Deaf Representation and Accessibility in the Media

Wed Mar 29 2023

If asked to provide the names of their favorite movie stars or media personalities, most people could probably rattle off at least a handful of names without having to think about it. But what if those same people were asked to name their favorite Deaf actor or celebrity? Odds are, you might get a puzzled look, maybe a sheepish smile.

Mainstream media has a serious problem when it comes to Deaf inclusion. In spite of the fact that around 1 in 8 people (or 13% of the population) in the United States are either Deaf or experience hearing loss in both ears, the coverage allotted to Deaf performers or entertainers in the media is woefully inadequate. In recent years, a few individuals from the Deaf community have made strides toward increasing Deaf representation in show business—notably, actresses Lauren Ridloff, Marlee Matlin, and Alaqua Cox, and producers Natasha Ofili, Storm Smith, and Jade Bryan. However, in spite of these and other small victories—such as the 2021 film CODA winning three Oscars for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Screenplay—the media has a long way to go before it can claim anything close to accurate or proportionate representation of either Deaf producers or characters.

Representation: Why It Matters

Deaf representation in the media isn't just a matter of political correctness. As the National Association of the Deaf notes, "Media representation has tremendous power in shaping society's perception of any community, including the deaf and hard of hearing community….Historically, the media has misrepresented deaf people as more isolated, disabled, or dependent than the rest of the population." In excluding Deaf performers and characters from films and television, we're also erasing and alienating the real-world Deaf community, a phenomenon known as "othering."

The thing that's important to understand about othering is that when it happens, everyone loses. Deaf individuals may feel isolated, or might experience emotional pain at seeing a hearing actor be cast as a Deaf character. Lack of representation also perpetuates the relative lack of understanding surrounding the Deaf and Hard of Hearing communities, which in turn allows offensive stereotypes and outdated information to persist. For Deaf or Hard of Hearing children, seeing Deaf actors represented in the media can help to normalize their experience.

Representation Includes Accessibility

The issue of Deaf inclusion operates on multiple levels. As discussed above, ensuring that Deaf and Hard of Hearing individuals are fairly portrayed in the media is essential to cultivating a more equitable society. However, another crucial component of this shift is ensuring that Deaf and Hard of Hearing consumers have access to mainstream media through services like captioning and audio descriptions.

As with representation, progress in accessibility can often feel like a two-steps-forward, one-step-back sort of process. While it's true that captioning is much more available and widespread than it used to be, it's far from universally available. Some shows or movies only add captions after the initial premiere of the program, which forces Deaf or Hard of Hearing individuals to wait until a later time to be able to watch it. If live captions are available, they're sometimes inaccurate or poorly paced. Limitations such as these make it difficult for Deaf and Hard of Hearing individuals to engage with media to the same degree that hearing people are able to.

Super Bowl LVI: A Case Study

Many people from the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community were thrilled to learn that the 2022 Super Bowl halftime performance (which featured well-known performers such as Mary J. Blige, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Eminem, Kendrick Lamar, and 50 Cent) would also include Deaf ASL performers Waren "Wawa" Snipe and Sean Forbes.

This promise, however, turned out to be somewhat hollow. Although Wawa and Sean did indeed perform during the halftime show, their performance, rather than being broadcast on live TV, was streamed separately on the NBCSports App and NBC As a result, Deaf and Hard of Hearing viewers were forced to watch the ASL performance on separate devices. There followed an Internet backlash from the Deaf and Hard of Hearing communities, who were frustrated by their marginalized experience and the lack of follow-through in making sure that the show was accessible to all viewers.

Unfortunately, the example of Super Bowl LVI isn't unique; although ASL interpretation has been increasingly included in the Super Bowl since 1992, ASL interpreters are rarely, if ever, featured prominently. Like others before it, this year's Super Bowl serves as a pointed reminder of the necessity of both representation and accessibility in order to create an inclusive, equitable world for Deaf and Hard of Hearing people.

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