27 June – 3 July is Deafblind Awareness Week, so we thought it was the perfect moment to celebrate the achievements of our Elders Company graduate Helen Browne

RET ADIEU Helen Browne 800x400px
Pictured: (L-R) Oceana Cage, Helen Browne and Martin Smedley in ADIEU

Helen joined the Elders Company in 2018 after finding out about us through her friend Ann Tober. Helen came to the Theatre and met with our Elders Programme Producer, Andy Barry, to find out more about taking part and how we might best support her inclusion. Helen says of her initial involvement:

"I had never really entertained the idea of becoming part of a theatre group and indeed, I can't really claim a real love for it, but a chat with my friend, Anne did arouse a real interest in me and that basically was that. Of course, I did have some concern about how it would all work out but as time went on, the nerves disappeared and there was a real feeling of comfort and homeliness which just created a real solid framework for all sorts of creativity. Apart from being a learning curve, I think the key word has to be fun and I have met so many different people as a result. It really was a step into the unknown for me but I am so glad I took it as it has opened up so much for me in terms of things that I never considered doing before."

Helen became a member of the 2018/19 Company taking part in weekly sessions at our city-centre venue. One of our Elders graduates, Jacquie Long, assisted Helen to access sessions. After her initial year in the Company, Helen went on to take a central role in our 2019 intergenerational production ADIEU directed by Bryony Shanahan and performed in our Studio. This was Helen’s first experience of performing on stage:

"Much to my amazement I just loved it and I was nervous throughout thinking that I may not maintain the rhythm, but it was fantastic how it all flowed. Of course, the whole cast and team were very much part of my experience for which I am very grateful. To this day, and I am sure it will be with me for some time to come, there is a feeling of disbelief that I did such a thing."

During the pandemic, Helen has continued to engage with us digitally in our Elders Improv sessions online, our weekly virtual café and earlier this year took part in our Elders Makers project as a writer. Helen attended weekly sessions on Zoom led by playwright and poet Amanda Dalton to develop a short radio play called The River, for our Elders Company audio outcome 15 Glimpses Into What Comes Next.

Our Elders Programme producer, Andy Barry, said:
"Helen has achieved so much with the Elders and has been a real asset to the Company. With both patience and passion, Helen has supported not just me, but members of the Company to make our weekly sessions more inclusive, including with things like audio-description. Furthermore, Helen’s unique insights into the physical world of touch also proved pivotal in the creative development of our 2019 Elders Company production TOUCH."

Deafblind Awareness Week is an opportunity to shine a light on this poorly understood condition. It is far more common than many people realise and around 400,000 people are affected by sight and hearing loss in the UK. That’s enough to fill Wembley Stadium nearly five times!

It affects everyone differently, and only by listening to people like Helen will we better understand the condition and make life easier for those people affected by it. Helen offers these insights into the best way to support someone living with the condition:

"Like everybody else, deafblind people are individuals with their own way of communication. This could be sign language which may become more 'tactile' so that they can receive it - this of course would be for those with severe hearing impairment who then start losing their sight.
The loss of my sight has been very gradual from an early age and has been an almost lifelong journey which has not even yet, been quite completed. My hearing is pretty 'stable' if poor but of course is affected by many variables.

Deafblind people won’t usually be totally deaf or totally blind but even mild impairments can be enough to make a significant difference in every aspect of their daily life. Sight and hearing work together and if there is a reduction in one, the other cannot compensate. The loss can range from moderate to severely profound or total. Also, the conditions of the surroundings may change which will also affect what is seen or heard. The impairment may be of a deteriorating nature so things will never remain the same for an individual.

As I understand it, sighted people connect by their eyes meeting each other which brings them together to start a conversation. People with visual impairment are excluded from this and deafblind people more so as hearing loss also means that they may be unable to join the conversation.

There are people out there who are aware and change their communication habits to acknowledge diversity and encourage inclusion but unfortunately, there are quite a few that won't give it a go for whatever reason.

Deafblindness can be rather tiring, lonely, overwhelming and frustrating as society has been built for the needs and wants of the majority of people.

Things are changing albeit very slowly and without weeks like this, it would continue to be a cause rarely heard of or thought about.
It is difficult to know how best to help a deafblind person as there are so many considerations and differences but maybe the best road to take would be to get to know them as an individual and learn how best to be of service to them as time goes on and finding out how they manage in different situations."

As well as a highly valued member of the Elders Company, Helen is a poet and writer (and has published her own anthology of poetry) and in 2019 – her sixtieth year – she completed a marathon. We can’t wait to see what Helen does next.