This past year, I’ve been seeing a lot of myself on the screen.
It feels weird to say that. As someone who has been deaf for most of their life, I’m not used to seeing people like me in movies or on television. Before this year, I could name a handful of movies or television shows that had deaf characters. Children of a Lesser God, or anything Marlee Matlin has done, See No Evil, Hear No Evil, and The Family Stone, to name a few.
Deaf representation has come a long way in Hollywood, and today’s climate is nothing like even ten years ago. Very few films and television shows have been centered around deaf characters, and even fewer deaf and hard-of-hearing people have worked behind the scenes in Hollywood. Outside of Matlin, there are not many deaf creatives that can be named by the ordinary viewer, myself included. Even for deaf viewers, things have not always been accommodating. To this day, some YouTube videos still do not have captions, and news videos online do not contain closed captions, making it harder for deaf viewers to take in content. Movie theaters have also struggled in the past to provide closed captioning for deaf viewers, and just last year AMC Theaters committed to adding more open captions to their theaters for deaf and hard of hearing viewers. So it is clear the industry has come a long way, yet still has ways to go in terms of inclusivity for deaf people. But this past year? There are deaf characters and deaf representation all over the place. A list that includes: Hawkeye, Eternals, A Quiet Place Part II, CODA, and Only Murders in the Building. Deaf creatives are out in full force, and at 28 years of age, I’m finally starting to see the deaf representation that has been lacking on our screens for years.
And it is not just on the screen but behind the scenes.
Academy Award-winning deaf actress Marlee Matlin’s awards season movie CODA, following a child of deaf adults, has been speaking about deaf representation in front of and behind the scenes in full force. CODA is a remake of the French film La Famille Bélier, which was criticized by the deaf community for having hearing actors playing deaf characters. Matlin made sure this wasn’t the case for CODA. She pushed hard for deaf representation in the film, and it has been met with critical acclaim and is an Oscars front runner. “So you see what happens when you make noise? You make great things happen,” Matlin remarked. I was fortunate enough to hear Matlin speak when she visited my college back in 2015 and she was pushing it even then, if not her whole career. I was even more fortunate enough to meet her, and I told her I was getting into filmmaking and said I would work with her one day. Her response? “Looking forward to it,” shaking my hand. I never forgot it. I’m glad she is out there spearheading the movement that is long overdue.
As for me, I will never forget my first experience being on a movie set. While I had been on plenty of sets throughout college and film school, a few months after I graduated film school, I had the opportunity to work on an independent movie as a production assistant for a week. I saw it as my first big opportunity to crack into the film industry and work on a “real” set.
After finding out that communication on set went on through walkie-talkies, I became very nervous and worried my deafness would hinder my work on set. At the first pre-production meeting, I went right up to the first assistant director and told him about my situation. He was very understanding and explained to me that he would keep that in mind on set. I felt reassured and relaxed headed into Day 1. Boy, did that change fast.
I arrived on set at 5 am and went to get my walkie-talkie, and found that the headset for it would not work well with my cochlear implant. I rely on double muff headsets, and this was an inner earpiece headset (think security or Secret Service). When I tried to explain this to the second assistant director, who was in charge of the PAs, I found out I couldn’t be accommodated with the kind of headset that I needed. The request fell on deaf ears, so to speak.
And from then on came the longest 18 hours of my life. Right off the bat, I was asked by the second AD to perform a mic check, which I had never done before, nor could I hear them well. After that, they had a strong distaste for me on set. When I tried to explain that my implant batteries would go out every four to six hours and I’d have to change them, this was the cold response I got: “Look, I don’t care whatever it is you have to do, just do it.” I’d been on set for half an hour and was already uncomfortable. For the rest of the day, I did my best to hear what I could on the walkie-talkie, but most of it passed right through me. I would answer when I wasn’t supposed to, miss responding to something when someone did talk to me, end up on the wrong channel, and misspeak. Everything I did just made the second AD angrier and angrier. At one point I was told: “People are beginning to notice, and it is embarrassing for you.”
I don’t know how I finished the rest of the week on that set. I basically winged it, doing the best I could to get by. I had my good moments, but the experience itself was a tough life lesson for me. How could something I was so excited about, let alone wanted to do with my life professionally, turn out so badly? I went home feeling that my deafness hindered my experience, and everything was my fault. The experience scared the hell out of me and made me wonder if I made a mistake pursuing filmmaking as a career. This was just a small independent movie. What if I had been working on a Hollywood movie? Would I get canned right away? Is this how set life was always going to be for someone who was deaf? In the span of a week, my dreams went from close to so far from me.
After this horrible on-set experience, I did the best I could to not let it get to me. My goal was to use this life lesson to make sure I was ready for the next time I worked on a set. When that next time came, I found things to be quite different. While it was not a movie set — I worked as a video intern at a marketing agency doing campaign spots and interviews — I felt more relaxed on set. I did the same thing as on the movie set, letting my superiors know I was deaf and had a cochlear implant and explaining my situation. Suffice to say, they were more than accepting and accommodating in making sure I was comfortable. And I found that, knowing that, I was able to do my job a lot better and with more passion than ever before. A short time later, I began working on the production crew for a hockey team where I once again had to rely on headsets to communicate with the technical director. I’d be lying if I said my bad on-set experience didn’t linger in my head and I didn’t fear the situation would repeat itself, but I’m glad to say that this was not the case. These kinds of experiences have been rewarding for me and reinvigorated my passion to lead a life as a creative and work in the film and television industry someday. So what was the big difference between my first on-set experience and the ones that followed after?
It took me a while to realize that the problem wasn’t with me, but with others. And that’s life. There are just some people out there that will scare you and try to deter you from your goals. The important thing is how you overcome those obstacles. I did not let this one experience stop me from chasing my dreams. My deafness is not a weakness, it is a strength, a superpower. Why? Because it makes me . . . well, me. It makes me who I am: that same kid who fell in love with movies and television that he wanted to make them his passion in life. For a long time, it was a part of my identity that got pushed aside because I wanted to be normal and “like everyone else.” But now? Normal is overrated in my opinion. I like being unique. How often do you meet a deaf filmmaker and superhero fanatic who attended the only film school in the world dedicated solely to comedy?
I think CODA will be seen as a big moment in history someday in terms of deaf representation. A mainstream, awards-season movie that gives viewers an insight into the deaf experience, brought to life by deaf creatives. Marlee Matlin deserves lots of credit for pushing for deaf representation in the industry, something she has devoted her life to. Someday I hope that Matlin is just one of the many deaf performers and creatives that viewers can name. As for me, I hope to be included with them. Not solely because I am deaf, but because my passion as a creative got me there despite my disability. I will never stop chasing my dreams, and when they come true someday, I’d owe a lot to Matlin and others that have paved the way for me. I hope I get to thank her in person again when the time comes. Until then, I look forward to where deaf creatives go from here and all the content that will be coming our way in the future.
I see myself on the screen, the part of my identity that gets pushed aside from time to time. Maybe soon it won’t feel weird to say that. •