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POSTED 29.3.2018

The joy of feeling heard

Deafness is an invisible disability and yet it’s playing a highly visible role in several films this year writes Erin Fox.

Working in film, television, or even journalism can seem an unlikely choice for people who are deaf or hard of hearing.

When my own hearing deteriorated, switching from a career in communications to something else seemed like the only option for me. But I’m glad I stuck to my guns and sought out different ways to pursue what I wanted.

The right supports help tackle challenges that many people with hearing loss face, but the right attitude is what breaks down the barriers.

And that kind of attitude is seeing actors who are deaf or hard of hearing winning more roles or having roles created for them in movies or on TV.

The Silent Child, which won best live-action short film at the Oscars, stars Maisie Sly a seven-year-old actress who is deaf. The film tells the story of a profoundly deaf child Libby (Sly) who struggles to communicate until a social worker Joanne, played by Rachel Shenton, teaches her sign language.

Shenton, who also wrote the film, qualified as a sign-language interpreter at the age of 12 after learning the language when her father went deaf.

As a strong advocate for deaf awareness, choosing a deaf actress to portray Libby was crucial for creating an authentic character.

For actor and director, John Krasinski, hiring a deaf actress for a deaf character in upcoming horror, A Quiet Place, was non-negotiable.

The film stars 15-year-old Millicent Simmonds as the daughter of a family of four who are hiding from creatures that hunt by sound and so must live in silence.

Krasinski wanted Simmonds for the role, rather than a non-deaf actress pretending to be deaf, to help his understanding of sign language and what it means to be deaf.

Casting deaf actors, rather than hearing actors pretending to be deaf, gives opportunities to not only the deaf community, but also back to the hearing community. Learning from actors who are deaf shines a light on the value of sign language and how it is just as rich as verbal communication.

Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water may not feature a deaf actress —nor a deaf character— but it does show the beauty and emotion in signing. Sally Hawkins stars as Elisa, a mute woman who communicates through American Sign Language (ASL) with her peers.

Del Toro, who was raised by two aunts who were deaf, was determined to put sign language front and centre, and the camera captures every gesture and emotion on Elisa’s face.

With such a strong focus on Elisa’s communication, Hawkins was dedicated to learning sign language and using it accurately. A month and a half prior to shooting, she met with an ASL teacher every day for three hours, learning a periodic version of ASL from the 1960s, and continued with the teacher during the filming.

Using sign language accurately and making deafness more visible on screen highlights the benefits of hiring more deaf actors.

This year’s films show that deaf actors can chase whichever roles they want and it’s a positive sign that anyone who is deaf or hard of hearing can pursue a career in any kind of communications role.

As Joanne says, when Libby’s grandmother asks if her granddaughter will be able to get a job one day: “Yeah, she’ll be able to have whatever career she likes!”

A career in communications seemed impossible when my hearing deteriorated. For me, the ability to hear was what defined success and not being able to hear was blocking the way. But by staying focused on what you want, you will find different ways to pursue those goals and that’s how you break down barriers.

Photo of Maisie Sly and Rachel Shenton in The Silent Child which airs on BBC1 on Friday 30 March at 7.40pm.