There’s a moment in the movie CODA that shocked me – after all these years – with the visceral understanding of how similar and yet how different the experience of deafness is to someone who is culturally Deaf and to someone like me who is functionally deaf and oral.
CODA, which stands for Child of Deaf Adult, is about a Deaf family who live in a small fishing town where everyone else is hearing. Father, mother and young adult son are Deaf. Ruby (Emilia Jones), their 17-year-old daughter, is hearing.
She gets up at 3 am to join her father and brother on their small commercial fishing boat, partly as part of the crew and partly as interpreter. She’s the only interpreter for her family and although there’s a reference to a Deaf community, there seem to be no other Deaf people in town. In one scene she is signing at a doctor’s office for her parents (Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur, who are both deaf, as is Daniel Durant, who plays her brother). The parents have a fairly intimate problem and her father is not the least shy about expressing it in the most graphic terms. Ruby gamely edits as she translates. It’s a hilarious scene, and also touching.
At school, Ruby is shunned and made fun of, both for her Deaf family and for smelling like fish. Her brother is mocked when he tries to join others in a bar. The family has only itself, until Ruby finds a way to connect, and brings the family with her. It’s a moving coming-of-age story, funny and sweet, but with the twist of providing an insight into what life might be like for a Deaf family living in an isolated area.
But back to that scene. Ruby loves to sing and joins the school choir (really a chorus, singing nonsectarian pop music). She’s encouraged by the teacher, who sees real talent. The choir holds a concert and Ruby has a solo. She has a beautiful voice and her singing is mesmerizing. But then the camera shifts to the parents – and the sound goes off. You are watching them watch her in dead silence. Instead of faking it, pretending they’re appreciating it, they start signing to each other about what to have for dinner.
If I were in that audience, I also would not be able to appreciate Ruby’s singing. But instead of silence I’d hear a cacophony of sound. Without the visual information, I might not even know it was music. Where her parents are encased in silence, I’d be turning my hearing aids down to spare myself the noise. In the end Ruby finds a way to share her singing with her parents. It’s a beautiful scene, which I don’t want to give away.
The Deaf and hard of hearing (like me) share many accommodation needs and should be partners in advocacy. In the past, this hasn’t always happened, maybe because the Deaf are afraid that accommodations that work only for them, like sign-language interpreting, will be threatened by accommodations like looping that work only for people with hearing loss, not the Deaf. But we share a need for captions. Marlee Matlin was an early and influential advocate for television captions. In 1995 she testified before Congress on the need for captioning on television, with the result that we now all have captioning on TV. (Now we just need to get accurate captioning on TV.) She’s a spokeswoman for the National Captioning Institute as well as for the largest provider of television closed captions.
You don’t have to be Deaf or hard of hearing to love CODA. But you may relate to it in a different way from those who don’t give their hearing much thought.
For more about living with hearing loss, read my books “Smart Hearing: Strategies, Skills and Resources for Living Better With Hearing Loss” and “Shouting Won’t Help: Why I and 50 Million Other Americans Can’t Hear You.” Both are available as ebook and paperback on Amazon.com