Deaf identity and film

Seeing different identities in the media isn’t just about representation, but self-identity too. Rachel Brown, who is deaf and was diagnosed with progressive hearing loss at age 11, explains this and discusses the barriers that still exist between cinema and the Deaf community.

The actor Troy Kotsur, who is deaf and uses American Sign Language (ASL), has just won a Bafta and an Oscar for his role in CODA. We all want this to signal a shift in the relationship between disability and film.

Watching CODA

This film deserves to be celebrated. It’s a beautiful, authentic story and I can see why it attracted so much attention. Casting deaf actors with lived experience has, I think, been key to CODA’s success.

We’re given an intimate view of the family’s life, which I found really engaging. Especially the moments of isolation. Deaf people can be cut out of everyday situations when we’re not included in the communication. CODA shows this. It shows what it’s like when you’re tired, and you can’t concentrate on lipreading and constantly adapting to engage with the hearing world.

One aspect of the film I struggled with are the moments that suggest deaf people can’t enjoy music. In one scene, the family say that music isn’t “something we can all do as a family.”

It’s important to recognise that deaf people do have a strong connection with music. You can appreciate the vibrations, the beat, the rhythm. At one point, the father puts his hand on his daughter’s throat while she sings, feeling the vibrations. In those moments, CODA gets it right – highlighting that there is pleasure to be found in music and song, with or without hearing. That’s the message I want people to take away.

Personal experience

I was diagnosed with hearing loss and fitted with bilateral hearing aids when I was 12-years-old. Like most teenagers, I just wanted to fit in. I struggled to come to terms with the fact I had progressive hearing loss.

It affected my sense of self. Even though I had a supportive family, this exploration of my deaf identity was a solitary experience. There wasn’t a community of people I could connect with and I didn’t feel represented or fully understood.

CODA portrays these tensions between the hearing and deaf communities. I know now that there aren’t only two groups, but many types of deaf identity. But it’s still possible to feel isolated, like you exist in-between.

Building a deaf identity

No one film can capture all the nuances of the lived experience of being deaf. Nor should we expect this. There are, however, some great films which have encouraged me to explore my deaf identity.

A Quiet Place, for instance. Just wow. This film enabled me to reflect on my relationship with hearing loss. Growing up, I did everything I could to hide my hearing aids. But covering them up often creates feedback and a whistling sound. This would happen at school and attracted attention, it gave me a lot of anxiety.

In A Quiet Place, Regan (played by Millie Simmonds, a deaf actress) uses the feedback from her cochlear implant as a weapon. She is resourceful, independent and brave.

If I’d seen more films and characters like this growing up, would I have had more confidence? Could I have felt the pride and self-acceptance I feel now, earlier in my life?

Breaking down barriers

I’ve only spoken here about two films because, the reality is that I don’t go to the cinema. It’s not accessible for me. I’d love to go and see movies, I’d love to have a movie date night or go to the cinema with my family, but there are still barriers.

Normally, I wait until I can watch a closed captions version at home. This might be years later, by which time the buzz has passed and I forgot I ever wanted to watch it. Captioned screenings are disappointingly rare. Weekday lunchtimes seem to be primetime for subtitled movies. I’m not sure why, do they think deaf people don’t have jobs?

It’s great to have representation on screen but it’s no good if there isn’t accessibility off-screen.