"14 Can Do's": Hiring Performers with a Hearing Loss or Disability
© Rhianon Elan Gutierrez
February 7, 2011
The Two Mrs. Grissoms, Deaf, hard of hearing, and hearing audiences saw the mass employment of people with hearing loss as guest stars and extras on an episode about the murder of the fictional scholarship foundation director Dr. Eric Lambert (Anthony Natale) on a college campus. The episode featured notable Deaf performers Marlee Matlin as Julia Holden, a Deaf Studies professor, Phyllis Frelich as Betty Grissom, the mother of one of the show's longtime leads, Gil Grissom (William Peterson), and Tyrone Giordano as the TA of Marlee's character, Julia. There were multiple scenes where extras were in front of the camera at a party and in the dorm rooms, and there were others where they were walking in the background on the campus grounds and in the hallways. It was a great experience for those who were involved, and I have seen many positive reactions to the episode. Deaf and hard of hearing people were proud to be in it and to see their friends in it. I was a background extra in one of the office scenes and found out about the casting call through Deaf Women in Film, who found out about the opportunity through another network. The story of The Two Mrs. Grissoms is one example of how reaching out to members of the Deaf and hearing loss communities produced successful results.
As a director, I've worked with performers with a range of abilities. In my most recent film, Transients, I worked with performers with different types of hearing loss and one with a mobility disability. I not only cast them but I had people on my production team who had varying degrees of hearing loss. However, I continue to recognize that there are some major barriers that performers with hearing loss or a disability face in getting opportunities to work in television, film, or the stage.
I try to focus on the present and the future, so I thought about some "Can Do's" for hiring performers with a hearing loss or disability. Some of these apply to performers, others to casting directors, agents, directors, and studios, and some apply to all of them. I hope that this list will be a useful tool for readers.
1. Encourage directors, studios, and casting directors to seek actors that actually are Deaf, hard of hearing, or with disabilities when casting for roles that are written as such.
2. Encourage writers, studios, directors, and casting directors to open the talent pool to all different abilities.
3. Train new talent with disabilities and those that are Deaf and hard of hearing.
4. Seek roles that are challenging. Don't just look for those that are written as Deaf, hard of hearing, or a person with a disability.
5. Encourage casting agents to really fight for actors and actresses to get interesting roles rather than cliche ones.
6. Challenge others' and your own stereotypical depictions of impairment: work to make characters three-dimensional. For performers: trust your instincts. For writers and directors: consult closely with people who personally understand hearing loss or disability.
7. Train and support more Deaf, hard of hearing, and disabled talent to learn skills behind the camera (directing, cinematography, editing, sound design, graphics, etc) in schools, vocational programs, internships, and paid jobs. Learn about and support their communication needs.
8. Utilize the non-profit sector. Contact and ask non-profits that specialize in serving people with disabilities or the Deaf and hard of hearing for help in finding people who are aspiring performers or even people who have amazing life stories that resemble the role that you are casting.
9. Utilize social media. When you have a role you are casting, post on Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Posterous, blog websites, Yahoo Groups, and virtually any website that has dialogue between multiple users.
10. Network. Talk to others who may know of opportunities and tell them that you are interested when there is an opportunity available.
11. Support the work of your fellow performers even if you lost the role to them. It's a competitive business. Representation is important, but so is respect.
12. Show your work. Don't be afraid to show others what you can do, and definitely show your range.
13. Be honest about your communication needs. Communication is one of the most important aspects of a successful production.
14. Support access to your work: advocate for it to be captioned, audio described, or for there to be a transcript made available for other access or translation needs.