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Charlie Swinbourne

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Charlie is a writer and filmmaker, and was responsible for the award-winning Coming Out, which sees "a deaf boy go to his hearing mother with a surprising revelation" - watch it to find out what it is. He then went on make his directing debut with Four Deaf Yorkshiremen, and followed it up with a sequel. You can check out Charlie's personal website too.

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The Great Digital Switch-Off

12th June 2009

Earlier this month, we moved house. Before Christmas, a small two-bedroom flat seemed more than big enough for my partner Jo and I, but the arrival of a beautiful baby in the final hours of 2008 changed all that.
Close-up of Charlie Swinbourne's laptop screen, showing a browser failing to connect to the internet
Swinbelle – as we fondly nicknamed her - is tiny, but just a few months after her birth she has accumulated a cot, a chest of drawers, a changing unit, clothes, blankets, nappies, wipes, and a collection of fluffy cuddly toys that would be good enough to attract a steady crowd to a fairground target range. In mid March, barely able to move, we realised that we urgently needed more space.

I'm now writing from a small house that actually has an upstairs and a downstairs, a bathroom with a floor large enough to towel-dry a baby on, and a new revelation for us - a dining table. The extra space is a relief. The first ten days in our new home, however, were a nightmare.
Close-up of Charlie's wireless router
Why? Because our internet, phone and digital TV services weren't set up. We found ourselves disconnected - net-poor, web-deficient, cast digitally adrift. We’d gained room to move around, but lost contact with the outside world.

Jo and I are both deaf, and the digital revolution has given us methods of communication that we take for granted, but which deaf people a generation ago could hardly have imagined possible.

Before I’d even booked removal men, signed our rental agreement and paid our deposit, my first call was to a very well known digital media provider to get our telephone, broadband and television services set up. Over the course of three weeks, my contact with them started out friendly enough, but soon progressed to disappointment and bitter anger when I was told that we'd face a ten day delay before switch-on.
Charlie's digital TV - the darkened screen showing no service being received
The first couple of days after moving in were fine, as we largely spent them unpacking a mountain of boxes. Then without warning, a kind of 'cyber itch' crept up on us - an itch we couldn't scratch.

No longer able to check our emails or log on to Facebook, we found ourselves wondering if we were missing out on social plans, whether I was missing work opportunities or, in Jo's case, whether a pregnant pal might be waiting on her for urgent maternity advice. We had no idea, and it was the not knowing that ate away at us.

Twenty years ago, deaf people couldn't record subtitles on TV without a special video recorder that had to be manually timed to record. Nowadays, digital hard disk recorders can record entire series - with subtitles - at the touch of a button. We’ve become used to letting our digital recorder do all the hard work for us, but during our ten days in the analogue realm, we returned to having to check the TV schedules and keep an eye on the clock.

Alas, nappy changes, Swinbelle's bath time and falling asleep exhausted on the sofa, meant vital episodes of The Apprentice and Coronation Street were lost forever. We're still unaware of exactly how Coronation Street's Ken Barlow broke up with his canal-boat lover, but we're slowly piecing the story together.
Charlie's non-working Textphone
More seriously, there were the implications of the lack of a working phone line. To make a call from home, many deaf people use a Textphone - a keyboard with a small screen - which enables people to call another Textphone user directly, or use a telephone relay service to call a hearing person.

I’m just about able to use a phone, but Jo regularly uses the Textphone to make important calls. The problem was that if there had been an emergency while I was out, Jo would have had to contact me by text message before I could have called 999 on her (and Swinbelle's) behalf. This wasn't just annoying; it made us feel a bit vulnerable too.
Charlie's laptop, with its screen showing that it can't connect to the internet
We soon found ways of getting mini digital fixes, though. I found an internet café nearby, but at a rate of £1 per half hour, I could only make a small dent in my email inbox without obliterating my bank balance. Meanwhile, Jo soon discovered very reasonable rates on subtitled DVD box sets at the local library - they're free for deaf members.

With things getting desperate - we were even on the verge of having to actually speak to each other in the evenings (!) - we were finally switched on last week, and life's back to normal in the Swinbourne household.

We've been Text-phoning freely, watching Ken Barlow tell Deirdre about his affair, and checking out a brand-new BSL chat show online.
Charlie and his partner, Jo, are now able to catch up with The Apprentice again
Our ten days away from the digital universe made us appreciate what we've got - and remember what life was like when deaf people weren't able to communicate with the freedom we have today.

In the olden times before text messages and email, when society relied on old fashioned deaf-unfriendly telephone lines for instant communication, deaf people were known to attend deaf clubs on a Wednesday night just to find out what everyone was doing the following Saturday.

There are stories of deaf people writing to each other (a process now known as ‘snail mail’) asking to meet up on a given date. Without even a reply to confirm their plans, they'd travel on faith alone and, more often than not, enjoy an ale or two and a chance to sign freely for a few hours. That's how it worked.

My Mum and Dad, while courting, had to ask their parents to phone each other so they could keep in touch. My grandparents would translate the conversation back and forth - and it's lucky they did, because if my Grandma hadn't had to awkwardly tell my Dad that my Mum loved him, I might never have been born.

Going cold turkey for a week and a half wasn't without its compensations. Literally - we got £30 to apologise for the delay. But now that we've come to realise the number of electronic appliances we can't live without - TV, DVD player, Textphone, computer, mobile phone and digital TV recorder - I'm thinking we should put the money towards our growing electricity bill.

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