In 2020, the National Research Group (NRG) published a comprehensive look at black representation on screen. That study, which found that two in three black Americans don’t see their stories represented in movies and shows, resonated with DJ Kurs, the artistic director of Deaf West Theatre, a Los Angeles-based theater company behind the award-nominated revivals. Tony Award for “Big River” and “Spring Awakening.” Jurs wondered: Could NRG do similar research on how the entertainment business treats the deaf community?
Kurs found enthusiastic collaborators in Cindi Smith, NRG’s vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion, and Fergus Navaratnam-Blair, the group’s director of research. The two organizations have joined forces on a comprehensive new report that charts the great strides that are being made in deaf representation, as well as the enormous ground that still needs to be reclaimed.
“It’s eye opening, and I hope all readers learn something from this and use it to make change,” says Smith.
The study found that movies like “coda” and TV shows like “Only murders in the buildingThey are providing more opportunities for deaf performers, but Hollywood still perpetuates harmful stereotypes about deaf people. Some 79% of deaf consumers believe there is more representation of their community on TV and in movies now than there was a year ago. and 43% of hearing consumers as well as 56% of deaf consumers report seeing at least one piece of media featuring a deaf character in the last six months. Some of that may be boosted by “CODA,” a drama about the only hearing member of a deaf family that won the best picture Oscar in 2022. Some 66% of deaf consumers say the awards success of the film increased public interest in stories about the community.
But some members of the deaf community believe they have seen this story before, so they are not optimistic that it will result in sustained change. They point out that the success of 1986’s “Children of a Lesser God” and Marlee Matlin’s Oscar win sparked great interest in stories about the deaf experience. However, it was a short-lived renaissance.
“It’s a pendulum,” says Kurs. “The pendulum swings in one direction and we have a good representation. Then the pendulum swings back the other way and we have to wait another three to five years before he comes back on screen. I’m a bit scared after seeing this happen in the past. Hopefully, we haven’t built a sandcastle and a wave is coming to topple us.”
Even the progress being made comes with caveats. Sixty-three percent of deaf consumers say that movies and shows featuring deaf characters use negative images of the community. Some 82% of those surveyed believe that the entertainment industry needs to offer more professional support to deaf professionals to create a more authentic representation on the scene. In movies and shows, 70% of deaf consumers say that deaf characters are seen as objects of pity or in need of help. In addition, 74% of deaf people surveyed said they “have a problem” with the fact that content about deaf people is published frequently. on being deaf There is a correlation in the real world. 76% of deaf people believe that the way their community is portrayed in fiction influences how they are perceived in everyday life, shaping attitudes and calcifying prejudices.
“How they are portrayed in the media reflects how they are treated in the real world,” says Navaratnam-Blair. “This is a community where most people don’t interact with a deaf person on a regular basis, so much of their understanding of this community is driven by film and television.”
And many genres have proven difficult for deaf artists to penetrate. Deaf consumers say they are more likely to see deaf people in dramas, documentaries, reality shows, romances, or comedies. They’re not as likely to appear in action-adventure movies or animated titles, and 63% of hearing parents have never watched a children’s TV show or movie with their child that featured a deaf character.
There is also a certain uniformity in the types of deaf experiences portrayed on screen. In the US, hearing consumers are more than twice as likely to have viewed media featuring deaf white people as they are to have viewed media featuring deaf people of color. Only 6% of these viewers have ever seen a deaf LGBTQ+ person portrayed in fiction. That leaves more than half of consumers deaf, around 56%, saying they “rarely” or “never” see their identities represented in film and television.
“CODA” stands out as an example of a film that the majority of deaf viewers identified with, with 79% feeling that overall it was a good example of deaf representation. Additionally, approximately four in 10 viewers described the film as “authentic” to their experience of deafness, while fewer than two in 10 felt it was an inauthentic depiction of deafness. Some respondents blamed the film for focusing on how the only hearing member of the family was a musical prodigy, saying that this emphasis on music as a major plot element played into long-standing stereotypes about the deaf community. “CODA” was directed and written by a hearing person, Sian Heder, but focused on casting several deaf actors like Troy Kotsur and Matlin, and had 40% of the film’s dialogue in ASL.
Deaf viewers consider the selection of deaf actors to be the basis for representation, and 69% of deaf consumers say it is important to them that deaf roles are always filled by deaf actors. The study found that to improve screen representation, it’s not just about who plays the key roles. Sixty-eight percent of deaf viewers say that it is usually obvious to them when a deaf character has been written by a hearing person.
“It should be about making sure that deaf people and deaf creators have a seat at the table and tell their own stories,” says Navaratnam-Blair. “It’s not just about the industry giving them roles. In fact, it is allowing deaf people to tell their own stories and build their own profiles.”
To write their report, NRG and Deaf West surveyed 1,000 members of the deaf community between the ages of 18 and 64. They also surveyed a comparison sample of hearing consumers from the same demographic. The authors augmented that information with interviews with deaf artists and activists like “CODA” star Daniel Durant and filmmaker Jules Dameron to learn about their experiences.