Behind the Fiction Past
By Brenda Weeaks

Deaf Characters
Review: Keeping Silent

Hello! For my last column I would like to discuss Deaf Characters Behind the Fiction.

Deaf Characters in fiction have always been of interest to me. Having raised a deaf son, I have found it fascinating over the years to see how the hearing world presents the deaf on TV, in movies, and - most of all - in books.

My goal here is not to write a paper on Deaf characteristics. There are plenty of those online already along with numerous other Deaf related sites. There are also many Deaf related books considered to be great research material, and because of this, I can't comprehend the lack of effort when I come across a badly written deaf character.


Deaf Characteristics

One of the first things I learned from my son when he was very young was that the world was set up for the hearing. To understand this, writers should try watching TV with the sound off or wear earplugs in a public place. The results can be VERY enlightening.

Some characteristics that I look for in deaf characters are: Visual attentiveness, communication skills (described in detail), and deaf behavior.

Visually Attentive: The hearing tend to see the whole picture, instead of the pieces. A personal example I have is when we went to pick out a kitten for my very young son. My hearing daughter and I fussed over the snow-white balls of fluff and only glanced at the gray one. Well, my son instantly picked up the gray one. We took it home and once there he proudly showed us what HE saw. Her fluffy underbelly had a thin white line running the length of her body highlighting the gray above; thin darker gray lines circled down her back and disappeared only to reappear at the end of her tail in three rings followed by a white tip. A thin white line of fur circled her neck like a necklace, her face was gray framed by white furry puffs under her cheeks, and her eyes were a vivid green. An artist could not have created a more perfectly detailed specimen. After he shared her beauty, he signed: she different - other all same, white, boring. She grew into quite a beauty and years later retired to the home of a lonely, sweet elderly lady. With this story you may be thinking: "Well, Deaf just have better vision!" No, they are more visually attentive because of their handicap. It's a deaf characteristic that can really add to a storyline.

Communications: There are varying types and not all deaf choose the same. One thing I have learned is that they do adjust their communications with each other and with the hearing. There are the oral deaf and the signing deaf. Sign language is now considered a true foreign language and counted as such at some high schools and colleges. Some deaf choose American Signed Language (ASL). It's a little backwards in its presentation, but communication is quicker. Most deaf for daily use chooses it. Signed Exact English (SEE) is used in some schools to teach the deaf the true English form in reading and writing. Some deaf chose to keep it for daily use but most revert to Pigeon Signed English (PSE), which is a combination of SEE and ASL. The largest percentage of deaf are taught speech through their school years. Some master it, some sound fairly decent, and some are not able to speak at all. There are oral deaf schools that teach strictly oral communications and forbid sign to be used.

Behavior: Here are few behavior patterns that I was taught through my son and some classes.

  • Deaf children are immature for their age levels.
  • The low profile deaf -- signs little in public, uses simply notes to communicate with the hearing and quietly moves on.
  • The occasional oral deaf who feel he/she is superior to the signing deaf.
  • The one raised orally, but coming of age moves to be with the signing deaf.
  • The big D Deaf who sees Deafness as a gift that allows him/her to live in a special world with a select few.
  • The one with a bit of hearing, but refuse to use hearing aids, choosing to live strictly Deaf.
  • Nearly all deaf raised in deaf schools are clean and orderly in their homes.
  • The deaf raised in a hearing home and mainstreamed in public schools tend to be more comfortable in the hearing world.
  • Mainstreamed deaf not always accepted by deaf school students.
  • Deaf children feel they are automatically equal to the adult or older siblings.
  • Deaf want independence immediately and question the hearing worlds rules and laws, extensively.
  • Some deaf will not make a vocal sound…ever. Those are the ones who usually do not bother with any type of music.
  • Some deaf do enjoy music and have favorite bands or singers.
  • Some deaf can be very set in their deafness and not be bothered with anything that excludes them. (Once saw a Christian artist lose the backing of the deaf culture in a certain area because he refused to share his stage with deaf interpreters - his behavior spread quickly through his home state and years later is still remembered.)
  • Most deaf are attracted more to physical entertainment. (My son hated puppets. The flopping mouths made no sense to him, even with closed caption. He loves the physical humor Jerry Lewis.)
  • Some deaf parents are disappointed when their child is born hearing, preferring to have a deaf child to identify with.
  • What's normal in the deaf culture may seem rude to the hearing. Signing someone has gotten fat to their face is okay to the deaf, but considered bad manners to the hearing. I have found the deaf see things in black and white. If it's true, it can be said. They also tend to have less hang-ups about using profanity and being open about the subject of sex. Deaf children nurtured in a hearing home tend to follow the hearing rules when with the hearing and go with the flow of the Deaf when with the deaf.
  • Since the ADA laws, deaf children are being raised to fight for their legal rights. Many now believe the hearing world should meet them half way in communications. This has made some Deaf bolder in the hearing world, and I think that is wonderful!

There is so much more, but my page limits me. You will find website and book recommendations at the bottom of the column to help you further you research on Deaf Characters. Now let's move on to Deaf Characterizations.


Deaf Characterization

What has bothered me the most about those who include deaf characters in their work is when they only use them for an emotional reaction and do not bother to follow through with the true form of a deaf character. Of course emotional reaction is something all artists are looking for in their work, but presenting a deaf person without going into the truth of being deaf is doing a disservice to the reader or viewer.

In Sandra Brown's (aka Rachel Ryan) Eloquent Silence. Ms. Brown uses a deaf child to gain both the reader's and the main female character's compassion. The interaction with the deaf child is limited and not as realistic as I would have liked. Since the lead character is a Deaf Ed. Teacher, I guess I expected more in the way of showing the deaf lifestyle, period. Sandra Brown later makes up for this in her romantic suspense, Unspeakable, which was written with plenty of deaf characterization and descriptions.

Back in the early eighties I remembered seeing deaf characters portrayed on TV and thinking that's not what it's like at all. Most of the time the character was used for an emotional reaction, too, and actual interaction with the deaf character was cut to a minimum. Allowing the deaf to be deaf and the hearing to communicate to the deaf in their own way appeared to be tedious for Hollywood.

Since the arrival of the deaf actress Marlee Matlin in 1986, how the audience perceives the deaf has changed for the better. But some still opt out for the emotional pull without the reality. I recall in the nineties on a certain NBC soap opera, one of the children became deaf. In the storyline, signing and scenes with the hearing actor playing deaf was very limited then removed until the child was miraculously cured. A more true form would be if they used the storyline to show what it's really like to raise a deaf child.

Of course it's true hearing loved ones want to share the hearing world with their deaf loved ones - and some will with the new technology, but not everyone. That is Reality. What else is reality, whether on TV or in a book?
  • Mr. Holland's Opus when Cole (deaf child) wants a cup and his mother doesn't understand him. The scene plays on miscommunication and frustration, and an emotional confrontation ensues. A scene many hearing parents have played out with their young deaf child.
  • Another is the adeptly described, emotionally charged scene in Carla Damron's mystery novel Keeping Silent. Her deaf character, Sam, is suffering after his deaf fiancée is discovered murdered. Her description of his vocal and physical reaction to the emotional pain is very realistic.

If either of the scenes mentioned above were the only scenes concerning deafness in those pieces of work, I would still point them out as being the best I've seen. I have seen shows and read books where the deaf character is throughout the storyline, but the character's disability is completely ignored. For me it isn't the magnitude of the deaf character's part in the storyline, but the creditably of the deaf characterization

Books as well as movies began getting better as we neared the nineties. Jean F. Andrews' Flying Fingers Series was one series I bought for my son in 1990, and ended up enjoying myself. It's very adept at showing what it's like for a deaf boy (Matt) to be mainstreamed in a hearing school. She also shows the hearing what it's like in a deaf school. A descriptive, realistic series.

In recent years primetime TV has gotten better at portraying deaf and the necessities of their deaf lifestyle, such as TTYs, Phone Relay, and interpreters - thanks to the input of deaf actors who felt deaf characters should be portrayed by deaf actors. One example would be The Practice with Cameron Manheim and Marlee Matlin. Cameron Manheim didn't need to learn just the signs for her scene, she actually signs in real life, and believe it or not, confidence and true knowledge, or the lack of it, can come across in a scene.

But all around, I would still like to see more detail in both books and on TV with deaf characters and their lifestyles. Like having to rely on relatives or acquaintances, interpreters, and a technological text for a phone for everyday activities. It can make the simplest tasks, long and frustrating. Also the clashing of deaf and hearing cultures in the home, at work, in the public. There is soooo much more to a deaf person's life and it can all be used to create more than a sympathy character in a story line.

The portrayal of deaf is becoming more accurate, but I still believe we have a ways to go before the hearing world really understands the deaf.

Below is a review of Keeping Silent followed by a list of research recommendations.


KEEPING SILENT by Carla Damron
Write Way Publishing Ė 2001
ISBN: 1885173903 Ė Hardcover
Amateur Sleuth Mystery

Reviewed by Brenda Weeaks,
 Buy a Copy

Once I started this heartrending, thought provoking mystery, I couldnít let go. Itís not one I will soon forget.

Sam Knowlesí deaf fiancée Anne is dead. When the police arrive, Sam is alone with the body, there is blood on his shirt, and his artwork is the murder weapon. Despite all this, Caleb believes his deaf brother is innocent. The police think they have their man and refuse to go any further. This angers Caleb and incites him to investigate on his own. Possible suspects lead him in different directions, but the proof eludes him.

Caleb and Sam take the lead and are supported by some sound secondary characters. Caleb comes across as a compassionate therapist. Sam stole my heart. Deaf at sixteen and now a grown man, his deaf characteristics and reactions to the situation are very realistic. The way Ms. Damron describes the drawings that Sam poured his emotions into are so expressive and emotional; it will stay with me for a long time.

On a personal note: Including a deaf character in a story isnít easy. Ms. Damronís adaptation of the deaf is poignant and exact and the deaf communications are consistent throughout. Keeping Silent is one of the better examples of true deaf characterization.


Research Recommendations

International Movie Base - type deaf in search database under characters to get a list of movies with deaf characters.
Websites about the Deaf
New Zealand webpage - best I've seen online describing Deafness
Seattle based website
Deaf Community Resources
Deaf Base at About.Com
Everything You Wanted to Know About Deafness - DEAF-INFO Web Site
Deaf Magazines
Websites about the Deaf and Reading (great sites for hearing parents with deaf children)
Preliminary SRP Report: The Shared Reading Project - Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center
Literacy & Deaf Students
15 Principles of reading to deaf children
Multimedia based Instruction of Reading Comprehension Skills for Deaf People using Sign Language as Scaffolding
Deaf and Literacy Strategies
Reading to Deaf Children: Learning from Deaf Adults
Reading Education for Hearing Impaired and Deaf Individuals
EDUDEAF: Reading to Deaf Children
Kid-Friendly Parenting With Deaf and Hard of Hearing Children: A Treasury of Fun Activities Toward Better Behavior
by Daria J. Medwid, Denise Chapman Weston


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