April 14, 2023

Deaf Representation is Improving in Film and TV, But Falls Short in Video Games, Animation and Kids TV (EXCLUSIVE)


Deaf representation has come a long way in Hollywood.

“CODA’s” release and subsequent best picture Oscar win marked an important moment for deaf audiences. It showed the most significant representation of the community on a global stage since 1986’s “Children of a Lesser God” earned Marlee Matlin a best actress prize.

“Hollywood is making that shift from diversity for optics to something deeper,” says Lauren Ridloff, a deaf actor best known for her work on “Eternals” and “The Walking Dead.”

That deeper shift includes recent projects where deaf representation has been the focus of major storylines. Director James Cameron called on C.J Jones to create Na’vi sign language, featured in “Avatar: The Way of Water.” HBO’s “The Last of Us” offered up another landmark moment when the show about a post-apocalyptic world featured Keivonn Woodard, as a young deaf Black man trying to survive zombie hordes. Last year, Hulu’s “Only Murders in the Building” featured James Caverly, as a deaf man, with the show depicting his perspective by having one episode unfold in near silence. And John Krasinski’s “A Quiet Place” also featured a prominent deaf storyline and character.

Those aren’t just anecdotal signs of progress. A recent study by NRG shows at least 79% of deaf consumers believe that there has been more representation of their community in TV and film compared to a year ago. However, Ridloff and others maintain that more ground needs to be made up.

DJ Kurs, the artistic director of Deaf West Theatre, a Los Angeles-based company behind Tony Award-nominated revivals of “Big River” and “Spring Awakening,” partnered with NRG to host a wide-ranging roundtable about the issues facing the deaf community. It features Ridloff, “CODA” actor Daniel Durant, graphic designer Michael Epstein, comedian Jessica Flores, actress Shaylee Mansfield, founder of DC Deaf Moviegoers and Allies Erik Nordlof and disability advocate and ASL performer Raven Sutton. They joined Kurs to discuss the representation of the deaf community in media and entertainment and why it matters for deaf audiences.

Kurs pointed out that other forms of entertainment such as video games, live shows and genres such as animation continue to lag behind in deaf representation. Kurs said, “We just aren’t seeing as many deaf people there as we are in other forms of media and other genres.”

Mansfield, whose credits include “Madagascar: A Little Wild” stressed she had grown up without seeing herself represented on TV, particularly on children’s shows. “It’s important there are more young deaf people on those shows,” she said. “Child audiences out there are more open, receptive and welcoming. If they see deaf children are a part of our world, they will realize there’s nothing wrong with being deaf.”

The panel also discussed ongoing obstacles faced by the deaf community.

Earlier this year, Matlin called out the importance of open-captioned films during the Sundance Film Festival. Nordlof believes it wasn’t the filmmaker’s fault.

“It was the fault of the organizers who didn’t make sure that they were functioning devices,” he says. “That’s the challenge with live organizations. They feel very cost-conscious, and they don’t know how to navigate that and get the access that’s needed.”

Yet Sutton and the group remain hopeful about the steps Hollywood is making toward change. More conversations, discussions and inclusivity in front of and behind the camera are steps in helping the shift.

Sutton says optimistically, “I really want to be on a side of change, and it can happen. It’s not a hard thing to make something accessible. You just have to be willing, open-minded and have an open heart.”

Watch the full video above.


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