While filming the reality series "Deaf U," Rodney Burford didn't focus too much on the impact he and his cochlear implants would have on viewers. "In my own mind, I thought, 'Yo, I'm really on Netflix," said the 22-year-old performer on the show, which is enlarging a group of students at Gallaudet University, the country's only Liberal Arts University.
Things changed after the show debuted last fall. Parents of cochlear implant users began to share how seeing Burford on screen had affected their children. "So I would say no question about it, I'm proud," he said in an interview. "I'm very proud."
Many deaf and hard of hearing people have welcomed the increased visibility that deafness and hearing loss have enjoyed on television recently. The current season of "The Bachelor" on ABC features Abigail Heringer, who is believed to be the first deaf candidate and cochlear implant holder on the show. The hard of hearing actress Angel Theory is currently playing on “Kinderfänger” on Facebook Watch and plays Kelly, a character with hearing loss, in AMC's “The Walking Dead”. and Disney + has announced that a Hawkeye series in development will feature a Deaf Native American actress, Alaqua Cox, as Echo, a Deaf Native American superhero.
However, for many who use devices such as cochlear implants or hearing aids, the on-screen display is still insufficient as it does not reflect enough of their experience. Jessica Flores, a San Francisco-based comedian who wears cochlear implants and was raised in a listening environment, speaks English and uses sign language (which she learned later in life). However, she pointed out that deaf characters are usually portrayed on screen as people who are signing and not speaking.
"Deaf U," which accompanies students on campus on dates, partying, clapping, and flirting, has been recognized for having a variety of experiences, including those of hearing aid users like Burford. But Gallaudet, located in Washington, as an institution values it Learning sign language and interacting with other deaf and hard of hearing people – experiences not all people with hearing loss have.
"I haven't seen a really perfect representation of my type of deafness," said Alexandra Dean Grossi on television, diagnosed with severe hearing loss at age 2 and wearing hearing aids before switching to cochlear implants as a teenager. She attended listening schools and, like Flores, had speech therapy but never learned to sign.
As they grew up, the few deaf actors Grossi saw, such as Oscar winner Marlee Matlin, used sign language and were usually part of the “Capital D Deaf” community – a term used by those who consider deafness as a cultural identity accept and communicate primarily through American Sign Language. "However, I don't think this represents the hearing loss and cochlear implant experience very well," said Grossi, software designer for the IBM Accessibility team.
Grossi, who has also worked as a production assistant and junior writer in Hollywood, expressed frustration with misconceptions about the experiences of the deaf and hard of hearing – especially those who live primarily in listening environments.
When she's tried putting on shows with deaf protagonists whose experiences resembled her own, she said she'd often get feedback that the character was not deaf enough. "And I think that's the whole point," said Grossi. "You know, there are so many nuances that you will be missed."
As a teenager, Flores felt the lack of thoughtful representation. She spent years being, "Oh, I'm alone," she said. "Nobody will understand me," she recalled.
That is, until Flores came across Amanda, who also wore hearing aids, in an episode of MTV's 2008 documentary series "True Life". (Flores has had cochlear implants for only two years.)
Flores torn, she remembered; Seeing Amanda gave her hope and an awareness that there were others like her.
Flores, who had little contact with the Capital D Deaf community, discovered the power of cultural representation after starting a YouTube channel talking about hearing loss. People sent her a message stating how much they had identified.
"It was a very emotional moment," said Flores. Seeing someone you can relate to on TV can have a similar effect. "It's like a big hug."
Ashley Derrington, a blogger for Hearing Like Me, a platform for hearing loss, experienced this when she saw Heringer on "The Bachelor".
"She's one of the first speaking Deaf I saw in the mainstream media, so it's clear that the deaf is not just sign language," said Derrington, who is hard of hearing and communicates orally.
"I personally identify not only with the 'Capital D Deaf Community', but also not just with the hearing world," said Derrington, who was equipped with hearing aids at around 2 years old like the outsider, the associations to both worlds. "
Shoshannah Stern, an actress and writer who grew up in a deaf family, uses hearing aids and communicates orally, said in an interview: "There are so many stories in the deaf community, so many experiences that need to be portrayed."
Stern said she wanted to push back "against the expected version" of stories about deaf people as defined by hearing creators. That led to "This Close," a Sundance Now show in which both main characters are deaf but have different upbringing, and which shows how they interact with people in both the hearing and the deaf world. She created the show with Joshua Feldman, who is also deaf.
While working on "This Close," Stern said, it was important to her to include the experiences of the cast who played the characters who are deaf or hard of hearing, including those who had cochlear implants.
In the search for more representation, others also take matters into their own hands. Grossi wrote a concept for a dramedy based on her experiences. Flores plans to start its own company to empower deaf creators in the industry.
"The idea of control in storytelling is a complicated one," noted Stern, who appeared on Grey's Anatomy, Weeds and Supernatural shows. "As an actor you only have so much." That was what made her even start writing.
For those looking for a better on-screen representation of deaf and hard of hearing experiences, it is ultimately about validation. "We are all human," said Grossi. “We want to achieve. We want to connect. We want to be heard – no pun intended. "