Those that know me know that I live a lot of my life straddling two very different cultures, languages, and groups of people: The hearing world and the Deaf Community. I was born into the hearing world – I have no Deaf parents, siblings, or indeed any family that are Deaf. I am a NERDA: Not Even Related to a Deaf Adult (as opposed to a CODA – Child of a Deaf Adult – or SODA – Sibling of…you get the idea).
I started learning American Sign Language when I was about 10-11 years old, from a Deaf friend of mine and fellow clergy kid. We saw each other at United Methodist events for clergy and summer camp, and she taught me to communicate with her – which, I learned when I was much older – was her idiosyncratic “dialect,” if you will, of ASL. But proper ASL or not, she taught me to think in three dimensions, to see everything as a picture rather than a string of words, haphazardly strung together and exhaled in an attempt to communicate. Whereas English is clunky and burdened with rules and auditory cues for intonation and emotion, ASL is streamlined. There is grammar, of course – it is a proper language after all – but learning it felt less like the verb sheets in high school Spanish and more like being let in on a magical secret. I can communicate with someone in another car with the windows rolled up. I can tell you that I am paying attention AND that I understand what you’re saying all with a twitch of my nose. Truth be told, I fell in love HARD with ASL (and all signed languages, really), and I haven’t bothered to get back up and brush myself off. Not to be maudlin, but while English is my first language and therefore (most of the time) the language of my mind, ASL is the language of my heart. I can say things in ASL that I physically, mentally, and emotionally CANNOT in English.
So, when I learned about the crowd-funded short film called The Silent Child, you know I had to learn more. I only wish I had known about it sooner! I fell in love with Maisie Sly, the actress that plays the lead role. To have that much ability and emotion at the age of six is extraordinary. If you can get a copy of it (currently on Google and YouTube here in the US, not sure about other parts of the world yet), DO IT. I was explaining to a co-worker this morning that Maisie’s character Libby is just like so many Deaf children here in the US and around the world who suffer lasting effects from language deprivation just because they are not allowed to sign when they are young. And before you come out from behind your sofa and shout at me that they need to learn the spoken language of their country of origin, there is no reason why the signed language of that country can’t be used in that respect.
I sat down to watch the Oscars not expecting The Silent Child to be another Children of a Lesser God, but had fingers crossed just the same. The nominees for that category were AMAZING, all in their own right – but when they announced the winner, it was like a victory for ASL. The writer and starring actress, Rachel Shenton, is a qualified BSL interpreter as well as an actress, and it was her passion for making sure Deaf children have the same access to APPROPRIATE language as their hearing peers that made this film possible. I bought it from Google Movies this morning and have watched it twice today..and to say it hits me in the feels is an understatement.
I can’t say as much about the Oscar-winning picture, The Shape of Water, because I haven’t seen it yet. When it first came out, the trailer was plastered ALL OVER MY FACEBOOK WALL because it has signing in it. “Is this a Deaf actress, Nancy?” “What do you think about this?” “Are you going to see it?”
At first, the answer to that was no. The movement now to fill Deaf roles with Deaf actors is very important to me for many reasons, not the least of which being it is a point where my two dearest loves (ASL and Theatre) intersect and overlap. So on first blush I was afraid this was yet another one of THOSE films and I pretended that it didn’t exist. That’s about as much as I do these days as far as protesting something goes. It was a monster movie, too, and those aren’t my usual genre of choice, so it was a win-win for me.
Until it wasn’t. The role was filled by a hearing actor because the character is mute, not Deaf. She signs to communicate expressively but hears to communicate receptively, and therefore a Deaf actress would have not been the right choice for the role.
I have other rants already prepared about only casting Deaf actors in roles written as Deaf rather than as a viable choice for any role in the name of diversity, but I will put that back in my pocket for now.
If I can get myself to sit through a monster movie, I will watch The Shape of Water now, not only because it won Best Picture or it has ASL in it, but also because it looks to be a visually stunning film – and that is part and parcel of the Deaf experience, isn’t it? Conveying emotion and story by showing rather than telling? On my list of to-do after watching this film is to stop feeling the need to correct everyone that is WRONG ON THE INTERNET about how Rachel Shenton could barely sign the acceptance speech at the Oscars last night or how the parents were vilified for making the choice to force the child to learn speech rather than ASL…but, for now, I’m going to take a nap. If you have the means, though, see both of these movies. Hollywood is making small steps to bring more diverse stories to the big screen (Coco, Black Panther, etc) so I can’t wait to see what is coming soon!