Why we all owe the ‘Chickengate’ notetaker an apology. Er… honest.

Ok, ok. So we’ve had our fun. In going viral, ‘Chickengate’ has expanded from a mere few seconds on BBC3’s Deaf Teens: Hearing World to inspire numerous gags on Twitter, hundreds of Facebook comments, and now, amazingly, a handful of tribute videos. A four year old girl even made the “my chicken is ill’ excuse on a Facebook video yesterday, and ‘Chickengate’ has duly been honoured with its own (admittedly rather clever) Downfall parody.

I still can’t stop laughing at the moment when Sara was told by her notetaker that she couldn’t stay for the whole two-hour lecture because her chicken was visiting the vet. Clearly I’m not alone.

But then, yesterday, something made me think again. Deaf actress Emily Howlett posted this tweet: “Can we all leave the poor note-taker alone now? We need these people to help us. Might be better not to shit all over them for doing so.”

At first, I argued back. I told Emily that she had a point, but that the reaction wasn’t cruel, it wasn’t aimed against the notetaker, but was simply one of those rare moments when the whole deaf world found itself laughing at the same thing. A funny excuse that became our version of Simon Cowell’s high trousers, Ricky Gervais dying (comedically) on stage during Live 8, or the bridesmaid who was grumpy during the Royal Wedding. The ‘chicken is ill’ joke was something that us deafies all understood, that we could all share. That bonded us together.

Then, through Twitter, Emily pointed out a few things. Like the fact the notetaker “was only booked for the hour, it’s not like she was booked and walked out before time up…” and that it wasn’t “worth the backlash the poor woman got for being honest.”

It got me thinking. There’s a person out there who’s probably wondering what she ever did to deserve this.

I don’t know much about Sara’s notetaker, but there are two things we can glean from the small amount of footage in the film. One: she cares about animals. Two: she works to support deaf students. Those are two things right there, that indicate, with high probability, that she may well be a pretty good egg.

When I think about it, if Sara’s notetaker is guilty of anything, then first, it’s of caring too much about her chicken. So much that when said chicken developed a limp, she didn’t decide it was a good time to plan a Sunday roast, she chose to try and help it get better. The vet fees alone must have cost more than simply murdering her chicken and replacing it with a new one. She must have really loved that chicken.

The other thing she was guilty of (as Emily pointed out) was being honest. Too honest. Think about it. She’s providing support for a student who is being filmed for a documentary. She walks up to her before her first lecture and there’s a camera filming their whole conversation. She suddenly finds out that the student’s lecture is two hours long. She can only stay for the first hour. Amazingly, she decides to tell the truth about why she has to go.

How many people, faced with the same circumstances, would make up a story here? A little white lie? How many people with a camera at their side and a disappointed student staring them in the eye would fib that they had an urgent doctor’s appointment of their own, or that their Grandmother was terminally ill, or that there was some kind of urgent flight out of the country they had to make? How many people would choose, as Sara’s notetaker did, to simply be honest, however ridiculous they might sound, and say those immortal words: “I have a problem. My chicken is ill.”

If that’s not enough for you, here’s one final reason why I think Sara’s notetaker is a good sort. Her job is writing down a summary of what’s said during a lecture for deaf students. She’s not an interpreter. Yet – and let’s not underestimate the significance of this – she has taken it upon herself to learn enough sign language to enable her to communicate easily with a deaf student. She doesn’t need to do this – she could probably get by writing notes to them on a piece of paper at the beginning and end of lectures. But somewhere along the line, she’s chosen to go the extra mile. For deaf people.

That’s why I think we’ve read ‘Chickengate’ all wrong. Rather than being vilified for a split second in her life, I think we should rally round Sara’s notetaker. She’s suffered for nothing more than being a good, honest, genuine person, and rather than continuing to laugh at her for nothing more than a moment in her life, we should instead all give her a big old deaf hug and wish that there were more people out there like her. People that care about their chickens and their deaf students, no matter the circumstances. On reflection, Sara’s notetaker, you are my hero.

(with thanks to Emily Howlett for making me see the picture with fresh eyes)


  1. I’d like to also add that in my eyes, (and yes i did laugh too as soon as she said it) but my first thought was, it’s a prime example how deaf people rely on their communication support to not have traffic/family emergency/satnav breakdown/illness/car breakdown, you name it, so they can be there and support/interpret for the deaf person to enable them to be 100% included !
    In my job sometimes my hearing colleagues just don’t realise the cogs of myself, the booking co-ordinator, the interpreter working away in the background just so I can understand and have my voice heard at that monthly meeting.
    Only takes one cog to slow and I find myself stranded.
    Hearing people with no knowledge of deaf ways would do good to have their awareness raised, and the funnier something is, the more it might be remembered ?

    To the notetaker in question, I’d love to work with you in the future, you’re a good ‘un !

  2. Yes, that is true and possibly we’ve all been thinking along the same lines. However, nothing will ever stop the sentence ” My chicken is ill” being a classic! If , unlikely though it is, I ever get to meet Sara’s notetaker, she will get a hug from me and thanks for bringing the sentence into our lives. 😉

  3. I’m probably the only person who’s not found chickengate hilariously funny, it irritating within 5 minutes. I got why others find it funny – on the surface, it triggers all those absurd excuses that a deaf person has been told over their lifetime. And more to the point, being out of control. I understand that.


    (a) I live and grew up in a rural area, farms and smallholdings are the norm for me. Chickens, sheep, cows, etc see the vet, it is the reality of life here. It felt the reaction is a very city thing.

    (b) the notetaker was booked for an hour, the real failure is NTU and poor coordination (the university’s bad administration possibly means it breached the EA). The notetaker was not told the lecture was as long as it was until last minute, and had other plans for that slot of time, which essentially is her free time. In our free time, yes we do take animals to the vets.

    (c) part of Deaf culture is being honest with each other, where you would be more reserved in the hearing world. It is a part culture thing.

    (d) the tweet, I nearly replied to yesterday but I let it slide. “We need these people to help us.” Help? I hope I don’t need to spell out why that’s wrong? (Which is not the same as saying, we don’t appreciate interpreters, notetakers et al). Otherwise, I agreed with the tweet.

  4. You raise an interesting point, and I appreciate this viewpoint. BUT, I think that one of the reasons why so many people find this funny and a big topic is because she appears to be one of “those” people who are overbearingly helpful. You know, one of those people who “helps the poor disabled people”, and sees it as a “rewarding job”. She may not be like this of course, but she could be.

    1. You may have a point, but one of her students posted on Facebook to defend her – and was really positive about her work. We only saw her on screen for a few seconds and while the chicken comment was funny, we shouldn’t really judge her on her brief appearance on national tv, in my view!

      1. It is not about the notetaker – she is just representative of the hundreds of faceless interpreters, notetakers & CSWs. The “chicken limp” reminds us of the pathetic excuses, the frustrations and the half-dead system that we have to deal with every day in the UK and Ireland. Only if we can get the voucher system introduced to the UK (as it is in Holland) where deaf people book interpreters themselves rather than going through several people, then none of this would have happened.

      2. The voucher scheme sounds great Shane. A far more sensible idea. Here in Trafford there is a two monthly Deaf Partnership meeting. Regarding terps the organisers have been happy to arrange the terps that everyone prefers and can understand/relate to. That is until last year. Because of new government rules and regulations they now have to be arranged through a set central system. This means the freelance terps don’t get a look in. Many if not all are very unhappy at this. The only way round this is if it can be shown that the standard of the terps has been shown to be detrimental. This can be done in time but meanwhile meetings will have to be trialled and endured if the terps used are not up to standard as has happened. Not a good situation. Another example of beurocratic hearies thinking they know best for the Deaf!

    2. Some may have seen my post about “helping the poor old deafies” previously, but for those who haven’t I will post again as Jen has reminded me of this again. Some time ago a so called “friend” when finding out I was off to the Deaf Club horrified me. She said how “good” of me it was to go and in what capacity did I “help.” After making funny strangled choking noises I let rip with my comments which I won’t repeat, but did end up with I went along as not only were the members there my friends, but they were “helping” me!

  5. Interesting view points here. Basically I think the “chicken is ill” reaction would never have started in the first place if most of us as ‘service users’ had decent service from these providers!…..I have been let down more times than I care to mention over the years and even today I feel insecure until the person arrives at the last moment which adds to the stress of being Deaf. Granted that this note taker may be a honest and good person. In reality like the Deaf, she is actually the victim of a bad bereaucratic erractic lottery postcode effect of services for the Deaf. With most of us potentially facing cuts and losing the pittence amount of £19.00 DLA……our battles are far from over! So I am grateful for this note taker and she should take credit for highlighting a very common problem. The fact it was not scripted is a bonus! There are many other issues I have with the programme in question that horrified me as a Deaf person also from Mary Hare, who cannot fit into either world of the Deaf or Hearing. This programme also helped me to understand better why I had as a young person no choice but to reject the Deaf world and their culture in order to survive in the Hearing World. I hope that you will continue to make these excellent thought provoking programmes, and be inclusive of all types of Deafness and experiences.

  6. Really can’t see how you reached that conclusion based on the little we saw of the woman, Jen. In my – lengthy – experience, the notetakers who “want to help the poor disabled people”, are invariably the ones who don’t bother to learn to sign!

    And no, the reactions are not funny. A bit pathetic if anything, for all the reasons Alison states.

  7. I to laughed when i saw he programme and I have laughed at many of the face book comments.
    I would not like to think I laughed at the note taker. As a hearing person with a deaf partner i have seen and heard deaf people complain about interpreters, note takers, DLA education access etc etc but we never see much action, in a very short time this ‘comment’ had over a thousand comments, jokes shared experience and is now developing other ‘lines’ of thought. ‘Our’ note taker should be in a strange way ‘proud’ a little honest comment [ maybe she did not realise she was being filmed] has led to the deaf community laughing and communicating together, I know some people have linked this to personal experience and that is also good get it off your chests.
    Now I would like to see it go further…stay together get strong campaign and complain, but to the right people about the right things you have shown that you can do this WOW what you could achieve GOOD LUCK….. good luck to all the chickens ……lets all go to work…

  8. Interesting after thought Charlie, I can sympathise both with the notetaker and the chicken, but like you said, it has brought the deaf community together.

    This is an amazing incident that has united us all for once and now people are maybe getting “scared” of the union because it does show together deaf people can create an amazing voice that can make things happen with accessibility to technology today.

    Therefore, what do people do? Try to split the union and ensure that the deaf voice becomes silent again.

    I ask you – how many times have people made jokes at the expense of a deaf person and that deaf person has suffered in silence, no matter how good a person they have been, no matter how hard they work or how well they do their job, they still get ridiculed for some reason at times, if they decide to stand up and be counted, they get told that hearing people are always right and the deaf person should get on with their work and ignore the jokes aimed at them. In one word this is BULLYING and hearing people sweep it under the carpet.

    When a note taker (a hearing person) becomes the butt of the joke, all he’ll breaks lose and we are told to leave her alone.

    Whilst I agree with your comments, we also need to look at the other side of the coin and remember that somewhere, someplace is another deaf person who is being victimised by a colleague, an interpreter, a notetaker maybe and they’ve got no one to stand up for them.

  9. It is a bit crazy to see a few seconds of a person on TV and make so many assumptions about them! We all do it, we are utterly convinced we know them and for that I think we have reality TV to blame. At the end of the day we don’t know her (or her chicken) unless we know her.

    I think part of the comedy value comes from the word chicken, during my drama training I remember being told that in comedy some words just have a higher giggle value than others – e.g. pickle. If it was a dog, cat or even a fish I don’t think we would have found it as funny – well maybe a fish, perhaps I’m over thinking these funny words now.

    Right, what I think is the main issue is not a personal attack on those in the programme but more on the system. Firstly there was a booking error which put the notetaker in an awful position, if she’d stayed the full 2 hours she may not have been paid for her time but if she goes she’s providing a bad service to the client. Sometimes a break down in communication happens but where a person has a right to access through an interpreter or notetaker they should be more assertive in making sure they get the service they need rather than shug their shoulders and say “oh well, I’ll have to do without”. Maybe this is something that should be taught in deaf schools if it’s not already?

    Last year I worked with some young deaf people, some were oral and had never used an interpreter before. They were so nervous at first about an interpreter signing what they were saying to benefit the rest of the group. After some encouragement, by the end of the week all were great at taking control of their communication methods and asserting their rights regarding use of an interpreter.

    Ok, so slight tangent there. Enough of the ramble.
    Thanks for a great and thought provoking article Mr. S.

  10. Well an overreaction from most people and from both sides. As a professional I am not sure I would have told the chicken story (truthful or otherwise) My first thought would be how best to sort the situation. So lots of people found something to laugh at in this shitty world, and some are outraged, nothing new there shows we live in a democracy. I presume this was paid work and not done out of the goodness of her heart! It will be a story to pass on to generations of eggs. Love and luck to you all. Parris.xx

  11. My first response to the “My chicken is ill” was… I sincerely hope the chicken is okay. I too laughed along with the jokes, yet repeatedly pointed out that she was booked for the hour and she did her job according to her booking. The fault did not lie with her (being the notetaker).

    As Charlie pointed out – She is a good egg! (this is a lovely gag!)
    I wonder if anyone knows how the chicken is doing! I for one hope that he/she has recovered well.

  12. No one needs to feel guilty for laughing at this absurdity. We do not owe an apology unless we have been rude. I haven’t so i don;t need to say sorry. I made generic jokes only. The programme was on national TV and tickled the funny bones and sparked off hours of bonding and mostly bad but amusing jokes and clips. Maybe the TV people should not have included it but I daresay they realised they had inadvertantly captured a moment of comedy gold. I would hope the notetaker concerned has enough character to realise that this is ‘one of those things’ and nothing personal. If anyone has made adverse comments maybe they should apologise personally. For the rest of us it was just a funny moment. It is now old news. Today I am laughing at a line in Emmerdale where character Val talked about her husband and said “He is madder than the snake that married a hosepipe!”. By tonight something else will tickle mine and maybe everyone else’s funny bone. One thing it showed the potential of the deaf community to come together in numbers. Pity though they dont react like this at issues such as crap subtitles on TV, lack of access to cinema and other leisure services, the absurd events of welfare reform which will hurt many deaf people, etc. Deaf power couldm be awesome if we really wanted it..

  13. Just dipping my toe here – in a personal capacity – I know the notetaker, I worked at NTU, I know what NTU are saying about it, I’d be careful of making judgements in a public forum. The students reaction was funny, it was worth a laugh. However, I’m surprised I haven’t seen any comments about Napier University teaching deaf people in the dark with apparently no support – that really isn’t funny and of much greater concern.

  14. Apologise for having a sense of humour……oh dear….i don’t think so. The humour revolved around the sentence ‘my chicken is ill’ and not the note-taker herself. No one knows whether this excuse was true and I for one thought at first that it was made up (by scriptwirter(s)) to inject humour into the show based on a true story elsewhere.

    Deaf actress Emily Howlett posted this tweet: “Can we all leave the poor note-taker alone now? We need these people to help us. Might be better not to shit all over them for doing so.” . I have to disagree with Emily……Note-takers do not have any special skills….millions of hearing people are capable of sitting in a class and taking notes…..the scale of difficulties in taking notes is on par with a cleaning job, cleaning a toilet full of shit. My point is simple….we don’t ”need” note-takers….we however do need interpreters more……I would bet that a note-taker would earn more than a cleaner.

    So let deaf people have their fun….eventually it will limp (oh dear) and be ‘forgotten’….till it is brought up in a pub under the influence of alcohol…….reminisce……deaf people are fond of it.

    1. I’m a bit slow getting round to this! From personal experience I have to disagree with the statement that note-takers do not have any special skills. I have an overwhelming need for note-taker support, more so than an interpreter, for my studies. The note-taker provides notes that I can take away and refer to again, whereas I wouldn’t recall everything an interpreter has signed for an hour. It is very different working as a note-taker than taking notes for yourself. When you are sitting in a lecture taking your own notes, you are taking in what is being said and deciding whether it is relevant or useful to record in your notes. A note-taker there in the capacity of a communication support worker has to ensure that they get as much detail as possible for the student in the correct context as the student is totally dependent on their notes. It requires the skill of being able to take in the next bit of information while you are writing what you have already heard. To put this in context, I got through 6 note-takers in the space of 10 lectures because they weren’t up to the job. As someone who has actually cleaned a toilet full of shit as a job, I have nothing but admiration and respect for my note-takers because they earn every penny they are paid.

  15. I, like many deaf people, thought this limping chicken moment was THE highlight of the ‘Deaf teens’ programme. And I also agree that the notetaker has done nothing wrong.

    I had a student who kindly gave me carbon copies of her lecture notes which was fantastic back in 1985. It was much better than asking for a notetaker as the student knew the subject thus wrote down the important points from the lecture. She would just give me the carbon copies after each lecture. I am not sure why this practice is not used elsewhere. It could be that A4 carbon copy pads are too expensive and students are not willing to volunteer (maybe they have limping chickens to take care of and have to miss lectures…) these days.

    Anyway, the ‘Deaf teens’ programme was excellent – my mother asked me whether Megan (the girl with the cochlear implant) can now follow lectures at University without support. Hmmm….

  16. Some interesting comments that shows how diverse we all are. I think the remark that Note-takers don’t have special skills is a bit out. Although the program was feature a university set up, not all Note-takers will do their job at that level. For example: I have a friend who sometimes needs someone if they are seeing their eye consultant or a Dr. Because her understanding of some terms are lower than the average person, she has to have someone who can adapt to a more simple level. Knowing what to use and miss out is a bit more than just taking down everything that is being said. However, I do agree that many could do this, but where are they all?

    Charlie, I think your account shows a very insightful and caring view.However old we are we can always learn from a situation. I only wish that everyone in life could see in this way from a different angle. Your comments are to be commended.

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