Ask a Deafie

Ask a deafie: About representation of the Deaf culture in mainstream media

Today I sat with my dear colleague, Jesada Pua, who happens to be a Deaf polyglot that knows a dozen sign languages and can read and write a few more. His experience in sign languages sparked a conversation on facilitated interest to representation of the Deaf culture in art and media. We discussed whether doing so is rather harmful or advantageous for the Deaf community. My name is Zaryana Lisitsa, and I am a feminist who majored in Gender Studies. I work as a marketing specialist at SignAll Technologies, a company that develops AI-driven sign language translation technology.

Zaryana: It’s clear that deafness is making its way into the mainstream media. Netflix is making movies about deaf people, and deaf celebrities are getting more attention, like Nyle DiMarco, CJ Jones, and Millie Bobby Brown. Can you enlighten us about the history of deaf representation in the media? How has it changed throughout history?

Jesada: Actually, seeing Deaf representation in the mainstream media isn’t new. Marlee Maitlin won her Oscar for the best actress category in 1986.  Because of her, the whole mainstream media could finally perceive Deaf people very differently. The old framework, where Deaf people were depicted as helpless and often requiring support, changed to portray Deaf people as an ‘ethnically disabled minority’ with their own distinct language and culture as well.

Sadly, between the 1986 and 2000s, most Deaf characters and stories in the mainstream media had always been directed and produced by hearing people.  In the 2000s and after, more Deaf people accessed and graduated with master’s degrees in cinematography and other related fields. Thanks to the ADA, they were able to get access to higher education.  

TV series like “Switched at Birth” and “This Close” were finally portrayed through the lens of ordinary Deaf people.  Nyle [DiMarco] has just produced two Netflix documentaries to show to the world that Deaf people can lead ordinary lives, just like hearing people.

He also wants to show how beautiful our internal world can be. Sometimes, Deaf people prefer to stay in their comfort zones and isolate themselves from their communities.  As more and more hearing people learn ASL (not because it’s a trend, but because it’s so beneficial and awesome), Deaf people are more willing to build bridges with hearing people. I am glad that through culture, there is a way to show the world we [Deaf] are human beings.

Zaryana: Was getting into a limelight a big part of the Deaf political agenda?

Jesada: It has historically always been a bigger part of the hearing agenda. But, if you see more deaf talent being shown in Hollywood TV and movies, that’s very promising news! Hollywood now realizes that all marginalized groups definitely need more accurate representation.

Zaryana: Historically, mainstreaming in all its forms (including media representation) has been used as a tool of assimilation, integration, or in other words “normativization”. What do you think is the price of this assimilation and its impact on personal identity?

Jesada: You see, most people still have a medical viewpoint on deafness, as if it is something that should be medically cured. Important cultural and identity factors are often forgotten along the way.  Some people believe that the full assimilation of deaf people into mainstreamed settings (like attending hearing schools) would help train and give deaf individuals better tools to survive the real world after graduation. This is typically untrue, because most of these students tend to have severe, lifelong identity crises, often asking themselves, “Who am I? What are my identities?”

This “normativization”stands on normalizing deaf children by fully integrating them in mainstreamed [educational]settings. But, that is dangerous because deaf people will always need their ownspace for different reasons. For the lack of a better analogy, if an LGBTIQAmember is forcefully integrated into a heteronormative society (of which thereare plenty examples), such “integration” will not make them heterosexual orcisgendered. It will rather put them in a context, where they feel differentand rejected. Even in “neutral” settings, it’s important to establish LGBTIQAclubs for such individuals where they can have a safe space and outlet fortheir identities to form. 

I also think that it can be easier to assimilatehearing-blind or hearing-physically disabled students into typical schoolsettings. Being hearing is very important in the current educationalformat.  Communication-wise, those peopleare less separated from the greater public. Therefore, I believethat us “deafies” should not be forced into hearing culture.  There is noother group as unique as Deaf people because they are the only ’disabledpeople’ with a distinguished language and stark cultural tendencies.

Zaryana: Talking about danger, in academia, mainstreaming as a part of activist agenda, is often times criticized. Let me refer to Jasbir Puar, who in her book “The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability,”[i] blames the contemporary disability agenda among other things aims for “normativization”. She says that through mechanisms of “passing” and “piecing” every/body, including trans bodies and bodies of different abilities, to be recruited “into neoliberal forms of fragmentation of the body for capitalist profit.” (Which further produces a shift to “How disabled are  you?” instead of  “Are you disabled?”[ii])

And while academia sometimes lives in its own bubble, this critique allows for assessing an agenda from a different perspective. Namely, this position insults the activist agenda. It blames it in strengthening a capitalist Status Quo through utilizing all bodies for the sake of the market economy, making them a part of capitalist exploitation. As a result of contemporary LGBT and disability activism, even bodies that were considered insufficient for the capitalist exploitation before are now included in the work force.  What I am saying is that what we are fighting for – access to education and equal competition for employment - are sometimes seen as bringing more “hamsters” into the capitalist “wheel.”

What do you think about upsides and downsides of the facilitated representation of deafness?

Jesada:  Upside is that representation of deafness helps to make us visible. It shows the society that deaf people do EXIST.  Like... Hello, we are also here on Mother Earth.  The more visible deaf people are, the more aware people become about those with different body capacities.  

There has been some controversy about hiring hearing actors to portray deaf characters in movies. That really angered the deaf community because the deaf people in general already have a much harder time finding jobs compared to hearing people. So, whenever an opportunity like this is available, it should be given to deaf/marginalized members as an act of equity, not just equality.

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[i] “Thus, trans relation to disability is not simply one of phobic avoidance of stigma; it is also about trans bodies being recruited, in tandem with many other bodies, for a more generalized transformation of capacitated bodies into viable neoliberal subjects.” J. Puar, Social Text 124, September 2015, p. 47

[ii] Ibid p. 62

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