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Deaf stories on screen: How mainstream media can improve community representation

With a growing interest and portrayal of Deaf characters in media in recent years, the community says there’s an ongoing need to hire more Deaf talent

by Nadia Brophy
“I would like to see a Deaf film that is done by Deaf people,” says one expert. (Unsplash/Timothy Eberly)

In November, Deaf actress Lauren Ridloff made waves as the first Deaf superhero in the Marvel cinematic universe. 

Ridloff plays Makkari in Marvel’s Eternals, a character who uses American Sign Language (ASL) to communicate throughout the entire movie.

The film, along with others released in recent years—Sound of Metal and A Quiet Place—are critically acclaimed for their inclusion of Deaf actors playing Deaf characters. 

However, despite the growing representation of Deaf stories in film, Deaf and hard of hearing people in the film industry continue to face difficulty getting hired.

“Too often, hearing people misappropriate our stories and our roles, only to seek out our assistance to help them create a facsimile of our lives,” reads a statement on the National Association of the Deaf’s website. “This is not authenticity.”

Recent examples of this misappropriation include Hush (2016), in which hearing actor Kate Siegel plays a Deaf writer, and The Silence (2019), starring hearing actor Kiernan Shipka as a teenager who loses her hearing.

While both actresses learned ASL for their roles, some members of the Deaf community say they feel that in order to accurately portray a Deaf person’s story, it is important for the actor to have lived experience.

This ensures the portrayal is rooted in the reality of deafness and that the broader community is adequately represented

In 2017, Amelia Hensley, a Deaf actress based in Los Angeles, wrote about her experience watching Wonderstruck, a film that cast Julianne Moore, a hearing actor, to play a Deaf person.

In a column for OnStage Blog, Hensley describes her frustrations with Moore’s casting. 

“Hearing actors can never truly understand what we have to go through everyday living in a world that doesn’t speak our language,” wrote Hensley. 

“Deaf people use our whole face to communicate and we always emphasize how important facial expressions are in our language,” she wrote. “That’s something hearing actors like Julianne Moore will never be able to emulate in a short amount of time. As ASL interpreters know, it takes many years of practice to understand facial expressions and when to use them.” 

Nina Winiarczyk, an ASL coordinator and professor at Ryerson University, explained that people within the Deaf community have different experiences from those who are hard of hearing, or those that wear cochlear implants and hearing aids. 

As a Deaf individual herself, Winiarczyk feels that those in the Deaf community have little representation in the media compared to hard of hearing people. 

She recently watched Deaf U, a Netflix series about a group of deaf students at Gallaudet University, Winiarczyk’s alma mater, in Washington. She noticed that hard-of-hearing experiences were portrayed more than Deaf experiences.

“My feeling is that the goal is almost to represent all of [the community’s experiences], but they never really show someone who’s really Deaf, who’s fully articulate in their language and not hard of hearing,” she said. “I didn’t think it was a great representation of the Deaf community generally.” 

While Winiarczyk remains hopeful for a future with more accurate mainstream representation, there is still significant work to be done to get there. 

“Let’s listen to the Deaf community … let’s provide opportunities for Deaf people to actually produce movies and to hire Deaf people to do the casting,” she said. “We need to get more writers, more producers, more directors who are Deaf in those roles. I would like to see a Deaf film that is done by Deaf people.” 

A few recent productions have taken steps in the right direction when it comes to deaf representation on-screen. If you’re looking to add some films to your watchlist to learn more about the community, their culture and language, consider these titles: 

Audible 

This summer, Netflix released Audible, a 39-minute documentary following the lives of Deaf high school football players at the Maryland School for the Deaf.

The film focuses on the group’s experience of losing a friend to suicide and how they continue to navigate life as champion football players amid the tragedy. 

While the film was created by hearing director Matt Ogens, the film’s executive producer Nyle DiMarco is a Deaf actor, model and activist who previously attended the Maryland School for the Deaf. 

Additionally, each person in the film is Deaf and communicates through ASL, part of DiMarco’s goal to ensure “[they] were making a film not just for the hearing community, but for the Deaf community,” according to an interview with Variety

Sound of Metal

Hearing actor Riz Ahmed stars in Oscar-winner Sound of Metal as Ruben Stone, a heavy-metal drummer who becomes deaf in the middle of his artistic career.

Unsure of his next step, Ruben’s girlfriend encourages him to seek help and community among a group of Deaf individuals living together at a compound. 

The community’s leader is played by actor Paul Raci, a child of Deaf adults who is fluent in ASL, who welcomes him in and helps him learn from the community, experiencing Deaf culture firsthand. 

Deaf actors portray almost all Deaf characters in the film, apart from Raci and Ahmed. Actor Jeremy Lee Stone is an ASL coach in real life, and also plays one in the film.

He helps Ruben learn the language among other members of the community. Deaf actor Chelsea Lee portrays Ruben’s roommate who develops a friendship with him as he begins to become more familiar with the culture and language. 

In a CBC interview with Chelsea Lee, the actor expressed that she was initially unsure about co-star Paul Raci portraying a Deaf character as she felt the role should be given to a Deaf person.

Eventually, she supported his casting after recognizing his “cultural understanding.”

“People in the Deaf community can immediately spot an actor who hasn’t been well trained in ASL,” she said in that same interview. “You can see that there are errors in language and grammatical structure. You might not catch those nuances, but to have lived experience as a deaf person, it’s hurtful to see.” 

CODA

CODA, an acronym for “child of deaf adults,” is the title of a film released this year on Apple TV+. The film follows teen Ruby Rossi, who is the only hearing person in her family.

Rossi has spent her life helping her parents communicate with hearing people in the small town they live in, as well as aiding her father and brother in their fishing business. 

But Rossi has loved to sing all her life, and the film focuses on her journey in balancing her work in her family business, interpreting for her parents, and her pursuit of music — an art form that her family members are not connected to. 

CODA is a window into a primarily Deaf family’s story, without deafness being the singular storyline. Instead, the story focuses on the tumultuous events in the family fishing business and Ruby’s experience in a music class.

Viewers of CODA will learn about Deaf culture, the interpersonal relationships within a Deaf family and the importance of expression in ASL to communicate one’s feelings. 

The film features Deaf actors Troy Kotsur, Marlee Matlin and Daniel Durant as Ruby’s father, mother and brother, respectively.

Matlin is known for her role in Children of a Lesser God, which follows a romance between faculty members at a school for the Deaf in New England.

She won best actress for the film in 1987, the first Deaf performer to win an Academy Award.

“People give speeches about how great it is to see authentic casting, but I’ve yet to see it happen in a huge way, for all under-represented groups,” Matlin told Variety about the choice to cast Deaf actors. “We cannot sit back any longer. This has ignited a fire you can’t put out.”

Correction: A previous copy of this piece included the term “grassroots Deaf” to differentiate those who are Deaf from those who are hard of hearing. The term has been removed due to an inaccurate translation. 

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