As I was scrolling through my twitter feed the other day, one tweet quickly caught my attention. Deaf actress Marlee Matlin tweeted: “Many other deaf actors and myself may not ‘speak’ as you do but we say PLENTY- with our hands. Don’t ever assume we are silent or mute.” So many thoughts and feelings of frustration and annoyance completely overtook my mind that I couldn’t even write a comprehensible reply to her.
But those negative feelings were not in agreement with her tweet.
For those unaware, Marlee Matlin stars in the ABC show Switched at Birth, which centers around two teenage girls (one of whom is deaf), whose lives have become meshed together after discovering they were switched at birth. Many characters on that show are deaf, including Daphne Vasquez (Katie Leclerc), Melody (Marlee Matlin), and Emmett (Sean Berdy).
The show depicts a ridiculously mind-boggling one-sided view of the deaf world. Each character either signs, chooses not to speak, or does both. Personally, this show frustrates me because it’s such a popular show, but underrepresents many deaf individuals, especially those with cochlear implants. To many, this show serves as an “image” or representation of the deaf community, when clearly it should not be.
Because of the generic portrayals of deaf people signing/not speaking, many people have developed assumptions as to what I can and cannot do. For instance, many people have asked if I sign. While I kindly respond “no”, my gut wants to scoff “obviously not”. The truth is, I never grew up signing, I never went to a deaf school, and I have never shied away from the mainstream/hearing world. Nonetheless, I do realize that many hearing individuals’ exposure to the deaf community is limited to what they see on television, an under-representative medium for deaf people. Thus, I cannot blame others for asking what seems like a harmless and an innocent question.
But SAB’s popularity continues to relay that message that every deaf person signs.
One of my best friends, Miranda, who has cochlear implants and attends a mainstream high school, bluntly told me “I don’t watch that show because it doesn’t show anyone with Cochlear Implants”. How can I blame her? She’s right. No deaf character on the show represents her life as a deaf individual: having cochlear implants, attending mainstream school, conversing orally with her hearing and deaf friends, and even talking over the phone! The show’s portrayal of deaf high-schoolers completely contradicts her lifestyle. How can she, I, and other CI users support something that’s so misrepresentative of our lives? Yet, SAB creates awareness to SAB viewers that, we, as cochlear implant users, automatically know ASL, associate only with deaf people, and attend deaf schools.
Switched at Birth contributes to the apprehensiveness hearing individuals exhibit towards deaf people due to the very one-sided portrayal of the deaf community—deaf and signing. I’ve had multiple people confess that when first meeting me, they initially didn’t know how to act or communicate with me because they either thought I couldn’t talk or only “spoke” through sign language. But the reality is, I am deaf, but can hear and speak with the aid of two cochlear implants. My life is completely the opposite of what filmmakers continue to portray as “deaf”. I’ve yet to see one show/film where there is a deaf person who “hears” with cochlear implants and speaks incredibly well. We need to promote more representative views of the deaf community.
People, especially television networks, must realize it is the 21st century. Many amazing technologies, like cochlear implants, have been invented to help deaf people “hear”. While many choose to sign, others do not.
The fact is: all deaf people have different views and ideas about how to live their lives as deaf individuals. And that’s great. Some choose to sign. Some choose to speak. Some choose to remain in silence. Some choose to “hear”.
So why are those with cochlear implants, who live oral lifestyles, continually underrepresented in television medium? Is it because we aren’t “deaf” enough? Because we don’t portray the generic deaf “view”? Because we can ironically hear?
When I see Marlee Matlin tweeting to her followers that not every deaf person is silent or mute, I think, Are you kidding me? Emmett doesn’t speak. Melody barely speaks. You star on a show that gives the idea that deaf people are silent.
As sad as it is, I can understand why some hearing people may innocently refer to the deaf as “mute”. Why? Because many shows/films portray deaf people in that way! Let’s be clear though, I’m not saying that if someone communicates through ASL, they’re mute. I’m simply pointing out that if filmmakers expand their horizons and put more speaking deaf actors on television, especially those with cochlear implants or even hearing aids who have don’t know ASL, then people would be less inclined to generalize the deaf as “mute” or “silent”.
While I have complete respect for those who choose to sign, we cannot keep promoting JUST the ASL deaf community. I completely understand that people come from all different walks of life, grow up differently, encounter different obstacles, and view life differently. But, can we at least offer the chance for those with cochlear implants to be represented in an accurate way too? I mean, don’t forget, we can hear, but we are still deaf.
Marlee Matlin’s tweet seems to have sparked the hashtag #deaftalent. I did some investigating, and discovered that many deaf actors/musicians/filmmakers, of most whom communicate through ASL, are trying to get more TV networks to portray real, actual deaf actors. I agree with them, but the deaf actors shouldn’t be limited to those who don’t speak.
Would you support something that misrepresented or under-represented you?
As a future filmmaker, I aspire to achieve many things. But specifically, I hope to create stories that open, expand, and challenge peoples’ views about different communities, including the deaf community.