Through Hearing Eyes (Law & Order)

Last night my wife popped a tape into the VCR and began watching Law & Order: Criminal Intent. Kind of strange, because we had just watched this deaf-themed episode the night before. (For those of you who missed it, the plot focused on the murder of a doctor who specialized in cochlear implant surgery.)

In response to my quizzical look -- the one that said has your memory become so bad that you can watch reruns of shows you just saw the day before? -- my wife remarked that her ASL students had bombarded her with excellent questions she hadn't thought of when she watched the show as a spectator. To answer their questions, she needed to watch it again through the eyes of an ASL instructor.

With that in mind, along with several comments I'd read in the DeafRead blogosphere (most of which pointed out that the issues in the show were old news, such as the cochlear implant controversy), I thought I'd try an experiment of my own. I decided to watch the show again with my wife. This time, I would imagine I was a hearing person seeing all of these deaf issues for the first time. Thus I sat through another showing of Law & Order -- through hearing eyes.

But... before I turn myself into a hearing person for a day, I want to make a few comments based on my own reaction.

Overall, I was thrilled to see deaf actors and a deaf-centered plot. Especially on prime-time network television. I hope this will be a springboard for more deaf exposure on TV.

That said, I did have a concern or two about how the deaf community was portrayed.

First of all, I understand that Law & Order bases its shows on real-life events. Sure, you'll find crazy plot twists and some creative license here and there, but a lot of things in their shows actually happened.

My concern is, they had to squeeze a lot of these "actually happened" events into one hour. You could see several aspects of the 2006 Gallaudet protest -- which occured over a period of several months -- scattered throughout this one episode:

A reference to not deaf enough. A group of protestors gathering outside a doctor's house (anyone remember all those gatherings outside of I. King Jordan's house?). A request for no charges filed (no reprisals, anyone?). A character (Larry, the deaf playwright) declaring from his jail cell that he was going on a hunger strike.

The hunger strike was it for me.

"Waitaminute," I said. "They just poked fun at Ryan Commerson!" (For those of you who've been living in a cave the past few years, Commerson went on a hunger strike at the Michigan School for the Deaf and then some Gallaudet protesters followed suit later on.)

Although it wasn't their intention, by this point Law & Order had already come dangerously close to turning into a parody of Deaf culture. Apparently we're a bunch of angry, never-satisfied, hunger-striking, kill-anyone-who's-not-deaf-enough fanatics.

A side note: Speaking of Ryan Commerson, I had the honor of attending his recent presentation at the University of Pennsylvania. You'll be pleased to know that he did a great job of enlightening the audience and dispelling myths/stereotypes about the deaf community. His enjoyable and interactive presentation -- in a packed lecture hall full of mostly hearing college students -- succeeded in getting everyone to understand what it means to be deaf and why access/advocacy is so important. In fact, he actually got a group of medical students to admit they didn't realize so many options are available (other than just the cochlear implant) for deaf children. This is one less protest we'll have in the future thanks to Commerson's behind-the-scenes advocacy.

Anyway, enough of my ranting. Let me now pretend I'm hearing for a moment and imagine I just got my first impression of the deaf community via Law & Order. Here are some interesting questions for all of you ASL instructors, Deaf Studies professors, and Deaf advocates out there:

  • Do all deaf people live in a world of total silence, as depicted by the sound effects?
  • Does the cochlear implant fully "restore hearing," as one of the doctors in the show described it?
  • If it does, or if it succeeds to some extent, why aren't all deaf people lining up for it?
  • Is it rude, or even a violation of privacy, to look at deaf people who are signing in public?
  • Are deaf people ______ (insert stereotype of choice here: angry, emotional, immature, easily agitated, etc)?
  • How did the deaf dean of students know someone was shooting at her?
  • Does the fact that she finally got shot (after the shooter missed a few times) indicate that deaf people are more vulnerable to violence/accidents than hearing people?
  • Are there any deaf cops, firefighters, secret agents, etc?
  • Forget exciting jobs -- can deaf people even drive a car?
  • Was that deaf lady on the show actually happy her newborn baby was deaf?
  • If yes, what the hell was wrong with her? Do deaf people really want deaf kids?
  • What was all that Deaf Power stuff in the beginning? Why would people be proud of a (gulp!) handicap?

There you have it, folks. Your homework. As deaf actors and deaf-themed television shows and/or movies grow in prevalence (I hope!), you're going to see a lot more of these questions coming from the world at large. And as you saw in the recent Gallaudet protest, not everyone out there "gets it." It's our job to make sure people do. Are you ready?