Warner Brothers Hits a Home Run for Deaf Advocates

When I took my kids to the open-captioned showing of the Warner Brothers' movie Happy Feet, little did I know that a bunch of penguins would stir up my inner deaf advocate.

Oh, for godsakes, this is a kid's movie, I thought to myself. Just put the deaf stuff on hold for once and enjoy the show, all right?

But no matter how hard I tried, there was no escape. Happy Feet repeatedly drove home an important message that deaf advocates have been preaching for years.

This Warner Brothers classic is an animated film featuring Mumble, a penguin who can't sing worth a lick. This is significant because Mumble lives amongst a group of Emperor penguins who cherish singing above all else. In order to be accepted and find a mate, they emphasize, you've got to be able to carry a tune.

Mumble's parents are alarmed when they discover their baby can't sing. He does, however, have a knack for tap-dancing. This proves to be crucial later in the movie because -- hey! I'm not giving away the ending. Go see for yourself.

Nonetheless, I was struck by the reaction of Mumble's parents and the entire penguin community as a whole. Mumble winds up being referred to a music teacher in hopes that she'll be able to teach him how to sing just like everyone else.

This is where the flashbacks started hitting me hard. If you heard news reports of a grown man dropping to the floor in a fetal position at a movie theater, that was me.

How could I not think back to days when I was referred to a speech therapist in hopes that I could be taught to speak just like everyone else? Gotta tip my hat to Warner Brothers -- they had me hooked here (and probably in need of psychotherapy).

And then, when Mumble eventually fails, he and his hippity-hoppity feet are sent packing. As he wanders off alone he eventually runs into a group of Adelie penguins -- more specifically, the Adelie Amigos. Unlike the Emperor penguins, the Adelie Amigos accept Mumble for who he is and they truly appreciate his dancing ability.

Whoa, stop the presses. Another flashback.

How could I not think back to the days when I first enrolled at Gallaudet University, where for once, I could just be myself and be fully accepted as the deaf man that I am?

Really, Warner Brothers is onto something deep, even if they might not realize they just hit a grand slam home run on behalf of the deaf community. You could easily switch the penguins' singing vs. dancing conflict to the one involving speaking vs. signing for deaf children.

If you've read Gina Oliva's Alone in the Mainstream: A Deaf Woman Remembers Public School or Dennis Jones Jr.'s Tarnished Halos and Crooked Fences: A Journey into the World of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing then you can easily see the parallel.

I can just see my 6'7'' buddy Dennis Jones Jr shaking his head at the realization that I've compared him to a penguin. Regardless, his book -- and Oliva's -- are a must-read if you want to see the stress we as deaf people endure when we're pressured to conform to mainstream ideals.

Clearly, the message Warner Brothers intended to convey was the importance of accepting yourself for who you are. But as my inner deaf advocate raged on (at a kids' movie, no less -- what's wrong with me?), there was one other issue I want to address.

Often, people confuse fitting in with belonging. Let me tell you right here and now that these two are not one and the same. Fitting in takes effort. It's something we do in hopes of gaining approval. Belonging is a far more rewarding phenomenon where we can just kick back, be ourselves, and know we are accepted. There's no try to be accepted -- you just are, automatically. There's nothing more genuine and rewarding than this.

If you would like to read more on the importance of belonging, check out this article titled Intimate Moments that drives the point home.

Whether they realize it or not, I'd like to thank Warner Brothers for doing the deaf community a favor by giving us Happy Feet. It's a great movie with incredible animation, special effects, and a powerful message. (No, Warner Brothers didn't pay me to plug their film. It really is that good.)

Last but not least: next time you see people pooh-poohing deaf children's right to interact with their true peers via the language they are most comfortable with, invite them to watch Happy Feet. And then, after they're visibly touched by this beautiful movie, tell them you have Happy HANDS and deserve to use them. If this doesn't help them get it, nothing will.

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