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