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Lack of diversity in writers’ rooms, budgets limit Deaf actors’ creative opportunities

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By: Aidan McClain

Deaf actors are often overlooked or face countless barriers to booking acting roles — including losing jobs to their hearing counterparts.

Deaf artists and creatives are presented with unique challenges that often can’t be overcome without collaboration and conversation with hearing individuals. But while open communication is one way to make people think about things differently, barriers like budget and the lack of Deaf-centric roles and stories still limit Deaf actors’ work opportunities.

“We are among an incredibly diverse and vibrant community of deaf artists that are not getting opportunities because not enough is written, well-written or created to include more than the standard sole deaf character,” Alexandria Wailes, a Deaf actor, explained in an email.

To make a change, there needs to be a top-down approach, starting with who is hired in the writers’ rooms, Wailes said.

That, plus a budget for interpreters, learning best practices when working with Deaf artists and project-based mentorship are some of the first steps to telling Deaf stories.

But even if only one Deaf artist is cast in a role, this opens the door to tokenism, Wailes said.

The Deaf community is made up of different individual experiences: some people are profoundly deaf, have some hearing, are hard-of-hearing or hear a little bit.

Because we live in an audio-centric world, an audience that can hear a Deaf person speak will assume that they’re a better actor, John McGinty, a Deaf actor, said via an ASL interpreter.

“That concept is really completely wrong,” McGinty said. “Suppose there's an actor who's signing, and they might really be quite talented.”

Perhaps a bigger challenge than the audience mistaking speech for skill is completely taking Deaf actors out of the story.

This can happen when Deaf roles are given to hearing actors. Casting like this creates the idea that that’s what Deaf people look like and that’s how they act, McGinty explained. While some people may defend the casting choice as simple “acting,” Deaf actors like McGinty find it to be insulting.

The National Association of the Deaf keeps a running list of “hearing actors who have stolen Deaf roles.” The list’s 33 entries date back to 1993 and conclude most recently in 2021 with “Dune.”

These choices often lead to criticism from the Deaf community.

“Oftentimes, we will protest. Whether that's through social media, through PR — we'll make our voice heard … Basically, what's happening there is you're taking away an opportunity for us to work,” McGinty said.

Then there’s the cost of accommodation — and worth.

If a Deaf actor requests an interpreter, the production team may prioritize budget over the actor’s talent. For some actors, these barriers snowball into other problems, like defending their place on set.

“There is the challenge of navigating how much self-advocacy is necessary to be able to perform the job without worry that one may be deemed ‘difficult’ or ‘demanding too much,’” Wailes said.

Films like Apple TV’s “CODA,” which won Best Picture at the 2022 Oscars and featured multiple Deaf actors, show a potential change in the telling of Deaf stories — but there is still more to be done.

“My hope for the Deaf acting community is that we find ourselves in an industry where we can easily identify more than 20 successful and working directors, directors of photography, writers, producers, designers and other department heads who have had lived experiences as deaf people,” Wailes said.

Currently, the NAD only lists 11 Deaf-created films in their database.