A Brief History of Audism in the Movies

As a student of both Film and American Sign Language at York University, I’m really intrigued by the intersection of the two. I’ve learned about the history of the deaf community and sign language, as well as the history of film, but I’ve considered the intersection between both.


In 1895, film was born, and with it, possibilities arose for different communities to preserve their culture and document things in a way like never before. With the invention of film, the hearing and deaf communities took their own approaches with the new technology.


The invention of film created a lot of positive opportunities for the deaf community. An opportunity to preserve the language and help spread American Sign Language to more members of the community. George Veditz created a film in 1913 called the Preservation of Sign Language, which is extremely important to deaf culture. To quote the film, George says that “as long as we have our films, we can preserve signs in their old purity." Between the time of 1913 to the early 1920s, many films were produced by members of the deaf community that featured ASL stories, poems, and lectures.


Source: Giphy


The role early cinema played in the deaf community is quite beautiful. Early cinema was inclusive to those in the deaf community as the silent films created were universal, and deaf actors were given more opportunities to participate. However, the invention of film meant something else for certain members of the hearing community.


Alexander Graham Bell was already known by the deaf community as someone who had threatened to wipe out sign language from the world, burning books that contained the language and punishing deaf citizens for signing. Bell said that “to ask the value of speech is like asking the value of life,” and he was a proud oralist. The creation of film occured around the same time as a campaign against sign language in America was active.


Alexander Graham Bell decided that with the invention of film, he could now film his mouth as he said words and phrases, and assimilate deaf citizens into hearing culture by forcing them to read lips and communicate orally. Thus starting the long history of audism in film.


For clarity, audism is the prejudice against those with different hearing abilities. It’s believing one is superior due to their ability to hear, and having the negative attitude that life without hearing is valueless. This is a very close-minded perspective caused by a lack of understanding of deaf culture and the beauty of sign language.

Source: Giphy


The silent film era is known to be the “golden era” in the cultural history of the deaf community. John Schuchman states in his essay on the matter, that the period “represents the one brief time that deaf and hard-of-hearing citizens had comparatively equal access to motion pictures” as silent films relied heavily on visual communication. When sound movies were invented in 1927, the deaf community was abruptly left out as the technology for captioning wasn’t developed yet, and with the campaign against sign language still active, interpreters weren’t an option for a long time, nor were they ideal in a movie theater setting.  


Even today, audism is present in films and in the practice of movie-going. From the poor captioning technology provided in theatres, (as Nyle DiMarco discusses in his article on the issue when seeing Black Panther), to the poor representation of the community/language in films, the lack of deaf actors casted, and even in scripts and writings on film. Audism in the movies is something that we need to be aware of.


Sign language is still not seen as a valid language to some. In a school reading of The Screenwriter's Bible for formating sign language in scripts, the book says that sign language shouldn't be classified as dialogue as no words are spoken. It’s this kind of thinking that started the campaign against sign language in 1893, and I was appalled to discover this attitude towards the deaf in my very own school reading.  


I decided to read the script for The Shape of Water, and I was shocked to see that this film too, treats Elisa’s dialogue differently than the verbal dialogue. Instead of writing out what Elisa is saying in a dialogue format. The script simply says “Elisa signs.” Audism is still involved in the movies, but it manifests differently today than it did in the early days of cinema.


Source: Script Slug


The Shape of Water’s script implies that sign language is not a valid language, and that Elisa’s dialogue is not as important since it’s not communicated orally. Why is sign language treated differently than French, Spanish, or other languages in films? Why is it instinctive for hearing filmmakers to just write that a character “signs,” and neglect what the individual is actually saying? People have conversations in sign language, share ideas, and express themselves, just as people do in other languages. So why is it treated so differently?


This is only a brief history on the treatment of ASL and the deaf community in films. Issues lie not only in scripts and the film content as I discussed, but also in the casting of hearing actors to play deaf characters, and the misrepresentation and ‘othering’ of the community, something I don’t have enough time talk about nor do I feel qualified to write about.


Maybe you’ve never noticed audism in the movies before, but I encourage you to look out for it. This behavior needs to end, and the first step is to acknowledge it and be aware of it, so we can pause and ask ourselves why, and hopefully change.