At a very young age, I looked for myself on television and did not see much evidence that I existed. I knew Linda the Librarian from Sesame Street was deaf. Mostly because my family told me, but the evidence was there—she used sign language and taught her Sesame Street friends signs. Linda's crisp, didactic language was beautiful, unlike the colloquial signed conversations I saw at home and school. She was on every once in a while, and I was startled every time she appeared. Then she was gone too soon. So I always wanted more. I wanted to know how she navigated life off Sesame Street, on other streets. I wanted to know who she honestly was.
For a brief time, there was Deaf Mosaic on PBS, which I only caught by chance (before the days of streaming). Deaf Mosaic was a TV news format production with two deaf, signing anchors, Gil Eastman and Mary Lou Novitsky. Slick and intelligent, the anchors talked about wide-ranging news from the world to the deaf community. But I still did not know who those anchors were and what they did in real life. About what did they argue? What made them happy? I wanted more.
Children of a Lesser God, in 1986, was an extraordinary exception that had a domino effect on my life as an eight-year-old. I learned what deaf people argued about and how they did it, what conversational ASL looked like, and that romance was in my future. I sat in that movie theater with my mouth open. Even though the story was far from optimistic, I felt happy and hopeful because I caught a glimpse of myself—even though I was a fourth grader and the story was about two white adults who were in love.
Despite the success of COALG, the paucity of deaf presence on television continued. Whenever I saw a Deaf character on screen, I would sit up straight and pay attention, leaning in to see what kind of stereotypes were being perpetuated. Is that actor deaf in real life? Are they doing the signs "the right way"? What is the message here? Do I see myself? That became a habit of mine, leaning in to pay attention and assess. For a long time, seeing Deaf people onscreen made the hairs on my skin stand up. Not because I was incredibly entertained but because I was thinking, examining, and feeling defensive. I still wanted more.
Three decades after COALG, This Close debuted. It was created by deaf writers Josh Feldman and Shoshannah Stern, who also starred in the series. I started out watching, leaning forward in my seat, almost biting my nails; before long, I was sitting back and laughing and crying. I saw myself. Same age, same joys and troubles. Then CODA happened. I caught glimpses of myself once again! I was not evaluating but experiencing the story of a deaf family. Familiar yet different. And I must mention Theo's storyline in Only Murders in the Building. These examples shine because of the involvement of deaf creatives offscreen.
Now that I am an actor in the industry, I see clearly the importance of bringing in more representation behind the camera. That kind of inclusion offscreen seeps onscreen. Characters are no longer stereotypes, but multifaceted. A story centering around deaf people needs deaf creatives, period. Education would be a wonderful byproduct of this sort of collaboration, but ultimately I want to see stories resonating with people from all walks of life by collaborating with people from all walks of life. When we include deaf people behind the camera, we avoid stereotypes because there are no assumptions made when creating characters and storylines.
I want to lean back and see myself. Experience something that is familiar but different. I imagine that desire is also shared by some 70 million people around the world who are deaf, existing and seeking.
Lauren Ridloff is an actress known for her roles in the TV series The Walking Dead and the film Eternals. She received a Tony Award nomination for Best Actress in a Play for her 2018 lead performance in Children of a Lesser God on Broadway.
The statements and viewpoints expressed in the article above are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily represent or reflect the opinions or viewpoints of the Television Academy, the Television Academy Foundation, or their members, officers, directors, employees, or sponsors.