CODA at the Oscars

The triumph of CODA at the Academy Awards last night, which won Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Screenplay, should go a long way towards raising awareness of the Deaf — and maybe also of the Hard of Hearing.

The film is a funny and very moving portrayal of a Deaf family who live in a small fishing town where everyone else is hearing. CODA stands for Child of Deaf Adults. In the film, 17-year-old Ruby (Emilia Jones) is the CODA. Father (Troy Kotsur, who won Best Supporting Actor), mother (Marlee Matlin, who won Best Actress for Children of  Lesser God in 1987) and young adult son (Daniel Durant) are Deaf.

The movie is fully captioned for those who want captions. For others, just the signed portions are captioned. Last night the CODA winners each had sign-language interpreters at their side. Their thanks to the Academy and their families and their colleagues were all the more emotional as the interpreters beautifully, almost lyrically, signed their words to the Deaf who were watching. The speeches – and the signed words – felt joyous.

Making spoken words comprehensible to non-signers, like me, is less an art and more a skill. The best captions are provided by a CART captioner, a professional who has trained to simultaneously provide live captions. (CART stands for Communication Access Real Time.)

You can get captions on your TV by activating Closed Captions, but the results will be mixed. If the show is live, like news or sports – or the Academy Awards – the captions will lag behind the speech and also get a lot wrong. This is most likely because they are using automated speech recognition, rather than CART captioners. Why the Academy and the networks can’t hire highly skilled CART captioners is beyond me. Further, the commercials are rarely captioned. Don’t advertisers want the substantial number of viewers with hearing loss to buy their products? Marlee Matlin was an early supporter of captions on TV, testifying in 1995 before Congress. We have captions on TV thanks in part to Matlin. Now we just need to get simultaneous and accurate captioning on TV. That shouldn’t be hard. Hire CART captioners! Spend a little money!

Signing plays a role in another of this year’s Oscar winners. Drive My Car, directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi, won Best International Feature. The movie is ostensibly about a Japanese director staging a production of Uncle Vanya at a theater festival workshop in Hiroshima. As he’s auditioning actors from all over Asia, who will speak their lines each in their native tongue, a festival representative translates for the director. One actor uses Korean Sign Language. Rather than the fluid musical gestures of American Sign Language, Korean Sign Language – in this scene — is sharp, with emphatic slapping of palms, arms, chest – a little in the same way that Korean (and Japanese) sound staccato to an English speaker. It’s a fascinating glimpse of another Deaf Culture’s language. The signing actor plays Sonya, whose vision of a future where the grief of the present will give way to peace ends the play. The signing here is gentle, spiritual, hopeful, completely unlike what we’ve seen earlier.

I wrote about CODA in 2021 when the movie came out, about a scene where Ruby is performing in a concert. Her singing is mesmerizing, but when the camera shifts to her Deaf family in the audience, the sound cuts out. They are hearing – and understanding – nothing. They are clearly restless and start signing to each other about what to have for dinner. If I were in that audience, I wrote, I also would not be able to appreciate Ruby’s singing. But instead of silence I’d hear a cacophony of sound. Without any visual information (captions, expressive gestures), I might not even know it was music. Where her parents are encased in silence, I’d be turning my hearing aids down.

In the end Ruby finds a way to share her singing with her parents – and with me. The solution is to incorporate a visual component, giving expression to the words without actually understanding them. In Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car, the intention is also to give expression to the words even though neither the other actors nor the audience speaks the language (although they are subtitled in the movie, and in the theater when the play is produced). A recent essay in the Atlantic by Nina Li Coomes discussed the film in terms of the fluidity of language in a world where we can get instant translation on our smart phones. “Even if you don’t understand all the words being spoken in the script,” she wrote, “trust that the emotional response you have will be genuine.” Sonya’s signed words evoke an emotional response that feels true.

I’d still rather understand all the words, but being given visual or inflective means to understand the intent – and to respond to it emotionally — is a gift.

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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.

6 thoughts on “CODA at the Oscars

  1. I wrote you a long letter that seems to have disappeared so will try again tomorrow. I think I hit the photo button by mistake and couldn’t remove it and in trying to do that, all my words just disappeared!

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    • Well, I got this. But I don’t see the long letter. I find this platform — WordPress – really annoying. I myself deleted the entire post just as I was about to publish it, and couldn’t find a draft anywhere despite constant saving as I went along.

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  2. Katherine, thank you for a very insightful article about the great range of hearing accessibility. I, too, watched “Drive My Car,” and found myself stymied when there were no captions when English was spoken. I was reminded me of a similar experience recently when I watched an outdoor theater performance with deaf actors signing animatedly on a low stage. Interpreters with hand-held microphones sat facing the actors near the foot of the stage. Onlookers gathered around and listened, and sometimes laughed. Being hard-of-hearing and a lip-reader, I could understand neither the signers nor the interpreters. To lip-read the interpreters, I would have had to stand directly in front of them as they faced the actors. An impossible situation!

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  3. An issue with my HAs forced me to watch local and network news with Closed Captioning. Beyond frustrating. I understand (maybe) lags and errors with interviews. But most of what is presented is prepared text read from teleprompters. Seriously: they can’t feed that text to a CC system of some sort? I’ll grant that live, in-studio interviews might be harder. But most spot interviews are recorded and edited earlier and presented with enough time to allow for transcription. I truly believe this is a blatant violation of ADA.

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    • I agree that it’s a blatant violation, and your suggestion of a direct feed from the teleprompter is a good one. That wouldn’t allow for someone going off script but it would let us get a lot more than what we get now. The ASR captioning on Google Live Transcribe and Otter.ai are both vastly better than what we get on TV. Sometimes they don’t even get their star correspondents’ names right.

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