17 November 2010

The Subjectivity of Deafness: Hearing Loss in the Media

The Subjectivity of Deafness
© Rhianon Elan Gutierrez
Originally published on Hearing Loss Nation
November 15, 2010

When I first joined Hearing Loss Nation, a social networking site for deaf and hard of hearing people in February 2008, I posted a discussion entitled “Depictions of Hearing Loss In Cinema”. It was one of the most commented discussions. I told my friend that I was surprised that so many people had commented. “Why?” he said. “People care about how they are represented.” Deep down, I already knew that, but I wanted to hear from others, too. 
CJ Jones in Hilari Scarl's See What
I'm Saying (2010).
At the time, I hadn’t seen too many deaf or hard of hearing characters represented in mainstream film and television. Now, there is an explosion. Hamill, about the deaf UFC fighter Matt Hamill and starring deaf actors Russell Harvard, Shoshannah Stern, Lexi Marman, and Michael Spady, just won the Audience Award for Breakthrough Film at the AFI Festival in Hollywood on November 11th. See What I’m Saying: The Deaf Entertainers Documentary premiered this March at Hollywood’s Egyptian Theatre, where it was billed as the first open captioned commercial film in history. The first World Deaf Cinema Festival was held at Gallaudet University from November 4-7 with the intention to show films that depicted the deaf and hard of hearing experience. Glee featured an all-deaf choir in their episode “Hairography”. Deanne Bray was a recurring character on Heroes. A new ABC Family pilot called Switched at Birth has a deaf high school girl at the center of the story. Shoshannah Stern is currently appearing as a graduate student on Lie to Me; her role was not originally written as deaf. My current film, Transients, has a deaf protagonist played by ASL performer Douglas Ridloff.
Douglas Ridloff with Teal Sherer in
Rhianon Gutierrez's Transients (2010).
There are many feature, short, or documentary films and scripted or reality television shows that are made by, star, or feature in minor roles deaf or hard of hearing people that we do not know about, but I believe that this will change in the coming years. It already is.

There is a national civil rights campaign called I AM PWD (Inclusion in the Arts and Media of People with Disabilities) that is a tri-union committee of performers with disabilities representing the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA), and the Actors Equity Association (AEA). The committee’s mission is “to enhance the status and promote the advancement of actors with disabilities in [the film] industry." It is estimated that between 0.5 and 1.5 percent of union actors have a disability, with mobility impairments being the most prominent. There are also those who are blind or visually impaired, deaf or partially deaf, little people, as well as performers who are intellectually disabled. I AM PWD held a Hollywood Disabilities Forum at UCLA’s School of Theatre, Film, and Television on October 24, 2009. I attended the forum, in addition to keeping up with the casting controversies surrounding Glee and The Miracle Worker play and the positive casting of Deanne Bray in Heroes.  I attended both an
John Philip Autry portrays the
deaf choir lead in Glee (FOX).
acting workshop and a writer’s workshop, with the words of both sides reminding me that my choice to direct and write grew out of my desire to create instead of waiting for work to come to me. I have always been interested in character transformation, so I struggled with the reality of one-dimensional characters with disabilities or hearing loss, or the star power that a leading deaf or disabled role brought a hearing or non-disabled actor.

Actress Linda Bove says: “A hearing actor playing a deaf character is tantamount to putting a white actor in blackface" (2009). She is one voice of many who agree that people with disabilities and deaf and hard of hearing people not only want representation in the arts--they also want to be the ones to tell their stories in empowering and dynamic ways. John Schuchman of Gallaudet University published a book called Hollywood Speaks, where he discusses the representation of hearing loss in cinema as well as the struggle for deaf people to attain inclusion in the cinematic experience, which requires the use of closed captions, subtitles, and/or an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter. It's not just about representation; it's also about access.

Russell Harvard as Matt Hamill in Oren Kaplan's Hamill (2010).
 Deaf culture has its own linguistic and social identity, but there are also those who are not members of Deaf culture who may define themselves as little “d” deaf, hard of hearing, hearing impaired, or a person with a hearing loss. Because of this, I am convinced that deafness is a subjective experience, with the label of disability given because of barriers in accessing any technology that depends heavily on sound. The choice of language (spoken language versus sign language) is heavily influenced by the social environment in which the person with the hearing loss lives. I was raised in the mainstream, communicated with spoken language, and wrote lucidly, so for me to see film after film depicting deafness as a silent world where the character was angry, excluded, and illiterate, made me move as far away as possible from the label of deafness. As much as I loved cinema, I did not want others to see me as an isolated and angry deaf person. I hated Children of A Lesser God (1986) because I could not understand why the main character never wanted to speak.
Marlee Matlin as Sarah Norman in
Randa Haines Children of a Lesser
God (1986).

I reiterate that deafness is a subjective experience and no one experiences it, or any disability, the same. I do not understand what it is like to never speak, but that still does not mean that I do not have an understanding of silence and of discriminatory attitudes from institutional bodies, because I do. I am challenging singular portrayals of deafness, and I encourage you to do the same. It is not just about being represented, it's also about developing dynamic and interesting characters who challenge us. We must constantly remind the mainstream that not all people with hearing loss are the same.

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