By C. Adrean Mejia
Films, plays, and television series have long served as platforms to create awareness of important topics that have otherwise been kept out of the spotlight. Hearing loss is one example of such a topic.
As an organization that seeks to inform the public about the prevalence, prevention, and treatment of hearing loss, Hearing Health Foundation (HHF) applauds the growing prioritization of this issue in entertainment. We are pleased to know that the number of films featuring characters with hearing loss—played by actors with hearing loss—has risen with the years, generating greater public awareness of the third most common health condition in the United States. Complementing this trend of an increased presence of hearing loss on screen is the introduction of recent legislation to make entertainment more accessible to viewers with hearing loss.
Actors and characters with hearing loss expand society’s understanding of the condition. Hearing loss empowers abilities, emotions, and experiences unlike those of people with typical hearing. Some recent works with characters with hearing loss include the following:
The Silent Child tells the story of a profoundly deaf four-year-old girl who is about to attend a mainstream school with minimal support—until a social worker teaches her American Sign Language (ASL). The film communicates the disappointing statistic that over 78% of deaf children attend mainstream school without accommodations. A final comment that states that the creators “hope this film contributes in the fight for sign language to be recognized in every school across the globe.”
Children of a Lesser God, a play written in 1979, made its Broadway debut last April. The piece focuses on the professional and romantic relationship between a deaf janitor and a typical hearing teacher and shows the contrasting worlds off sound and silence. To Sarah, the janitor, deafness is an identity, not a defect.
This Close is a TV series by two deaf writers and actors that narrates the true story of their lives. The show provides a close look of the everyday day life of two best friends, emphasizing their challenges and frustrations while highlighting the positive and beautiful things that their hearing loss brings to their existence.
HHF commends these and the artists behind similar works for the awareness their creations have generated. Likewise, the organization is proud to witness the introduction of new laws and procedures to make entertainment more accessible to the hearing loss community.
The American with Disabilities Act (ADA) first broke barriers by advocating for the requirement that all video program distributors close caption their TV shows. But it wasn’t until recently, with the help of technology, that these rules have expanded. On November 2016, the Final Rule on the ADA Title III was signed, requiring all American movie theaters to provide accessibility for captions. Large cinemas now offer assistive listening, closed captions, and descriptive audio.
Broadway, too, has made tremendous improvements. In 2016, the Theater Development Fund (TDF) and The Broadway League, launched www.theatreaccess.nyc, a website with information about tickets prices, dates and accommodations for theatergoers with disabilities. In addition, TDF now provides accessibility programs with open captioning and/or ASL at select Broadway performances.
Entertainment has made progress in becoming more inclusive for people with hearing loss since the implementation of these programs, but additional work is needed. Though mandating captioning at movie theaters represents great progress, other entertainment settings, including sports arenas and concert halls, must follow suit.
To optimize the listening experience for audience members with hearing loss, more must adopt the use of hearing loops, which transmit sound from a PA system to hearing aids and cochlear implants. In December 2017, the state of Minnesota passed a bill requiring hearing loops in public meeting spaces, taking after similar New York City legislation from earlier in 2017.
HHF looks forward to a day where no one must live with hearing loss. As long as hearing remains out of reach for tens of million Americans, fair accommodations are the most ethical choice.