Deaf Representation in Film History Throughout the World

Deaf representation has come a long way in the eyes of Hollywood. From hits such as Children of a Lesser God to exciting thrillers like A Quiet Place, depictions of deaf roles have certainly made an impact for change. It hasn’t always been that way – many times, Deaf voices have been misconstrued or ignored completely throughout the film industry. Today, progress continues to grow with the Oscar nominated film CODA.

Roll out your red carpets and put on your designer bests! With the biggest event in the world of film around the corner, Oscar buzz is truly palpable. While the nomination of each film is a reward to the cast and crew, the nomination of the film CODA serves as a much-needed accessibility bridge. CODA (Child of a Deaf Adult) is a film helmed by deaf stars that showcases the everyday life of a deaf family with a hearing child. Troy Kotsur, one of the stars of the film, has been nominated for the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. The film has a total of 3 nominations for the Academy Awards this year.

As we look forward to deaf representation in the film industry, take a look at these distinguished deaf stars.

  • CJ Jones

CJ is a deaf American actor who has conquered the art of performing. He has starred in films and tv shows such as Baby Driver, A Different World, and is a part of the Avatar Along with that, he has toured in different countries with his three one-man shows.

  • Troy Kotsur

If you are an avid Star Wars fan, then you might have noticed on an episode of the Mandalorian a very cool looking Tusken Raider using sign language. Underneath the costume is Kotsur. The unique thing about it is that no ASL is involved – the Tuskens have their very own sign language thanks to the help of Kotsur! Did we mention that he is also the first deaf actor to play in any of the Star Wars? Inclusivity at its best! Ok, ok – enough about Star Wars (just kidding, we could never get enough!). Ate the moment, Kotsur is receiving recognition for his supporting role on the movie CODA.

  • Millicent Simmons

Millicent is an aspiring young actress that has made her debut in the hit movies A Quiet Place 1 & 2 and Wonderstruck. We applaud Millicent for breaking barriers in the movie business as a young, deaf actress who takes her remarkable acting skills to the next level.

  • Lauren Ridloff

You might notice her from the show The Walking Dead or one of the latest Marvel movies, Eternals. Lauren Ridloff is a prominent deaf actress who has taken the world by storm with her tough action skills and glorious talent.

  • Marlee Matlin

She is no stranger to the film industry at all. She has paved the way for many talented deaf actors and has won many awards. That person is none other than the amazing Marlee Matlin. Marlee’s latest movie, CODA, has already received many awards and is nominated for an Oscar.

  • Abhinaya – Indian actor

Abhinaya is an actress from India who features predominantly in the south Indian film industries in Tamil and Telugu. She began her acting career in 2009 at the tender age of 13. In a film industry that does not showcase the lives of people of disabilities regularly, Abhinaya sometimes portrays a hearing woman through the help of voice actors and her efforts to learn the lip sync. She plays a deaf person in her first English feature film, One Little Finger, directed by Rupam Sarmah. The film casts over 80 actors with disabilities and has won many major awards even earning an Academy Award nomination.

  • Emilio Insolera – Argentina

Emilio Insolera is a deaf actor and producer born in Argentina to deaf parents. He wrote, directed and produced the long feature superhero film Sign Gene: The First Deaf Superheroes. The film, shot between Japan, the US and Italy, centres on deaf superheroes who have the ability to create superhuman powers through the use of sign language. He cast native signers in the movie, and has encouraged the participation of Deaf people in the film industry. He is also known for producing the first Italian Sign Language dictionary in video format in partnership with researchers.

  • Mustafa Alabssi – deaf actor who is a former Syrian refugee

Mustafa Alabssi was born deaf in Syria, and continued to live there with his family until he was 12 years old when they fled. His family lives as refugees in Jordan with other refugees until they moved to Canada when he was 17. To make up for lost time on his education, he enrolled in the Deaf and Hard of Hearing program at Thom Collegiate. Alabssi quickly picked up ASL and got involved with a performance group called Deaf Crows Collective, through an artist-in-residence program. He was later invited to audition and was cast in the role of Ryan in Netflix’s Zombie show, Black Summer. He is a burgeoning star, and an inspiration in the Syrian, Deaf and Refugee communities.

Films featuring deaf people:

  • Misjudged People (German documentary – 1932)

This documentary (German: Verkannte Menschen) was originally released in 1932, sponsored by the Reich Union of the Deaf to promote a positive perspective of the Deaf community in Germany. It was designed to offer education on Deafness and to showcase Deaf people as contributing German citizens. This documentary was unfairly banned by the Nazi regime to avoid the propagation of  a positive image. This film is an example of the resilience of people with disabilities. One of the only remaining copies of this film exists in the office of our EU counterparts!

  • Children of a Lesser God (1986)

This 1986 romantic drama film was adapted from a 1979 screenplay of the same name. It starred William Hurt, Marlee Matlin in her film debut, Piper Laurie and Philip Bosco. It depicts the relationship between a hearing speech teacher and a Deaf custodian at a school for the deaf. Their worlds of sound and silence collide, and the couple’s effort to mesh their two worlds makes up the storyline of the film. The film received critical and commercial acclaim and received 5 nominations at the 59th Academy Awards. Marlee Matlin won the award for Best Actress at the age of 21, being the youngest winner in the category and the first Deaf person to do so.

  • Iqbal (2005)

This Indian Hindi-language film tells the story of the struggles of a young deaf boy from a remote village in India who dreams of one day playing cricket for the Indian national cricket team. The titular character, Iqbal, faces discrimination and discouragement from those around him until he receives coaching from a washed out former cricketer. While this film did not cast a Deaf actor for the role, it still plays an important part in changing the perception of Deaf people and their abilities in India. Deaf people and their sports abilities garnered more attention after this film which received high critical and commercial acclaim

  • Eternals (2021)

This was the first film to showcase a female Deaf superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Makkari. This film revolutionized representation since Makkari – who is a hulking Caucasian male in the comics is played by an African American Deaf woman!

The Oscars happen once a year, but these notable deaf film events happen throughout the year. Check these out:

  • Seattle Deaf Film Festival // April 8-22, 2022
  • Indian International Deaf Film Festival // December 2022
  • Deaffest // May 6-8, 2022
  • New Zealand Deaf Short Film Festival // Coming Soon 2022
  • Portland Deaf Film Festival // Coming Soon 2022
  • Sound Off // March 30 – April 3, 2022

A list of few other films representing deaf characters is:

  • Hush (2016)
  • The Silent Child (2017)
  • Wonderstruck (2017)
  • A Quiet Place (2018

One of World In Sign’s very own, Roger Vass, had a few words to say about his experience within the film industry. Take a look:

Vass took a train to the past, specifically in 1977 where he first saw a deaf person on the popular children’s tv show Sesame Street. That was only the beginning of his passion for film. When he was 13 years old, his parents allowed their California mansion to be used as the set for a movie called Deaf Diamond. He thought the movie was filmed in one take rather than multiple short clips. That is what inspired him to get involved and ultimately shaped his career path. A movie that he created, Lake Windfall, was a B-rated film that received 36 awards. Today, as Vass’s dreams continue to unfold, he encourages others to keep fighting for their life goals and to never give up!

Why Representation Matters

Inclusivity and diversity within the realm of entertainment is becoming more prominent. The representation of deaf and disabled actors matters because it shows the world that acting isn’t only a one-way street of skill but rather a mixture of unprecedented, raw talent. Over the last few decades, one deaf person has been awarded an Academy award for portraying a deaf person, but over 25 non-disabled actors have received Academy awards for portraying people with disabilities. It is time now to restore the balance of disability representation in film and to increase opportunities for disabled cast and crew.

The WIS Team wishes the CODA cast and crew the very best at the Academy Awards this weekend. We WAVE OUR HANDS in support of representation and are excited for more opportunities in the future!

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Deaf Representation in Film History Throughout the World
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