Growing Representation of the Deaf Community in the Media

Published: Multimedia Newsroom – Mar 25, 2014

Hollywood’s celebrities, films and television shows have power that is unimaginable. They can alter our perceptions on political and social issues and help in the representation of different groups of people. From same-sex relationships to human rights, we have seen an array of topics represented in the media. True, the media has shed light on these issues, but what about deaf representation in the media?

“Deaf representation in the media is important because it helps hearing people to broaden their knowledge about deaf culture,” says Debbie White. White is an American Sign Language lecturer at the University of Texas. As the predominant sign language among the deaf community, ASL is becoming an increasingly popular language to learn.

With the gaining momentum of ASL and the need for representation among the deaf community, the media is slowly adding shows with storylines that include deaf actors and actresses playing main characters.

ABC’s Switched At Birth debuted in 2011 as the first mainstream series to have multiple characters who were deaf and hard-of-hearing, with select scenes filmed in ASL. In early 2013, the series did an entire episode using only ASL. The series, currently in its third season, brings a lot of exposure to the deaf community.

“There are deaf actors in the show of different backgrounds. Some were born hearing and others lost their hearing. There’s lots of variety,” says Leah Geer. Geer, also deaf, is an assistant instructor of ASL in the linguistics department at UT.

One main character in Switched At Birth portrayed by Katie LeClerc, is deaf, but was hearing and consequently lost her hearing from Meniere’s Disease. The disease attacks your inner ear and affects your hearing and balance. The actress has a hearing voice, but the character was designed to have a deaf voice.

“For the show, they had to teach her how to speak like a deaf person,” Geer said. “In America, we have actors that are really deaf and have deaf speech. Why not pick someone that actually represents that, instead of teaching her how to have a deaf voice.”

She finds this unsettling, because from Geer’s perspective, choosing an actress with a hearing voice can be seen as the easy way out. Working with a person with hearing voice would reduce the need for an interpreter.

Additionally, LeClerc did not learn sign language until she was 17 years old, where her character, Daphne Vasquez, learned at the age of three. Just as with spoken languages, introducing a language at a younger age often leads to better mastery.

“It’s obvious that it doesn’t match,” says Geer. “The actress doesn’t look like and can’t accurately portray someone who learned sign at an early age.”

One of the actresses on Switched At Birth, Marlee Matlin, has served as a prominent representative of the deaf community. Matlin lost her hearing at 18-months-old. Known for her role in NBC’s The West Wing as Joey Lucas, Matlin is the only deaf actress to win the Academy Award for Best Actress. Lucas, a pollster, analyzes statistics for political elections. Matlin’s character was a strong and successful career woman that doesn’t always speak for herself.

“A common misconception about deaf people is if you can’t talk, you’re not intelligent. That was a widely accepted belief for many years in the education system,” said Geer. “I like the fact that the show shows that successful people sometimes speak and sometimes don’t and that’s okay.”

In today’s society, there’s still a common misconception that speech is superior to sign language.

“Deaf people don’t believe that, but in the hearing world it’s normal because they talk,” says Geer.

Within the deaf community, speaking and hearing skills aren’t of great importance. Being able to communicate through sign is becoming increasingly more important.

With television shows like Switched At Birth and actresses like Marlee Matlin, the deaf community’s representation in the media is becoming more prominent. Although there’s still the widely accepted belief that speaking is superior to signing, it doesn’t mean that it is necessarily true.

“Just be aware that it’s different, not inferior,” says Geer.