It’s been nearly a year since Sian Heder’s “CODA,” the feel-good coming-of-age story of a teenage girl who is the one hearing member of a predominately Deaf family, delighted audiences and secured Oscars for Best Picture, Supporting Actor, and Adapted Screenplay. But, in the months since its big wins, has on-screen Deaf and disabled representation actually gotten any better?
In November 2022, more than six months after “CODA” won big at the Oscars, the National Research Group released a new study that examined Deaf representation on-screen. Per a Variety article that shared the study’s results, 56 percent of Deaf consumers shared that, even in the aftermath of “CODA” breaking through, they still “rarely” or “never” see their identities represented in film and television.
And when those identities are portrayed on-screen, the results were not satisfying.
Variety reported that “63 percent of Deaf consumers say movies and shows that feature Deaf characters use negative images of the community,” while “76 percent of deaf people believe that the way their community is portrayed in fiction influences how they are perceived in daily life, shaping attitudes and calcifying prejudices.”
While the National Research Group has not yet published an updated study, a representative of the organization told IndieWire via email that the study remains accurate as of November 2022. Despite the downbeat tone of some reportage around the story, the representative also noted that overall numbers are improving and, according to the study, 66 percent of Deaf consumers saw the success of “CODA” increasing public awareness of Deaf representation.
But, in speaking to disabled creatives in the industry, many shared with IndieWire that they didn’t expect “CODA” to be a groundswell for change as some — predominantly able-bodied — people assumed. After all, they’ve been here before.
No one film or role has ever inspired a truly watershed change for on-screen disabled representation, whether that was Marlee Matlin’s Oscar-winning work in 1986’s “Children of a Lesser God,” Jon Voight showing the struggles of disabled war veterans in 1978’s “Coming Home,” disabled actor Harold Russell’s two Oscars for 1946’s “The Best Years of Our Lives,” or the very existence of the 1932 horror film, “Freaks.”
The same can be said for “CODA.”
“It was absolutely an accomplishment for representation,” Emily Ladau, disability rights advocate and host of The Accessible Stall Podcast, told IndieWire over Zoom. “I appreciated it, but I also feel like we cannot put that much weight on any one singular depiction of a marginalized person’s experience.”
But the impact of the film, and growing attention to disabled representation, has been on the up. Per the 2022 NRG study, “Some 79 percent of Deaf consumers believe that there’s more representation of their community in TV and film now than there was a year ago. And 43 percent of hearing consumers, as well as 56 percent of Deaf consumers report that they’ve watched at least one piece of media featuring a Deaf character within the past six months.”
Awareness, though, is only half the battle. As most in the Deaf and disabled community know, we’re great at championing awareness; it’s action that’s a harder sell.
Historically, it has been easier to cast an aesthetically pleasing actor and/or someone who is not actually Deaf in Deaf roles. Standout examples include Jane Wyman’s Oscar-winning performance in 1948’s “Johnny Belinda” to Sally Hawkins’ performance in 2017’s “The Shape of Water.” But portrayals of physical and mental disabilities, including those played by actually disabled actors, are still far below those numbers.
While few studies track the number of disabled actors who take on disabled roles, there is anecdotal evidence that those numbers are still dismal. In July 2021, Lauren Appelbaum, a vice president at RespectAbility, told The New York Times that, although, the number of disabled characters continued to increase, approximately 95 percent of those roles were still portrayed by actors who did not have disabilities.
Despite the fan love for Syfy’s series “Chucky,” actress Fiona Dourif is not a wheelchair user, though Hulu’s 2020 feature film “Run” did cast actress Keira Allen, a wheelchair user, in a lead role. And while “Avatar: The Way of Water” is one of the most successful films out right now, disabled audiences still remember the original film saw able-bodied star Sam Worthington playing a wheelchair user.
The increased awareness the National Research Group points out makes audience understand it’s no longer acceptable to cast non-disabled actors in disabled roles, but that just leaves Hollywood to make fewer disabled roles.
The disabled community is used to this. “I suspected that it wouldn’t necessarily change the the landscape of representation because the messaging itself was still sort of framed for a non-disabled audience,” said David Radcliffe, Chair of the Disabled Writers Committee at the Writers Guild of America West and writer for the Netflix children’s show “Waffles + Mochi.”
Despite its success, “CODA” faced its fair share of critiques, particularly from the Deaf community itself. A 2021 article for USA Today cites Deaf critics’ issues with how the Deaf characters are presented as burdensome and in need of rescuing.
Those critiques are why disabled director Reid Davenport, whose documentary “I Didn’t See You There” is one of the few disabled narratives crafted by a disabled creator this year, has still not seen the movie. “I think the title says it all, you’re focusing on the only non-Deaf person,” he said. (The title refers to a “child of Deaf adults.”)
Still, it’s important to remember why the success of “CODA,” though not necessarily perceived as a groundbreaker for disabled audiences, was also championed by many of them. Though the movie is told from an able-bodied/hearing perspective, with an able-bodied/hearing crew, its accessibility to a non-disabled/hearing audience brought up conversations about the sad state of disabled representation on-screen.
“It reinforced that there are so many communities that are underrepresented or misrepresented across the disability spectrum. There’s so many great stories out there,” Radcliffe said.
Despite the wealth of stories to tell, many in Hollywood may feel that after those Oscar wins for “CODA,” the issue of on-screen representation has somehow been “solved.” “Whenever there’s one instance of even somewhat good representation, Hollywood as a whole is like, ‘Look. See, we did it, we did it! Look, there’s proof. We’re getting better at this. We’re doing good, look at us,” said Ladau.
She added, “We get so excited in the disability community about these instances of representation, because we don’t have that much to hold on to,” said Ladau. But that tends to translate less into hiring Deaf and disabled creatives and more trying to replicate the success of what’s worked or assume that this one movie is all audiences ever need.
So, what’s next?
Radcliffe is eager to see where Troy Kotsur, who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in “CODA,” goes from here. “He really embodies how much talent is available in the disabled community, and also how much hardship is, unfortunately, commonplace before you get to a place where you can be visible,” he said. “Is this going to lead to a career that might be afforded to another Best Supporting Actor winner in the past?”
Kotsur is currently in pre-production on the sports drama called “The Flash Before the Bang” and is associated with another sports-related TV series being developed by ABC and Disney+.
Despite Radcliffe’s own role in the industry, he said there’s still heavy ambivalence to greenlight disabled projects, regardless of “CODA’s” achievements. “An executive recently told me about a project [and] they didn’t know if there was much audience appeal for project with two disabled leads,” he said.
Disabled talents say there is still a misguided belief in Hollywood that narrative storytelling with multiple disabled performers is a tough sell, and best left to the documentary spaces. That’s where Davenport is currently, with “I Didn’t See You There” receiving widespread acclaim since its debut at Sundance earlier in 2022. As the filmmaker explained, he set out to tell a story specifically for disabled audiences, which can then bring in those outside of that community.
Disabled audiences have been here before, and while “CODA” remains a delightful film, filled with heart, it can’t be where Deaf and disability representation stops. Until disabled creatives are making their own content and, more importantly, getting the support from allies in the upper echelons of power, one film will always continue to bear the brunt of representing an entire community — and real change will remain a question mark.