Deaf Culture and Forced Assimilation

Deaf culture is too often erased by hearing people.

Hollywood, and the hearing world in general, too often forces deaf people and hard of hearing people to assimilate with hearing culture instead of creating accessible and inclusive spaces (Nović 2017). Twenty percent of people are deaf or hard of hearing, but actual representation continues to fall short (Callis 2014). When was the last time you saw a deaf character portrayed on screen? Was that character portrayed by a deaf actor? How was their deafness treated in the film?

One of the reasons that representation is often so abysmal, aside from the fact that deaf artists and activists are often ignored, is the fact that deaf people are not recognized as having their own culture (Nović 2017). Deaf culture varies from region to region and is rooted in its language, which is American Sign Language, or ASL, in the US and Canada outside of Quebec, where Langue des Signes Québécoise (LSQ) is used more often (Nović 2017). Spanish speaking communities in North America use Lengua de Señas Mexicana (LSM). Like spoken languages, sign languages develop over time within communities and include their own tones, mannerisms, and behaviors (Nović 2017).

Hearing people often willfully ignore deaf culture in order to force assimilation. Behaviors that are acceptable and normal in deaf cultures, such as bluntness, can be seen as unacceptable in hearing communities, and dismissed as rudeness rather than an cultural difference (Nović 2017). Misconceptions, such as the myth that learning ASL damages the ability to learn English, are perpetuated in order to force deaf children to learn to speak (Nović 2017). Even those who mean well, such as the hearing parent of a deaf child, can reinforce these misconceptions by failing to educate themselves on deaf culture. Ninety percent of children who are born deaf have hearing parents, who often seek out a ‘cure’ instead of teaching themselves and their child a sign language (Nović 2017).  A child often gets no choice as to whether or not they want their deafness ‘treated’ or if they want to be kept from experiencing deaf culture and meeting those who share the same lived experiences. Too often, hearing loss is treated as something that must be ‘cured’ without input from deaf individuals, which forces assimilation to hearing culture rather than creating accessibility, something that sign language interpreters and captions would do. Failure to treat deaf culture as what it is -its own equal culture rooted in its own language system- causes what little representation there is to be inaccurate.

As Sara Nović, deaf author and activist, says:

“To keep society’s definition of normalcy from becoming too narrow, the hearing mainstream must accept a cultural view of deafness, even when it is inconvenient. Because only when the hearing world respects deaf people as intellectual equals, when it parses out the difference between accessibility and forced assimilation — and yes, when it starts casting deaf actors in deaf roles — will Deaf culture be allowed to reach its full potential”

The little deaf representation that exists in Hollywood is more often inaccurate than not. Even though roles with deaf characters are rare, they are often given to hearing actors (Nović 2017). Children of a Lesser God was the first film with sound to feature a deaf lead actress, and there hasn’t been much representation since (Callis 2014). Deaf people create their own content and representation through companies such as ASL Films, Rustic Lantern Films, Deaf Professional Artists Network (D-PAN), the National Theater of the Deaf, and others (Callis 2014). These film and theater companies need widespread recognition and support in order to reach a larger audience. Art by deaf artists provides accurate representation, role models for young people, and more opportunities for artists to earn a living showcasing their talents.

As Linda Callis, sign language interpretor and activist says:

“Deaf kids need deaf role models, and hearing audiences are more than ready for complex deaf characters. Hollywood, and our society at large, need to stop reinforcing a tired status quo. Until we see a deaf Late Night host, or Oscar award-winning deaf director, or a proudly deaf U.S. president, we can not claim to live in a society of equal representation”

Equal and accurate representation is not a preference, it is an absolute must. Deaf people must have space to share their stories in Hollywood. The hearing world must educate themselves on deaf culture and begin to eliminate the discrimination and forced assimilation carried out by hearing culture.

Information retrieved from:

Nović, S (2017, October 20). The Hearing World Must Stop Forcing Deaf Culture To Assimilate.
          Retrieved from https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/hearing-world-must-stop-forcing-deaf-culture-assimilate-                        ncna812461

Callis, L. (2014, May 31). Deaf Culture in Hollywood. Retrieved from www.huffpost.com/entry/
           deaf-culture-in-hollywood_b_5056676

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