Our UCLan Work Placement – Ruthie Stuart

Portrait of Ruthie Stuart
Ruthie Stuart

Ruthie Stuart is currently our work placement at No Label Arts – she is a final year student in Contemporary Theatre studies at the University of Central Lancashire. 

Over the twelve weeks that Ruthie is virtually spending with us – all online – she has learned about developing Disabled artists through our sessions with the arts organisation ‘We Are Epic’ who are based in Cambodia and the UK.  

Ruthie is a BSL user and this interview features a few image clips from the interview.  We are really pleased that Ruthie has been able to join us and we think we’ve learned as much as Ruthie has during her time with us.

We hope in future to be able to offer BSL interpreted content for our website visitors.

Thank you to the University of Central Lancashire’s UNITEplus ERDF funded business support programme which has made Ruthie’s placement possible and staff support from Amine Melaine, Tania Callagher and June Hazzard.

Many thanks to Kay McCrea for her British Sign Language interpretation support.


Sam and Ruthie Signing Ruthinies Sign name in a Zoom meeting
Sam and Ruthie Signing Ruthie’s name

S: What is your sign name, Ruthie? 

R: It’s the British Sign Language sign (BSL) for ‘hope’ and it’s the American Sign Language finger spelling for ‘R’ for Ruthie.  So, you put the two together and it’s ‘Ruthie’!

S: When and how did you get your sign name?

R: Probably from when I started at UCLan a few years ago when I was with my BSL interpreter Kay supporting me – in the workshop; we students went round in a group with introductions and I just came up with it!

S: Tell me a bit about yourself – where did you grow up?

R: I was born in Sharon Green Hospital in Preston; I should have been born on Christmas day and my mum thought I was going to be a boy and I was going to be called Michael!  But I was born on the 23rd.  Mum felt something going on but didn’t know she was going into labour – she was sorting out the food and for my Grandparents and suddenly felt a twinge.  Then she said to Dad: ‘I think I need to pack a bag, I think I need to go to Sharoe Green Hospital’.  I was just a bit early!  My brother wanted a baby brother but he got a sister and went he came to visit he said ‘oh no’ and he still calls me ‘Mike’!

R: When I was eight months old, that was when they (my parents) found out I was deaf.  So actually, I had been born deaf, but mum didn’t know.  She just thought there was something strange about my behaviour really – that there was something wrong but she didn’t know what it was.  

Mum and Dad clashed over me, because Mum thought I was deaf but Dad refused to believe I was deaf.  He kept saying ‘no, she’s not; it’s just how children are’.  I had to have a hearing test and that’s when they found out that I had been born deaf – it was from German Measles – also called Rubella.

But Mum was just really happy that I was healthy.  In those days, the word that they used was ‘handicapped’.  I don’t think ‘handicapped’ is a nice word.  When I was training as a teaching   assistant, most of the children I was working with, had the experience of that word being used with those children.  SEN was another word that was used.  It’s interesting what words were used;  In the past, disabled people who were begging in the street were described as having a ‘cap in hand’ thus the word ‘handicapped’.

S: How old were you when you learned sign language and did your family learn it?

My family didn’t learn it (British Sign Language) – it was all speaking/oral language at home.  I went to speech therapy – my mum wanted me to do that.  In school, we weren’t allowed to sign; but I did still learn to sign at school by mixing with others who could sign but we used very, very basic, old fashioned signs but I sort of picked it up from other people.  

S: What school did you go to? 

R: From age four (it’s been knocked down now) I went to Royal Cross School for the Deaf in Preston and I left at 16.  I hated school so I was ecstatic to leave!

Royal Cross School for the Deaf
Royal Cross School for the Deaf (image from Lancashire Archives)

S: When did you become a teaching assistant? 

R: When I was in my late thirties – I’d been married and had children and eventually I decided I wanted to do something like be a teaching assistant.

S: How has being deaf affected your work life?

R: I do have the ability to use spoken language and on a one-to-one basis, people forget (that I’m deaf); we’re chatting away…and then they might walk behind me and then it’s a problem.  I enjoy working with children – I have a good rapport with children: they learn a lot from me – they pick up on my body language and my expressions.  I’ve used Makaton sign language with those children (with special educational needs) and that has helped them as well.  

Sometimes it can be really frustrating in the classroom though: I feel the other staff members should be able to use some Makaton signs to use with the children – it can put me in a really bad mood.  I found I didn’t really fit in with the ‘Deaf’ world.  I worked in a school for five and a half years.

S: Can you tell me how you got involved in theatre?  

R: Since I was a child, I used to watch on tv (without subtitles in those days) films such as Mike Yarwood (the English comedian, actor and impressionist) – it was watching him and his facial expressions, also –  Morecambe & Wise, Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy.  

I used to mimic how they did things – how they performed.  I had a real connection with them and that put me in the frame of mind wanting to do theatre and get into acting.  Also, my uncle John is a musician – I used to watch him and was fascinated by him.  Other members of my family were singers and performers.

S: When did you get involved in performing at theatre before you went to university?

R: I started theatre studies first at the UCLan campus in Burnley.  I learned a lot there about theatre – it was really interesting.  I didn’t have enough support unfortunately – to do my actual academic work was hard.  Fortunately, I met BSL Interpreter Kay; we got on really well together and I learned a lot.  I loved the practical theatre work – that was my favourite element.  

S: What is the name of the course you’re doing now (2021)?

R: BA (Hons) in Contemporary Theatre – it’s the final year that I’m doing at the Preston campus of UCLan. 

S: How do you think universities could better support Deaf and Disabled students?  What would better improve your educational experience?

R: Having interpreters in classes and also supporting students to do the work; there are a lot of deaf people attending the university at Preston – they do have good support there.  Someone who helped me a lot was (staff member) Audrey Hill – she’s given me a lot of support: Audrey identified what my needs were and organised things for me and I’ve had interpreters.

I think sometimes that I didn’t realise the depth of the academic side of it and the language support side of it and the fact that doing all that work causes me anxiety and stress.  I’ve had to do quite a lot of independent study.

S: Do you think that many educators do not realise that for many deaf people, English is their second language and reading is difficult?

R: I think that some people don’t understand, but some of my tutors have been fantastic, lovely – I’ve really had a good working relationship with them and they’ve realised and worked on that in the class and they’ve made sure I’ve had note takers – sometimes, it’s a bit overwhelming with the English language – the tutors have known about that and they’ve made sure there’s been the support and they’ve found other ways of doing things in class.  

When I started my studies,  I thought I was prepared and I didn’t know what to expect quite so much.  When I began at the Burnley Campus, I had a really difficult and horrible time – to begin with, I had absolutely no support, I was trying to get on with people and was feeling neglected by the other students.  That was hard and I think I got through about eighteen months and feeling really overwhelmed, struggling through.  Eventually, I got through it and handed in what I had to and achieved it.  I’ll be happy to get the degree but it has been frustrating.

S: What have you enjoyed so far in working with us during your placement and taking part in the sessions with Epic Arts?

R: It’s been interesting!  But also it has been difficult – I’ve enjoyed joining in with you at No Label Arts and the online work experience.  There’s been lots of choices, different subjects, things I could join in on.  Looking at (business) planning – that was interesting and audience development; different type of arts work and working with Disabled artists.  

I feel that I’ve learned a lot and I’ve really enjoyed it.  It has been hard, because I would really like to be physically part of a group; to be able to engage with people in-person – I’m really a very visual person and it’s really been such a disappointment with Covid that we’ve not been able to do that.

S: We too have been disappointed with the current limitations on our activities – but necessary to keep everyone safe, of course.  That’s the challenge that we’ve had:  all of the work NLA has done over the last five years has involved in-person arts activities and we’ve not been able to do any of that this year.  Like you, we’ve really missed working with people in-person.

R: I have really enjoyed learning what we’ve talked about in the sessions – for example, what arts groups are doing in different countries such as Epic Arts’ work in Cambodia.  I’ve really found that interesting – I started with nothing (in terms of knowledge of the arts industry) and really built up knowledge so that’s been really good.  

Also, just learning about the variety of the different things that No Label Arts is involved with.  I know I need to know more the whole arts industry.  I want to learn more about theatre and acting but I haven’t had that opportunity until now.  I love physical theatre!  The comedy side of it.

S: You’ve highlighted a big issue – the difficulties that people who want to get involved in the arts have who don’t know how to find their way in.  We were fortunate to have met at a careers day that UCLan put on in 2019.  

R: I remember it well!

S: No Label Arts uses Facebook and Twitter also we are having a new website designed:  but how do people find these – people with disabilities who want to get involved? 

We think that’s the really difficulty?  How – how do people find that?  That’s the real difficulty – people finding us or other arts organisations where they can get experience and learn about the arts industry and different jobs and opportunities that are available.  It’s problematic and we realise that as an organisation.

R: It’s difficult for me – there are other barriers as well: wondering whether people will accept me as a disabled person; will they accept me because of my age, because I’m deaf; because maybe I haven’t got the same knowledge.  It can be really frustrating as well – how do I apply for work?  How do I get involved with acting?  There are these barriers for me because I don’t really know how and I haven’t had the support. 

I would love to get more involved in the theatre and acting; I’d love to be able to do that without worrying about it; to enjoy it and show other people how to perform comedy and tragedy.  It can be therapy for the audience and therapy for me!

S: That’s definitely something we’d like to support you with in future.  We apply for grants for all the work that we do.  The University (of Central Lancashire) has been really helpful this year in being able to provide a funded work placement for you and giving us that initial introduction to each other.

S: What are your ambitions for the future?

R: Working in performance, writing a storybook, script writing and acting… Being a playwright.

S: Thanks for the interview today Ruthie and we wish you all the best for the future!!


BSL by Kay McCrea.