking down the barriers to inclusion in our society. Who knows what the next twenty years will bring?

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Tony Law: Back in the ToneZone

Tony Law blog Jan 15_header

I had a brilliant night out last week, which was a great start to my New Year. I went to see comedian Tony Law’s live comedy show ‘Enter the ToneZone’ at the Soho Theatre Comedy Club. Claire Hill provided the live subtitling, the same stenographer who did it the first time I saw him there, over a year ago.

I was really excited to go and watch him again after enjoying his show so much last time. In fact, this would be the third time, because I first saw him at a ‘Stand Up for Labour’ comedy night by chance about four years ago shortly after I first started to lose my hearing due to an illness. A friend of mine invited me to a live comedy night with various stand-up comedians. There was no live subtitling there, so even though I enjoyed Tony’s act as it was the first time I had seen it, I missed out on a lot of the humour and dialogue because I struggled to hear what he was saying.

When I saw him again at the Soho Theatre Comedy Club a year ago it was much easier for me to follow because of the live subtitling. At the time I was waiting for my cochlear implant assessment, having lost most of my hearing by then. It was a difficult time for me, so just being able to laugh along with the other people in the audience without feeling awkward or embarrassed because I had missed out on the punchlines was wonderful for me. His act was very funny, in a crazy, surreal sort of way.

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So, I wondered what it would be like to see him this time, not only with the subtitling but also now that I can hear much better again with my new cochlear implant. I arrived with my wife Joanna and friend Andrew, who is also partially deaf but wears hearing aids. We were seated in the front row really close to the stage, which was great, as we felt more connected to the show.

Tony burst onto the stage in a very strange tight onesie, complete with feathers, which looked like they had come straight from a Red Indian’s headdress, to cover his modesty. Immediately, he started joking about and playing around with the subtitles suddenly appearing on the big screen behind him. Like last time, he was delighting in trying to test Claire, the stenographer, to type his crazy, rapid words on the screen, and he seemed delighted that she was keeping up with him at lightning speed.

Tony Law blog Jan 15_burst on stage

Sitting in the front row, it was the first time I had ever heard his voice and I could hear it really clearly. Throughout his act, he put on lots of different accents, which I could pick up this time when I couldn’t before and it was really funny. On the screen behind him, Claire was typing not just what Tony was saying but how he was saying it, which was something I hadn’t noticed before. For instance, she typed things like (“East End Cockney gangster”) and described the strange sounds he was making, which must be difficult to do.

I contacted Claire a few days afterwards and asked her how she prepared for a comedy show like Tony Law’s and how she managed to keep up with his fast, crazy dialogue. She told me that it takes quite a lot of preparation beforehand. She started off by getting an audio recording of his show from a couple of nights before at the same venue. She ran through the recording a couple of times, and wrote one-stroke short forms for phrases/words that she knew he would use such as “dead dog”, “Genghis Khan” and “I love the world”. This saves time for her, ensures accuracy on the night and also means that punchlines appear quicker on the screen. She said that this works best if comedians stick to roughly the same order, but on the night, Tony didn’t, but it always helps.

She said it was difficult to accurately write Tony’s act, not so much because of the speed but because of the accents and sounds he makes. Although she had prepared some (like “posh” and “Cockney gangster”, some “need to be written on the fly”, she explained, “so I have to think how to represent the sound he’s making in words, and then write it, in time to keep the deaf audience up with the comedy.

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I think she did a fantastic job! I couldn’t stop laughing throughout his act. When he started, it was like he was just spurting words out of his mouth like a machine gun, unable to control them and unaware of where he was going to lead us. He gives you the impression that it’s all unprepared and totally spontaneous. But after a while, you realise that it is all planned and it will all come right in the end, whilst giving you the impression of it being utter nonsense. You can’t help but laugh at it. You have to see him live to appreciate his humour. He is infectious.

At one point during the act he told us that he was really sad because his wife’s sausage dog ‘Cartridge Davidson’ had recently died after she had had him for fourteen years and he had been her constant companion, never leaving her side. I thought it was going to get really sad but he then started to tell us hilariously funny stories about what Cartridge used to get up to, such as how he used to sit watching the fridge for food and diving on their bed at the most inappropriate times.

Later, he did a routine, which involved using music and dance, which he described as a new kind of expressive ‘punk rock’ art form. He suddenly dragged my friend Andrew, who was right in the front row next to me, up onto the stage. Andrew handled it all amazingly well, as Tony kept throwing a large inflatable striped beach ball for him to catch on the stage in slow motion. Watching this beach ball scene in front of me with Tony and Andrew throwing the ball back and forth between each other was a bit like watching an amateurish ‘Cirque du Soleil’ meets ‘Monty Python’, and I couldn’t stop laughing at how surreal it all looked.

Tony Law blog Jan 15_beachball

For his finale, Tony finished up with a crazy song, and once again dragged up poor Andrew and several other people from the front row to accompany him and throw balls to each other across the stage. It certainly was different, but incredibly funny, and it had myself, along with the rest of the audience, in stitches.

Although I have enjoyed Tony’s show every time I have seen it, this time I think I enjoyed it most of all. Maybe it’s because I got the full experience, being able to not only follow him through the subtitles, but also hear him better too, and appreciate the different accents and sounds he does. Or maybe it’s because I think he’s getting better too. I don’t know. It’s probably a combination of all that, and more. I just find him incredibly funny, in a crazy sort of way. I met him briefly after the show on the way out and I told him how much I had enjoyed his show. He was really friendly and approachable.

I would like to thank Claire Hill and the Soho Theatre for providing this access for deaf and hard of hearing people that night. It was great. I will be watching out for more live subtitled comedy shows like this in the future. Claire told me that the next show to be subtitled there will be Josie Long on 27th January. I hope that there will be more of them in the future, as there are currently not enough. It would be great for deaf and hard of hearing people to have better access to live comedy shows and enjoy a great night out!

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The Soho Theatre website:

Tony Law’s website: