Can You Hear What I’m Saying

Peri Himsel

Spotlight 1

In 1988, Gallaudet University elected another hearing president. The students of Gallaudet believed that the time had come for a deaf person to run the university for the deaf and hard of hearing—they created the Deaf President Now protest movement. The DPN movement eventually received national recognition and support, becoming the first time the struggles of the deaf community had been acknowledged on such a massive scale.

It changed the way the hearing looked at the deaf. In the years following, it urged an increase of new laws and bills that promoted rights for the deaf and disabled.



deaf :

  1. partially or wholly lacking or deprived of the sense of hearing; unable to hear.
  2. (initial capital letter) of or pertaining to the Deaf or their cultural community: Deaf customs and values.



My mom used to say one of the things that clued her in that I had some sort of hearing loss was how I watched television. I sat with my right ear pointed at the screen while I peered at it from the corner of my eye.


Weirdest Questions I’ve Been Asked as a Deaf Person

  1. Can deaf people drive? (asked by 80% of people)
  2. Can deaf people chew gum? (asked by an honors student in high school)
  3. Can deaf people read minds? (asked by a terrified person in my high school math class)
  4. Can deaf people use computers? (asked by a person with a PhD)
  5. Can deaf people have sex? (asked by anonymous in an online forum)


Breaking Bad

Though he got comparatively little screen time on Breaking Bad, Walter (Flynn) White Junior was a complex character with cerebral palsy. He had thoughts, feelings and storylines that did not revolve around his disability. He suffered to be seen as cool by his peers and later from the emotional turmoil and anger over the reveal that his father was a psychotic meth king all along.

The actor, R.J. Mitte, also has cerebral palsy, though a milder case.


West Wing

The first time I saw Marlee Matlin was on The West Wing as Joey Lucas late one night at my father’s house. My mom had called and told him to make me watch it. I remember sitting in front of the TV in his apartment, watching the graceful movements of her hands, having my dad relay what my mom told me about Matlin over the phone. I never really watched The West Wing afterwards but I remember that one episode, seeing the other hearing people watch her sign without that slack-jawed amazement, seeing them talk to her about business rather than her disability.

It was the first time I saw someone sign on TV.



Melora Pazlar was a 24th-century Elaysian Starfleet officer who appeared in an episode of the second season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine called “Melora.” Her disability was due to the low gravity of her home planet: regular gravity confined her to crutches or a wheelchair. Her brief love affair with Doctor Julian Bashir brings about his desire to try to “cure her.” She eventually turns down his offer because changing her body to accept regular gravity would mean she could never return back to her home world and family. She tells him while sitting in the infirmary that it would erase part of her identity.

This episode was the only one she appeared in.



I took off my hearing aids around the age of thirteen. Just before I stopped going to the audiologist, there was some talk of me being a good candidate for the cochlear implant. I considered but in the end, I didn’t want to them to slice my head open. I didn’t want to be shackled to a piece of metal and plastic I could never take off. I didn’t want to be always stuck in a weird limbo of just barely hearing things. I could never be fully hearing and I didn’t want to pretend.



Marlee Matlin won an Academy Award and Golden Globe in 1987 for her role as Sarah Norman in Children of a Lesser God. In the movie, her boyfriend, James Leeds (played by William Hurt), is listening to music then shuts it off. He tells Matlin’s character, who is deaf, that he feels bad listening to this music because she can’t. This is one of the few scenes in which Matlin’s character does not express rage and resentment towards this hearing man with all his assumptions of the deaf that he has carried throughout the entire film. Rather, she nods and smiles placidly.

This is the point in the movie where I stopped caring for her character.



“Melora” was written by Evan Carlos Somers. Many of the problems Melora encounters around the Deep Space Nine station are the same problems Somers experienced when he snooped around the set in his wheelchair. Though later, some details were changed, Somers felt only he could portray Melora because of his own experience as a disabled person. His real reason, though, was anger over a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode called “Ethics,” in which Worf wants to kill himself after briefly becoming disabled:

“That episode had gotten a little under my skin. Even though Worf is an alien and it’s just a TV show, everyone knows we’re making statements with Star Trek. Messages and values are being broadcast loud and clear. I resented the message in ‘Ethics’ – that Worf is worthless now that he’s disabled and therefore must kill himself. I’m sorry that the portrayal had to exist at all.”2


Most Common Replies to My Deafness

  1. Can you read and write?
  2. I’ve always wanted to learn sign language.
  3. Can you drive a car?
  4. My sister/brother/cousin/friend/guy I met on the subway knows five signs.
  5. I’m sorry.



When I started watching Doctor Who, like anyone, I wanted to become the Doctor’s companion and travel around in the TARDIS. In retrospect, I’m not really sure how that would work out. The TARDIS is supposed to translate all known languages for the Doctor and his companions but there’s never been a deaf companion (or a deaf character for that matter). Would the TARDIS make it look like everyone around me was signing? Would she put captions that would float in the air above them? Would she translate their words and just implant them in my head? What about other sounds for that matter? At this point, does the TARDIS just become a glorified, advanced technology interpreter?



I don’t really consider myself disabled. To me, I am deaf. But then I have to tell them I need an interpreter for this class, captions for this movie, a script for this radio show. That I need something that these other people don’t. Then I must say, yes, I am disabled.



In Doctor Who, the Daleks were created by Davros, a wheelchair user himself. Davros later mutated them and made mobility aids (read: wheelchairs) for his people: a bulky, tank-like device and a rotating curved top with a plunger-like stalk sticking out. The Daleks are the traditional villains of Doctor Who, created in the beginning of the show in 1963 and appearing constantly all the way to the current series in 2014.

It is a long-standing joke that Daleks, with their pseudo wheelchairs, cannot climb stairs. The fourth Doctor, played by Tom Baker, once taunted them from the top of a flight of stairs saying, “If you’re supposed to be the superior beings, why don’t you try climbing after us?” 3



If I had a dollar for every time someone has said to me “you’re lucky you’re deaf right now,” I would have paid off my college loans years ago.



August 30, 2012: S.E Smith, a woman with a disability, publishes an article concerning the Paralympics and perceptions of disabilities called “Disabled People Are Not Your Inspiration.” In this piece, she discusses how disabled people, especially Paralympics competitors, are used too often as “inspiration porn”: there’s an assumption that disabled people live horrible lives, which makes their basic everyday actions inspiring to others. It’s a harmful attitude because “people who insist that we’re so inspiring are turning us into objects, not people…you’re saying we need to be singled out as remarkable because of our disabilities, and it pushes us further to the margins.” 4



There was this girl in my sociology class in my sophomore year in college. One day, towards the end of the semester, as I was leaving class, she stopped me and handed me a note. I read it as I walked down the hallway. She told me, in this note, that she found me inspiring because I woke up every day, came to class, and functioned with my disability. Attached to it, she had taped a candy bar, the way one would try to bribe a three year old. For the rest of the semester, I never looked at her again.



I made the mistake of reading the comments on S.E. Smith’s article. Most were angry, either annoyed at feeling they were “not being allowed to be inspired” because they had never been disabled themselves, or enraged, listing people they had known who had “faced and overcome adversity” as if this somehow made them a better person.

Maybe we didn’t read the same article.


Movie Theatres

A couple of years ago, movie theatres used to have open captions, meaning the captions appeared on the screen below the movie. There were certain restrictions: there were less captioned movie times compared to non-captioned movies. But I liked them. All I had to do was show up and blend in.

Hearing people are apparently bothered by the captions on the screen. They apparently complained and learned not to show up for captioned screenings. They invented a new technology called the SONY Access Glasses. These are chunky glasses with infrared lens for the captions and a long wire that runs down the side and attaches to a small plastic box.

With the glasses there are a few more options than open captions but there’s still a limit to the number of movies that the glasses will have captions for. I don’t like these. They hurt the bridge of my nose and I feel weird with them sitting in my lap before the movie starts.

I don’t go to movies a lot anymore.



After being sued by the National Association of the Deaf in 2011, Netflix releases a statement in 2012 that they will caption all of their content by 20145. However, they don’t take into account the accuracy of their captions. In an open letter to Netflix in 2013, Sam Wildman, hard-of-hearing, weighs in on the problem of censorship within captions:

“But if someone says “Kill that motherfucker!” then shouldn’t everyone be able to have the same shocked reaction to the word ‘motherfucker’ as anyone else? Why should people using subtitles be spared? Alternatively, why should they be deprived?” 6


Half Life

Half-Life 1, a science-fiction first person shooter video game, came out in 1998. I used to watch my brother play, controlling the main character Gordon Freeman as he attempts to survive the fallout of a bad science experiment in the Black Mesa facility. When I finally got a chance to play, I knew how to beat every level. Half-Life 1 didn’t have captions. I had a fragmented idea of the story for the most part, until I managed to find the script online. Towards the middle of the game, deep in the tunnels of Black Mesa, the Hazardous Combat Unit soldiers fighting Gordon scrawled a message on the wall.


It reads: Give Up, Freeman.


Works Cited

1 “Deaf President Now.” Gallaudet University. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Apr. 2014.


2 Erdmann, Terry J., and Paula M. Block. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

Companion. New York: Pocket, 2000. Print.

3 Clark, Laurence. “Retardis: Doctor Who and Disability.” Web log post. Ouch!

It’s a Disability Thing. BBC, 22 Mar. 2005. Web. 23 Apr. 2014.


4 Smith, S.E. “Disabled People Are Not Your Inspiration.” XOJane. SAY Media,

30 Aug. 2012. Web. 23 Apr. 2014. <Clark, Laurence. “Retardis: Doctor Who and Disability.” Web log post. Ouch! It’s a Disability Thing. BBC, 22 Mar. 2005. Web. 23 Apr. 2014. .>.

5 Mullin, Joe. “Netflix Agrees to Subtitle All Films By 2014.” Online Post. CNN.

Turner   Broadcasting   System,   11   Oct.   2011.   Web.   23   Apr.   2014.


6 Wildman, Sam. “An Open Letter to Netflix Re: Subtitles.” Web log post.

Nerdophiles.   WordPress,   13   Aug.   2013.   Web.   23   Apr.   2014.


Peri Himsel is a Deaf writer from New Jersey and will soon hold a B.A. in English from Rider University.