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A Brief History of Deaf Representation in Film

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at St. John's chapter.

The National Association for the Deaf (NAD) observes National Deaf History Month in April. Though Congress has not yet recognized it as a federal holiday, it is a time to honor and raise awareness for the Deaf community. I’ve wanted to learn American Sign Language (ASL) for as long as I can remember, and I finally took the leap last year. Not only have I made it a goal to learn the language, but also to educate myself on Deaf culture and history. In a month dedicated to celebrating the achievements of the Deaf community, let’s delve into a brief history of deaf representation in the film industry. 

1900s-1920s: The Silent Era

The silent era is often referred to as the “golden era” for the Deaf community due to the accessibility of films. Silent films relied on visual storytelling, allowing deaf moviegoers to have the same experience as everyone else in the theater. Deaf representation was rare during this era, but Granville Redmond, a deaf painter, had roles in several Charlie Chaplin films throughout the 1910s and 1920s.

1930s-1960s: “Talkies” 

In the 1930s, silent films were abandoned in favor of sound films, known as “talkies,” which created a significant barrier for deaf audiences due to the lack of captioning at the time. The Captioned Films Act of 1958 led to the creation of the Captioned Films for The Deaf program (CDF), which provided captioned versions of select films for deaf people. Though there were a few films featuring deaf characters during this time, they were always portrayed by hearing actors. 

1970s-1990s: Breaking Barriers 

The 1986 film “Children of a Lesser God” was the first to feature a deaf actor in a leading role since the silent era. The film follows the relationship between two employees at a school for the deaf: a speech therapist and a deaf custodian, who is played by Marlee Matlin. At 21 years old, Matlin won an Academy Award for Best Actress, making her the youngest Oscar winner in that category. She was also the first and only deaf nominee for 36 years until 2022 when deaf actor, Troy Kotsur won Best Supporting Actor for his role in the film “CODA.” Despite this positive breakthrough for the Deaf community, representation was still very limited. 

2000s-Present: A Rise in Representation

In recent years, there has been a notable increase in deaf characters on screen; and more importantly, these roles are being given to deaf actors. The 2021 film, “Eternals” introduced Makkari, the first deaf superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Makkari is played by Lauren Ridloff, an actress with a recurring role in the television series, “The Walking Dead.” Earlier this year, Alaqua Cox made history playing Maya Lopez (a.k.a. Echo) in the Marvel series “Echo” as the first deaf and Indigenous lead in a television series. Outside of Marvel, films like “A Quiet Place,” “The Sound of Metal” and “CODA” are just a few examples of how the film industry is moving towards more diverse and genuine portrayals of the Deaf community.  

Despite the recent growth in deaf representation, there’s still more to be done. In 2022, a study from the National Research Group (NRG) found that 82% of deaf consumers believe the entertainment industry must provide more support to deaf professionals for more authentic representation. The study also found that 56% of deaf consumers “rarely” or “never” see their identities represented on screen. Though deaf representation has made significant progress since the silent era, there is still a long way to go to achieve a true, inclusive future for the Deaf community.

Katera Dobson

St. John's '26

Katera is a sophomore at St. John’s University, born and raised in Queens, New York. She joined Her Campus in her freshman year and is currently the Senior Writer. When it comes to writing, she primarily focuses on the topics of film, theater and books. Outside of Her Campus, she can be found baking, reading, and going to the movies.