CODA: Deaf Impact, Deaf Fulfillment!
“Explain to me why this movie (CODA*) is so great. Is it because some of the actors carry a story without using their voices?”
Reading this comment on a friend’s Facebook page made my jaw drop. Scrolling through my social media page, my eye caught a post that thought the 2022 Oscar-winning Best Picture, CODA was not an original tale, rather than what I saw as an inspirational and human story of a hearing daughter and sister in a family of Deaf parents and Deaf brother. What my friend saw was a coming-of-age story cloaked in a Deaf setting. Though I saw more in CODA than just a formulaic coming-of-age story, I was content to let my friend think and let think. That is, until I read her closing comment about actors carrying a story without using their voices.
Picking up my jaw and rolling that comment through my feelings of slow burning bafflement, I wondered if I was stumbling against a wall of audist assumptions. Her comment struck me as belittling American Sign Language, the true voice and means of communication among the Deaf actors in the movie. The use of ASL in the movie was an authentic, embodied expression of being Deaf and not an inferior nor contrived substitute for speaking and being hearing. Also, to read into CODA as a simple formula of a teenager finding once’s place overlooked the movie’s depictions of a Deaf family’s struggle against daily, subtle transgressions that diminished their Deaf contribution to the local fishing community and witness as a loving bi-cultural, bilingual family.
So often Deaf people experience diminishment by hearing people who perceive the capacity of Deaf people as a negation, a loss and curse, rather than as a Godly difference, a gain, and a blessing.
When I wrote my Doctor of Ministry paper American Sign Language as a Means of Grace
(Wesley Theological Seminary, 2002), I came across the story of the National Association of the Deaf’s efforts in 1913 to preserve ASL by filming gifted Deaf ASL signers. The president of the NAD, George Veditz wrote: “It is my hope that we will love and guard our beautiful sign language as the noblest gift God
has given to Deaf people.” Threatening to exterminate sign language in Deaf schools was the 1880 ideology from an international conference in Milan, Italy by hearing educators of the Deaf who proclaimed: “mimic signs are not sufficient to express the fullness of thought…[thus] the oral method should be preferred to that of signs in the education and instruction of deaf-mutes.”[i]
. Between the years of 1882 and 1919, the percentage of Deaf students receiving no-ASL instruction (oral only) rose from 7.5% to 80%.[ii]
An April 7, 2022 post in the Daily Moth
, a Deaf news internet service, reported that CODA
has impacted the Deaf community in four ways: burned-in subtitling will become standard in movies; the Associated Press Style book will use appropriate terms for Deaf and deaf; enshrine ASL as proof that Deaf can succeed with ASL; and expand roles for Deaf actors. Thinking back to NAD’s 1913 efforts to defend ASL, would Deaf people then ever dreamed that one day a motion picture in ASL could possibly win a Best Picture in a hearing-dominant industry?
Truly, CODA is a fulfillment of the belief that sign language is God’s noblest gift to Deaf people, and a gift to the hearing world! May our UMC ministry with, for and by Deaf and Hard of Hearing people strive to honor God’s gift of not just ASL, but all signed languages of Deaf people around the world.
*CODA is an acronym for Child Of Deaf Adult
Gannon, Jack R. Deaf Heritage: A Narrative History of Deaf America
. Edited by Jane Butler and Laura-Jean Gilbert. Silver Spring, Maryland: National Association of the Deaf, 1981, p. 359.
Olney, Kenneth Robert. Religion and the American Deaf Community: A Sociological Analysis of the Chicago Mission for the Deaf, 1890-1940
. Ph.D. diss., University of Oregon, 1999. p 173.