Published April 5, 2022
While technology has made watching movies easier and more accessible for anyone who is deaf or hard of hearing (HOH), a lack of authenticity and representation on screen remains an issue. Being able to see authentic characters with hearing loss portrayed in popular movies better reflects the makeup of society and helps to increase awareness that hearing loss is just one characteristic of interesting, complicated and compelling individuals.
Recently, the film “CODA” (children of deaf adults) has found itself at center stage for casting three deaf actors (Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur and Daniel Durant) as the deaf characters. And “CODA” made history at the Oscars by winning best picture, best supporting actor (Kotsur), and best adapted screenplay. Kotsur is the first deaf man to win an acting Oscar.
“CODA,” an adaption of the 2014 French film “La Famille Bélier,” follows high school senior Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones) as the only hearing person in her family. Ruby is conflicted about pursuing her dream of becoming a singer and leaving behind her close-knit family and their fishing business.
“My family easily related to the film,” says Henry Adler, research assistant professor in UB’s Center for Hearing and Deafness, College of Arts and Sciences. Adler and his wife, who are deaf, have twin daughters — both of whom are hearing.
“Our daughters are real-life CODAs,” Adler says. “We all loved the movie and the fact that deaf actors portrayed deaf characters. It gave the movie an authentic feel of what it’s like to be deaf.”
Adler’s twins are recent college graduates and have moved away from their home in Rochester, but Adler stays in touch with family members on Facetime and through other forms of communication, such as texting. He also shares his experiences and perspectives on his blog, the-eagle-ear.com.
Adler, who is proficient in lipreading and American Sign Language (ASL), has been involved in hearing research for over 32 years. For the past seven years, while at UB, he has published papers on topics ranging from identifying hearing loss resulting from different types of traumas (noise, drugs, etc.) to the effect of noise exposure on both auditory and non-auditory regions in the central nervous system. He is also part of a UB-led research team that has modified noise-cancelling headphones to enable the common electronic device to “see” and translate ASL when paired with a smartphone.
Research at the Center for Hearing and Deafness focuses on inner ear and central auditory disorders. Over the past 20 years, center researchers have conducted a wide range of projects with a goal of furthering understanding of the physiological and morphological changes of various types of acquired hearing loss and their underlying biological and molecular mechanisms.
While the center focuses on research, UB offers services through its Accessibility Resources office for people with a range of needs. Accessibility Resources collaborates with departments to help coordinate requests for reasonable accommodations from faculty and staff, including TAs, GAs and student employees, who have disabilities.
Tiffany Benson, who is pursuing a master’s degree in social work, wears two hearing aids and still has a hard time hearing. The biggest attraction for her about UB was the ability to pursue an MSW online. While the UB offerings work best for her schedule, she realized she needed some assistance while taking her courses online. She said that when the classes are asynchronous, she can pause the class and take notes, but when it’s synchronous, she has a more difficult time.
“I rely heavily on reading lips, so I can’t take notes and watch the professor talk at the same time,” Benson says.
She utilizes Accessibility Resources for notetaking and Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART) services.
“I just fill out a form every semester and I can find someone to take notes for me, or they (Accessibility Resources) find someone. It’s been a very easy process to navigate.”
Benson says Accessibility Resources also provides communication between her and her professors, which has been invaluable to her academic pursuit.
“I was in a communication class and the professor started a film. Shortly after it began, he realized there were no captions and told the class he was turning it off because of its lack of accessibility. He didn’t single me out or talk about anyone being hearing impaired; he just moved on with class, which was really nice,” Benson recalls.
As someone who is HOH, Benson says she was excited to watch the film “CODA,” even if it didn’t directly apply to her situation.
“I still related to the film, even though it’s the opposite for me because I’m the only person in my family who is hard of hearing,” Benson says. “It’s tough sometimes. If I take my hearing aids out, I can hardly hear at all and I must turn the TV up all the way, but then the rest of my family complains that it’s too loud. I can’t take a break from wearing my hearing aids, even though they sometimes give me headaches.”
With the Oscar wins, “CODA” has continued to gain momentum nationwide. The film’s actors shared their feelings on being accepted as working actors on awards stages and in interviews, and Benson says she relates to those overall messages.
“Being deaf or HOH is a spectrum. It’s not that everyone is completely deaf or only uses sign language to communicate. When I’m with someone and trying to figure out a situation, I may ask ‘what?’ or ‘huh?’ a lot — just talk to me, face to face. Don’t be dismissive or say ‘I’ll tell you later’ because I really don’t like that. Be patient and talk to me. We’re people like everyone else.”
Samantha Scheffler is in her fourth year in the English UBTEACH program, and she hopes to teach English language arts to middle school students in the future. Scheffler is HOH, and she has twin sisters who are deaf. Scheffler has watched “CODA” a couple of times and finds herself responding very emotionally to the characters.
“I cried so much watching the movie CODA because it felt so authentic and so very relatable. Navigating life is difficult enough without a culture and language barrier that so many fail to recognize as such. I loved the family dynamic in ‘CODA’; I found so many moments to be relatable to both myself and my family,” Scheffler says.
The film hit close to home for her and her family, Scheffler says, because it explores and represents the realities of Deaf and HOH people participating in the mainstream world.
“We most definitely thrive in life, but there are a lot of challenges that emerge that not many people may recognize. I also really appreciated the juxtaposition of hearing and Deaf people within a family unit; this is the case for my family, and it was so interesting to see these dynamics from a different perspective. Not a single person hears in the same way; each person in my family experiences the world differently as a result of our different hearing,” Scheffler says.
Both of her parents are hearing, but her whole family has been following deaf actress Marlee Matlin’s career for a while and have a lot of love and admiration for her. Matlin was the first deaf actress to receive an Oscar, winning in 1987 for the film “Children of a Lesser God.”
“My entire family, including myself, love Marlee Matlin,” Scheffler says. “When Freeform Network, formerly ABC Family, released the TV show ‘Switched at Birth’ (starring Matlin), it was a ritual for the whole family to watch a show that explored the dynamics between the hearing and Deaf communities.
“I find it so important for deaf actors to be involved in the film industry because representation matters. Deaf actors, especially native ASL speakers, also are uniquely attuned to body language and facial expressions; as a result, deaf actors are extremely lively and expressive on stage,” she says. “Deaf actors have long been fighting for more opportunities in the film industry, and CODA most definitely helped to break down more barriers between the hearing and Deaf community in the film industry.”