At the end of the Oscar-nominated live-action short “The Silent Child,” a trio of title cards deliver some sobering facts. One explains that “over 78% of deaf children attend mainstream school with no specialist support in place,” and a final note adds that the filmmakers “hope this film contributes in the fight for sign language to be recognized in every school across the globe.” But the Oscar-nominated short film conveys its message long before the factoids pop up, thanks to a rich script from first-time screenwriter Rachel Shenton (who also stars in the film) and a rewarding turn from her young co-star, first-time actor Maisie Sly.
“Deafness and sign language are extremely close to my heart,” Shenton said. “I always say deafness is a silent disability, you can’t see and it’s not life-threatening, so it has to touch your life in some way in order for it to be on your radar.”
It touched Shenton’s life in an unexpected way when she was just 12 years old: after undergoing chemotherapy, her father suddenly went deaf. He died two years later, and Shenton was inspired by his experiences to learn sign language and eventually become an ambassador for the National Deaf Children’s Society. She’s spent her entire adult life advocating for the deaf community, and “The Silent Child” is an emotional continuation of that work.
Directed by Shenton’s fiance Chris Overton, the film follows Sly as Libby, the only deaf child in a hearing family, as she prepares to attend a mainstream school that doesn’t offer special assistance for its deaf charges. When the 20-minute short opens, Libby’s parents have finally gotten hip to the fact that she needs extra attention. Social worker Joanne (Shenton) arrives to teach Libby sign language, finding a bright child, filled with things to express — hardly the restrained and uninvolved kid that her mother has made her out to be. Outdated attitudes about the possibilities of her condition have long hamstrung Libby’s development, and Joanne is forced to contend with numerous road blocks during her teaching.
Shenton has been preparing to write the story for most of her life, and her credits prove it.
A mainstay on the British soap circuit – Shenton was a regular cast member on the long-running series “Hollyoaks” from 2010 to 2013, with early stints on “Doctors” and “Waterloo Road” rounding out her early years – the Brit made the jump to American television with a recurring role on the ABC Family series “Switched at Birth.”
On paper, the series sounds like a standard issue teen drama, but “Switched at Birth” – which, yes, was about a pair of teen girls who discover they were switched at birth – was a low-key game-changer. The show, which became the first mainstream television series to have multiple deaf and hard-of-hearing series regulars, was bolstered by scenes shot entirely in American Sign Language. For Shenton, who played a hearing neighbor tangled up with the two families at the show’s heart, it was “a dream job.”
“I felt so privileged to be part of it,” Shenton said. “It really was pioneering, it was a really plucky show. I think what was great about it more than anything was that it normalized [deafness]. It got a mainstream audience to talk about it. That’s what we’ve got to keep trying to do.”
Inspired by the way “Switched at Birth” found a mainstream way to represent on an issue close to her heart, Shenton decided to turn her concerns for the education of deaf children into “The Silent Child.” The way she sees it, she just couldn’t keep quiet anymore.
“The more I got involved with it, the more I saw so many issues that just go unnoticed because it’s silent,” she said. “There’s a huge lack of education. The thing that gets me all the time, and I say it to everybody, is it isn’t a learning difficulty. With the right support, a deaf child can do exactly the same as a hearing child, yet constantly they’re being failed.”
“The Silent Child” toes a tough line, using a genuinely emotional story to speak to a wider issue without feeling preachy or hitting its audience over the head with its message, which is one that inherently asks for a political response from those eager to see changes in the education of deaf students. Focusing on the experience of young Libby and telling the story mostly through her eyes grounds the film, and Shenton’s consistent experience with deaf children informs its authenticity, right down to the cast.
Finding their Libby was the most difficult part of the filmmaking process, because Shenton insisted on casting a deaf actress for the role. She had precise needs, as she explained: “profoundly deaf, five years old, wants to act, had to look the part and fit in with the rest of the family, and I wanted her to sign.”
The approach stemmed from seeing it done wrong many times before. “I’ve been involved in the deaf community for years, and my friends in the community that are actors or performers get very frustrated when they see hearing people portraying a deaf role,” she said. “So that was something that I was never gonna do.”
Shenton and Overton contacted, by her estimation, “every deaf organization in the U.K.,” for help in finding their young leading lady. It was a grassroots effort, one hobbled by a small budget, but the pair was pleased to find that the talent pool was much bigger than they initially suspected. They saw over 100 children for the part, but when six-year-old first-time actor Maisie Sly walked in, it was over. “I mean, I just made my mind up within about 15 seconds,” Shenton said.
She’s hopeful that the film will continue to resonate with people, by drawing more awareness to a topic that is so close to her heart. In May, “The Silent Child” will screen for Parliament. But she and Overton aren’t resting on the film’s current accolades, and Shenton said that they are in the “early stages” of writing a first draft for a feature version.
“There are lots of things that I feel passionately about and lots of things that are buzzing around in my mind right now, but I think the next one for me has to be ‘The Silent Child’ feature,” she said. “It’s so close to me at the moment, and it just feels like the logical next step.”
For now, though, she’s luxuriating in the effectiveness of a movie that has resonated well beyond Academy voters. “We’ve had people leave the cinema that are in their seventies saying, ‘God, you know, I’ve never thought about that before,'” she said. “And I think, ‘Wow, well, if we can just educate a cinema full of people that have never considered that before, then it’s job done.'”