Charlie Swinbourne: 10 things that only happen to deaf people in films (and not in real life)

Posted on October 14, 2017

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Deaf characters who appear in films and TV series often give Deaf people mixed feelings.

On one hand, it’s exciting to see characters like yourself represented on screen. On the other hand, you get the FEAR.

Fear of what? Well, of the deaf character being hard to understand (especially if they’re being played by an inexperienced signer), or of their presence in the story being insubstantial and throwaway.

Worst of all, you get the fear of their appearance on screen being unrealistic, making it hard to believe in, and enjoy the story.

Without further ado, here’s just a few examples of things I’ve spotted happening to deaf characters on screen, that rarely (or ever) happen in real life.

Be warned – there’s a spoiler or two here!

1. Deaf people can lipread from a long, long way away. At night

Screen Shot 2016-02-22 at 11.44.49For me, the most memorable instance of lipreading being used as a character device in films is Read My Lips, in which a deaf woman uses her deaf skill to help her lover to commit a robbery.

Lipreading at a short distance (see this cafe scene from the same film) is pretty believable.

Not so believable is lipreading people in a room in a building opposite yours. In the dark.

Even if you do have a pair of binoculars.

Watch the trailer for Read My Lips here.

2. Interpreters jump into bed with their deaf clients

Screen Shot 2016-02-22 at 13.03.49The BBC drama Soundproof (2008) showed a sign language interpreter (played by Susan Lynch) not only getting romantically involved with a client (Joseph Mawle), but then interpreting for him while he’s being interrogated by the police about a murder.

This all made for good, BAFTA-winning drama, but in real life, would surely constitute a shattering of the interpreter’s code of ethics with the interpreter being forced to look for new employment.

Even if the deaf murder suspect seemed quite happy with this arrangement.

Just saying.

3. EVERYONE in a Deaf person’s family can sign 

Screen Shot 2016-02-22 at 13.16.28Can you criticise a film for showing how things should be, even if it’s not how they usually (or ever) are?

Well if so, let’s criticise The Family Stone for showing us a utopian vision – an entire family able to sign so that their Deaf son is included in communication.

If only this happened more often in real life.

You can read more about how this came about in this insightful article.

4. Sign language saves HEARING people’s lives 

Screen Shot 2016-02-22 at 11.25.06We know that sign language can save Deaf people’s lives (this recent story of the police officer who signed to talk a Deaf teenager down from a bridge is proof) but saving hearing people’s lives? That’s much less common.

But it happens in The River Wild, when Meryl Streep’s character uses ASL (which she knows because she has a deaf father) to help save her family when a pair of armed robbers force them to travel on a white water raft down a river.

Sign language has many benefits. Saving hearing people’s lives while white water rafting with an angry-looking Kevin Bacon is, according to this film, one of them.

5. Deaf people fall in love with the first person to show an interest

Four-Weddings-Serena-and-David-250Seeing Hugh Grant’s Deaf brother (played by David Bower) in Four Weddings and a Funeral was the first time my family had ever seen a Deaf character appear in a film.

This might sound cheesy, but it was a pretty emotional moment for us, sat on the sofa in front of the TV in the mid-90s.

That said, I felt a bit let down to then see him fall in love with a woman who appears to be the very first person to show a romantic interest in him.

Though it is sweet how he overlooks her nervy fingerspelling mistakes.

6. Deaf people don’t feel vibrations… or see light 

Screen Shot 2016-02-22 at 13.48.27Ukrainian film The Tribe divided Deaf audiences on its release last year, depicting a group of teenagers at a Deaf school living a life of gang violence and crime with little oversight.

Love it or hate it, what isn’t up for debate is how the film took deaf dramatic licence to the extreme in several key scenes.

In one, it showed a Deaf girl being run over from behind, seemingly oblivious to the vibrations of a slowly reversing vehicle (which she would have felt) or the light coming from it (which she might have seen).

In another, particularly harrowing scene, Deaf boys remain sleeping even while very heavy objects are dropped beside them. I could give more detail here, but it’s a bit too horrific to explain more.

7. Deaf characters can lipread without seeing the face of the person speaking to them

Screen Shot 2016-02-22 at 14.19.14This happens so often in films, I could have listed about 20 examples.

What usually happens is a deaf character is introduced, and the first few scenes showing them lipreading feel realistic, then later on, the whole thing goes to pot.

You’ll start to see characters understanding things being said by people they can’t see, as if they’ve got lipreading eyes in the back of their head, while running around solving a bigger problem.

The hearing audience notice nothing wrong.

For the Deaf audience however, the all-important suspension of disbelief is totally, like, unsuspended.

(I guess it becomes a suspension of belief then?)

8. Characters suddenly become completely deaf, only to get their hearing back shortly afterwards

Screen Shot 2016-02-22 at 14.00.58In real life, some people do go temporarily deaf, and some of the causes are listed here.

But usually, they don’t go completely deaf in both ears during a gunfight, only to regain their hearing a short time later.

Yet that’s what happens in A Prophet (2010), in a slow motion scene where bullets fly all around the main character as he uses a car as a shield.

But it’s a great, great film, so don’t let my pernickety ways put you off.

9. Deaf people have perfect speech, even if they can’t hear at all… and don’t wear hearing aids.

Screen Shot 2016-02-22 at 12.18.06It pains me to include this one, because I love Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor’s other work.

But I remember watching Hear no Evil, See No Evil as a kid and wondering how Gene Wilder’s deaf character had absolutely perfect speech, when in one scene, he’s shown unable to hear Richard Pryor shouting very LOUDLY into his ear from a distance of about 10 centimetres (see photo).

Wilder’s character speaks pretty much like any other character he plays, with perfect intonation, never speaking too loudly or quietly. (Note: Deafened people (who had hearing, but then became deaf) do often retain speech that is close to a hearing person’s speech, but it’s never made clear that Wilder’s character has lost his hearing in this way.)

What is more realistic though, is what follows: Wilder’s (deaf) character calling Pryor’s character a schmuck for trying to test out his hearing by shouting at him.

10. A mother and son who don’t use each other’s language understand one another perfectly

Screen Shot 2016-02-22 at 14.04.02It would be a tad unfair of me to point out these things about people’s work without pointing out something in a short film I wrote.

In Coming Out, (which was directed by Louis Neethling) a Deaf boy ‘comes out’ about his deaf identity to his hearing mother.

He doesn’t speak. She doesn’t sign. Yet they understand each other perfectly.

I justify this by saying people in families understand each other (they just do) and that it’s a comedy, and so it’s unreal and unserious to start with. And there’s other things that are a bit crazy about it. And I was trying to make a wider point…

But maybe… maybe those are all excuses.

Hit me with your worst. I probably deserve it.

Tell us about unrealistic depictions of deafness that you’ve spotted in films below!

Charlie is the editor of Limping Chicken, as well as being an award-winning filmmaker. He directed the comedies The Kiss and Four Deaf Yorkshiremen go to Blackpool, and the documentary Found, about three people’s discovery of the deaf world. As a journalist, he has written for the Guardian and BBC Online.

The Limping Chicken is the world's most popular Deaf blog, and is edited by Deaf journalist and filmmaker Charlie Swinbourne. 

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