History was made at the Oscars. It was the first fully in-person ceremony since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was the first time that an all-Black company produced the event. And it was the first time three women co-hosted. But that wasn’t all. Our deaf and signing community made history of its own. “This is our moment,” said Troy Kotsur, now the first deaf man ever to have won an Academy Award in nearly a century.
“CODA” took Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor went to Troy. “Audible,” which portrays Black deaf high school student-athlete Amaree McKenstry-Hall, was nominated for Best Documentary Short with deaf actor and advocate Nyle DiMarco as co-producer. “Drive My Car,” a multi-language film featuring Korean actress Park Yoo-rim whose character communicates using Korean Sign Language, also won Best International Feature.
At this year’s Oscars, a major door of deaf representation flew wide open, a door boldly pushed ajar by Marlee Matlin 35 years ago. Now, like never before in the Academy’s 94-year history, more deaf and signing people and more of our authentic stories are finally getting to the table, and more deaf talent is being recognized, winning awards, and celebrating with our hearing peers.
Power of Listening and Opening Doors of Engagement with our Deaf and Signing Community
In 1987, a 21-year-old Marlee became the first deaf actor to win an Oscar for her film debut in “Children of a Lesser God.” Prior to her win, deaf and hard of hearing and deafblind people were almost always represented by hearing, sighted people. As “CODA” actor Daniel Durant notably pointed out recently when he and the “CODA” cast visited Gallaudet, deaf actors have benefitted from Marlee’s continual advocacy and her fight for accessibility and for deaf representation, including with “CODA.” As Marlee has shared, a hearing actor was initially offered to play her screen husband, but she knew the perfect actor for the role and insisted on Troy. Siân Heder and the “CODA” production team listened.
“CODA” and Kotsur’s awards show that the power of this story lies in the natural networks of deaf and signing actors, as well as the power of authentic representation of the experience of being deaf and communicating using sign language. The awards show the power of listening and opening the doors of engagement with our deaf and signing community. This is the difference. This is the message everyone in every industry needs to see, learn, and realize.
Authentic Representation Transforms
We are seeing the transformative power of authentic deaf and signing representation across film and entertainment where the power of our stories, when done right, can change perspectives, shift culture, and transform our world, benefitting all of us. In addition to the cast in “CODA,” “Audible” and “Drive My Car,” other breakthroughs include:
- the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) welcoming Lauren Ridloff as Makkari, its first deaf superhero, in “Eternals.” Being deaf and using sign language was Makkari’s superpower, not a “condition.”
- MCU followed with Alaqua Cox, who is Native American and deaf, in the role of Maya Lopez as deaf superhero Echo in the Disney+ series “Hawkeye.”
- Deaf rap artists Warren “Wawa” Snipe and Sean Forbes performed during the halftime show at Super Bowl LVI.
- Sandra Mae Frank portrays a deaf surgeon in NBC’s “New Amsterdam.”
- Shaylee Mansfield, just 12 years old, is being credited alongside hearing voice actors for her signed performance in DreamWork’s “Madagascar: A Little Wild.”
- Kaylee Hottle, a young Deaf actress, plays Jia in “Godzilla vs. Kong” and communicates with Kong through sign language.
These are all deaf actors using sign languages. We have many different sign languages, hundreds in fact, including Black American Sign Language and Korean Sign Language. Their visual communication and interactive ways of being are transforming the experiences of their fellow hearing actors, the writing and production teams, and the global audience.
More is Needed; We Have Multicultural Deaf Talent All Over the World More Than Ready to be Tapped
While we appreciate this investment in the value of deaf people and sign languages by major corporations like Apple, Netflix, Amazon, Disney, Marvel, NBC, and the National Football League, we need more. We need stories that more completely represent the diversity and intersectionality within the deaf community itself. Deaf people are not a monolith and a few Oscars in no way represent all deaf experiences. Seeing the deep collaboration between Siân Heder and Marlee and the presence of Nyle as “Audible’s” co-executive producer, signals the next major growth for all of us; the presence of more deaf-led work, stories centered through the deaf, not hearing, lens. We have multicultural deaf talent all over the world more than ready to be tapped.
Still, this year’s Oscars were transformative. It is powerful to witness the impact of deaf and hearing actors communicating and connecting through visual language and communication. It is powerful to see how none of the deaf actors were expected to negotiate their presence by being required to use spoken language to connect. It is powerful to see the full presence of each deaf person using sign language as their medium of art.
As a deaf and signing President of Gallaudet University – the only university in the world designed to be bilingual (primarily American Sign Language and English) in everything we do – I am seeing a cultural and linguistic breakthrough, one that is bound to help create a far more inclusive world. So many more people are now seeing that the experience of being deaf is not disabling or something to be fixed, but rather something that adds richness in language and lived experience.
Thank you, Troy, Marlee, Daniel, Amaree, Nyle, Yoo-rim and so many others for showing the world the undeniable power of deaf people and deaf stories, for showing the world the power of our beautiful, visual, and vibrant signed languages, for showing future generations of deaf children what is possible.
Troy is right: this is our moment, a moment that I know will knock down many more doors and accelerate the change our world still needs.