Deaf Talent in Hollywood

September 29, 2017 | April Caputi, 2017 AAPD Summer Intern

Before the Americans with Disabilities Act existed, Hollywood has been known to produce films that did not depict Deaf people correctly, due to a lack of Deaf awareness. The stereotypes they portrayed affects the perception of Deaf people to general hearing audiences, and were, for the most part, negative and dehumanizing. Deaf awareness to the public did not really begin until the 1960’s-70’s when The National Theater for the Deaf was established, American Sign Language was recognized as a language, closed-captioning created a recognized Deaf audience, and a number of scripts containing Deaf themes were produced. 1989 was the year the Deaf community made significant progress through Gallaudet University in bringing Deaf awareness to the public during the struggle for Deaf rights.

Since then, there have been some positive depictions of Deaf culture, such as Children of a Lesser God, in which Marlee Matlin became the youngest and first Deaf woman to win an Academy Award for her role in 1986. In 2011, ABC Family’s Switched at Birth premiered, featuring several Deaf characters all played by real Deaf actors and accurately portrays their culture. In the fall of 2015, Broadway held a revival of Spring Awakening incorporating ASL and hiring several Deaf actors for the musical. Even with these accomplishments, Hollywood is still unconvinced in accepting Deaf people as a genuine cultural minority group.

Hollywood has a tendency to hire Deaf actors only for films about Deaf people and refuse them for anything otherwise. There have been numerous cases where hearing actors play Deaf characters. This is a cultural offense to Deaf people since it does not provide an accurate representation of Deaf people and it denies job opportunities to them. Hollywood’s so-called solutions have been to take crash courses in ASL, Deaf culture, Deaf mannerisms, and the “Deaf style” of acting. At a roundtable discussion, I heard Marlee Matlin share a story in which she was denied a Deaf role, yet was asked to teach the hearing actor how to be Deaf. No matter how much a hearing person learns about it, he/she will never be able to fully embrace the life of a Deaf person as well as a Deaf person him/herself.

Part of this problem is that Hollywood does not even hire Deaf people as writers, producers, and directors. To move in the right direction, Deaf people need opportunities to write stories about Deaf people (or at least, include Deaf characters) that are accurate and does justice to the community. We also need more stories of integration and inclusion where disability is not the main focus of the story. People with disabilities are people first, and they live their daily lives like everyone else.

While Deaf actors are shedding light on this issue, actors with all other types of disabilities are advocating for inclusion in Hollywood, also. Again, while there has been some progress (ex: Micah Fowler in Speechless), Hollywood continues to fail in some aspects (Eddie Redmayne won the Golden Globe award for The Theory of Everything). Maysoon Zayid, an Arab-American actress and stand-up comedian who has cerebral palsy, gave a TED speech in 2013 where she stated, “Disability is as visual as race. If a wheelchair user can’t play Beyoncé, then Beyoncé can’t play a wheelchair user.” These issues are similar to race and ethnicity representation in Hollywood. Just as a Caucasian person cannot effectively play a major African-American role in a civil rights movie, a hearing actor cannot effectively play a Deaf character without having experienced the full nature of Deaf culture. After researching this topic further, I have come to a point where I need to listen from Hollywood this time. That is, listen to them behind-the-scenes, not on-screen.

Why has Hollywood been so exclusive when dealing with minority groups? Is it money? Time restraints? In a 2014 Atlantic article written by playwright, Christopher Shinn, who had a below-the-knee amputation at 38, he explains his theory on this topic. One aspect is that the financial reality of Hollywood is that casting stars for lead roles will push the film to the top of the box office. Sometimes, this means casting able-bodied actors for disabled roles. Another point is that it is reassuring for audiences to know that the able-bodied actor they see is not actually disabled in real life. “Society’s fear and loathing around disability, it seems, can be magically transcended,” he says. Shinn goes on to explain how with this comforting assurance, society is not witnessing the real pain and struggle of having a disability. “Able-bodied actors can listen to the disabled, can do research, can use imagination and empathy to create believable characters. But they can’t draw on their direct experience. That means that audiences will be able to ‘enjoy’ them without really confronting disability’s deepest implications for human life.” This led Shinn to speculate that society is more interested in disability as a metaphor for universal themes such as the triumph of the human spirit over adversity or feeling self-divided rather than something that actually happens to people.

One of my film professors, a member of the Writers Guild of America, also shared his point of view, “I think traditionally Deaf actors were not accepted because no one knew how to make money from talent that had a disability.” He recognizes that Deaf people want a vehicle to showcase their talent and that Hollywood has a benevolent side, but also brings to mind that, “Opportunities are rare also partly because most writers are not thinking, ‘I think this will be good for a Deaf person to play.’ They just don’t think that way.” He said that Hollywood is concerned with image, money, and power, so it’s no wonder Hollywood has not been exactly acute to the voices of minorities.

This makes me ponder just how much more we can do as minorities to get our voices heard and action done about it. I started listening to people from different departments working in Hollywood. During my internship at Paramount Pictures, it took over a month for me to discover that their employee screenings had captioning and audio descriptions enabled through an app. As I conversed with a projectionist there, he openly said how this should be a more discussed issue in this field. Had I not prodded to see whether or not I could watch Beauty and the Beast in 3D with captions on, these people would never have become aware that this needs more recognition.

Regarding Deaf actors, I am proud of how far we have come in making ourselves known in a positive light and impacting audiences all over. Needless to say, work still has to be done and we can do that by starting with our surrounding communities. Continuing to educate others while having open ears will come a long way. With the significant progress we have made in these last few years, things should only get better from here on out as long as we keep fighting for our rights. I will forever be grateful to be a part of the Deaf community and have a starting platform to continue being a part of this conversation.


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April Caputi was a 2017 AAPD Summer Intern. This summer she interned with the National Archives and Records Administration.

The Hero’s Journey: From LA to DC

August 25, 2017 | April Caputi, 2017 AAPD Summer Intern

I’ve always dreamed of visiting Washington D.C. Walking around the historic place reminds me of certain people who inspire me.  As I glance towards the Washington Monument, I think of the sweet reunion between Forrest Gump and Jenny. I also think of Martin Luther King Jr. and how he fought so relentlessly for civil rights. As I walk on the lawn of Capitol Hill, I am reminded of Elle Woods’ fierce determination as she graduated Harvard Law School. I also reflect on all the efforts and sacrifices citizens with disabilities made in advocating for their rights.

Washington D.C. holds the history of this country’s formation while being a place of nostalgia as audiences are captured by the hero’s journey in a film. Like these fictional and historical characters, we are all heroes navigating a journey of our own. Mine made sense for a long time as I graduated with a degree in film and completed an internship at Paramount Pictures. But then suddenly I find myself in D.C., interning for the National Archives. Talk about a plot twist!

It wasn’t until I took ASL classes in college that I was exposed to how Deaf people and others with disabilities are often misrepresented in the media. If you know Hollywood, then you would know that while there has been little progress in reducing the stigma around disability, it’s far behind in its time compared to other industries. Personally impacted by this as a Deaf person, I sought ways to change this.

I started casting for my peers’ student films and learned a few tricks of the trade. Casting is deciding which actor you would like to portray a character in a film. As I shuffled through countless headshots and resumes, I was disappointed at how practically none of these people who auditioned had disabilities. My hunger to learn more led me to volunteer at two prestigious events in L.A., where professional casting directors and actors with disabilities discussed this issue. As I listened and observed, I realized I had a passion for diversity & inclusion and incorporating that with casting, and the media in general.

Then, a little of Elle Woods’ spirit sparked inside of me. For my senior thesis film, I was intentional in recruiting a diverse cast. Using a “Schedule A” type of method on my own, I automatically booked a talented actor who is Deaf.  The other two leads I booked were minorities in their own ways. I wanted to learn how to accommodate people with disabilities in the entertainment field, so I became the contact point for that among my crew. It was a challenge to pull all the ASL interpreters, schedules, and basic disability training at the last minute as well as assist the director in getting all the film logistics together. But it was all so rewarding. I marveled at how well it all came together and how all my fellow peers from college were being influenced by this diversity touch in one way or another. I felt like a proud mom.

Then the real challenge came when I interned for Paramount. Here and there, I struggled with finding my voice and having certain colleagues understand my needs as a person with a disability. But again, I noticed influences being rippled across as I asked for captions for their film screenings. It was a long process, but it eventually worked out and the responses I received from the people who worked at the studio were all positive. An employee even said that accessibility was a topic that needed to be more highlighted within the studio. While this experience was not without its trials, I completed the internship with my eyes more open than ever before and with the understanding that a small step in the right direction can have a lasting impact on others.

So what does being in D.C. have to do with all of this? I felt like I needed to learn more about how to professionally accommodate people with disabilities while learning in depth about disability rights, and I wanted to bring those skills back to Hollywood. At the National Archives, I am interning in their Diversity & Inclusion department. I work on media projects that promote accessibility awareness and improve the museum experience for all people with disabilities. Here’s a little known fun fact about me. In middle school, I decided that I wanted to pursue Library Science and work for the Archives. Instead, life brought me here with a background in film. I’m often amused at where my journey takes me. I never imagined that I would actually work for the federal government in this capacity. While this is a different experience and environment, I am thankful for all the steps I took to make it to where I am today.

While this transition has not been easy, and my post-grad crisis sometimes leads to meltdowns, I take this as a learning experience in all aspects of my life. Living in the transitional in-between phase of life is normal, and I realized that in some way, this experience will shape me to become a better, more rounded person. Forrest and Elle had gone through these stages. So did Martin Luther King Jr. and many disability advocates. We can all use our own journeys to connect with each other while our stories serve as catalysts to promote change. It is in this in-between stage that we make meaningful connections, struggle together, and create something beautiful out of it. I guess it’s true what Forrest Gump’s mama always said in the film: “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.”


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April Caputi was a 2017 AAPD Summer Intern. This summer she interned with the National Archives and Records Administration.

2013 Disability Inaugural Ball

January 16, 2013 | Nellie Wild

I can hardly believe that the Disability Community Inaugural Ball is in three days. It’s this Saturday, January 19, 2013, at the National Press Club! As a member of the ball planning committee, I’ve been working diligently with our team to make sure everything is in place for the big day. I performed the walkthrough at the Press Club yesterday and am thrilled with the space. We have worked with the Press Club to ensure that all necessary accommodations are in place for the big celebration. All the numbers are being set for the food, which will be plentiful. We’ll have passed hors d’oeuvres, carving stations, drinks, and pastries. Food and drinks will be available throughout the evening, so no worries about having to get to the ball early, but we hope you’ll be there in time for our 8:00 program, featuring our very own Tony Coelho. We promise the program will be short, but we plan to hear from members of Congress and other notables in our community. We’ve received some press inquiries, so be on the lookout for stories in some of our local area newspapers and our disability media outlets. We are thrilled to receive the coverage and to have the opportunity to get the word out about our Inaugural celebration and what it means to our community.

Aside from good food and drink, we will feature our favorite band Jukeboxx, which is no stranger to our events. You may remember that they performed at our last Inaugural celebration and at our 20th ADA Anniversary Gala in 2010. Participants are welcome to bring their instruments to the ball and jam with the band. Jonathan Young will most certainly play his trumpet again. In fact, we probably cannot keep him off the stage — I take spousal privilege here. We hope to be joined by many other musicians in our community as well. Aside from that, we are getting our volunteers in place and cannot wait to see you on Saturday night!

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