Can A Movie About Deaf People Help Hearing People Listen?

For me and many other Deaf people, seeing “CODA” triumphantly bag three Oscars, including Best Picture, was emotional. Not just for its recognition of Deaf talent in Hollywood — and Troy Kotsur is only the first Deaf man in 93 years to win an Oscar — but because it has potential to be an agent of change in the real world. It felt like a door opening; a door that’s been jammed for hundreds of years.

Rachel Zemach | Do movies about Deaf people help hearing people listen? This photo is of a vintage movie projector. One wheel is red and the other is tan with film wound around it.

Divisiveness & Discrimination

American Deaf history is stained by painful divisiveness in the field of education, discrimination in employment and past oppression that might shock you. Despite tremendous Deaf potential, there’s high unemployment, low educational levels and a high rate of mental health struggles and substance abuse among the Deaf.

Most of this is tied to unequal education, opportunities and access. In other words, it’s not due to deafness itself. Many, if not all, of Deaf people’s biggest problems come from hearing people’s ignorance. This isn’t to say hearing people aren’t well-intentioned, but rather they have a sound-based value system and misconceptions of what being Deaf means.

American Sign Language is vibrantly presented in “CODA;” showing hearing audiences a complex, full range of expression.

However, medical specialists often — and in the opinion of many Deaf professionals, wrong-headedly — steer parents away from ASL and toward cochlear implants and speech therapy. They give parents a false either/or dictum that signing will prevent speech. In reality, much research shows the opposite. However most parents, vulnerable upon finding their child is Deaf, comply with the specialists’ advice. While it works for some, for many this directive does harm, and language deprivation among Deaf children is rampant.

Over 80% of Deaf and “hard of hearing” children attend mainstream schools where they have few Deaf role, or language, models. When I taught at one such school, at first, most of my students were unable to answer even simple questions, such as whether they had siblings. They were unquestionably smart but didn’t have a formal language.

ASL projected up on to a movie projector for a movie about Deaf people.

ASL by age five is VITAL

Research finds that a solid base of fluency in language, including ASL, by age five is vital. It’s absence negatively affects cognitive development. Yet 90% of parents of Deaf children don’t sign. At Deaf schools, meanwhile, ASL and Deaf culture are celebrated. Communication there is as fluid and unhindered as shown in “CODA.”

Hearing children learn ASL almost as quickly as Deaf children do. If all schools taught ASL to all students, people could simply switch back and forth between languages as needed if they have a Deaf baby, family member, co-worker or lose their hearing due to age. At the Oscars, hearing actors leaned in, uncomfortably trying to hear their interviewers on the noisy red carpet. The Deaf, meanwhile, had no problem. Signing is convenient, extraordinary and life changing.

My hope is that “CODA” will increase respect for the skills and opinions of Deaf adults and make parents think twice when they’re told not to learn ASL, or not let their Deaf child associate with Deaf peers.

What does CODA mean?

Coda letters up on a movie screen in a dark movie theatre. The movie screen is lit up with the letters CODA.

The acronym CODA — (children of Deaf adults) — was little known outside the Deaf community until recently, while now it’s familiar to millions.

Here’s another important word for you to learn: Audism.

The word describes the attitude that hearing, or acting like a hearing person, is superior to being deaf. Like racism, ageism and sexism, audism harms everyone.

As we open our eyes to the injustices faced by other diverse groups, it’s high time for a national dialogue about the unnecessary obstacles faced by Deaf people.

At the recent SAG awards, actress Marlee Matlin sweetly taught the sign for “I love you.”

Certainly, there was a beautiful atmosphere of love flowing between Deaf and hearing people there.

Now, try the sign for audism. Make one hand into a fist. Make the other hand flat. Put it over your fist — like a lid on a barrel — and push down. Push down bright Deaf people, push down the avenues of communication that ASL opens, push down everything funny and rich about “CODA.”

You’re signing audism.

Now do it in reverse. Push your fist up, so the lid flies off. Really let that lid fly, even if it startles your cat. You just signed “breaking free from the constraints of audism.”

By learning this word, this concept, you can become our allies. Together, we can change the world.

Rachel Zemach lives in Novato, California. She taught Deaf students for 10 years at a hearing, public school, and lived to tell the tale. Her memoir is currently out on submission.

Originally published in the Florida Sun Sentinel.

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An important book written from the heart about the educational challenges of deaf children

“I had the privilege of interviewing the author on my podcast, “The Art of Medicine with Dr. Andrew Wilner.” I would highly encourage anyone who knows a deaf child or who works in the public education system, especially special education, to read this enlightening, thoughtful and well researched book. It is likely you will view those who are hard of hearing and deaf very differently. It certainly opened my eyes to how much better we can do in our education of deaf children.”

– Andrew Wilner, MD


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The Butterfly Cage

‘In “The Butterfly Cage,” Rachel Zemach fills that gap, and then some! Writing from the perspective of both a Deaf student, and long-time Deaf teacher of the Deaf, Rachel enabled me to finally gain some real insight into the severe impediments to learning that we educators create for our Deaf students…’
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