I’m haunted by the way I behaved the first time I came into close proximity with a Deaf-Blind person. It was in the lobby of the student union building at Gallaudet University — the famous liberal arts school for the Deaf in Washington, DC. At the time, my Deaf daughter Miranda was a student there.
It was a Saturday night and I was killing time, waiting for a nearby campus theatre to open its doors. Miranda was playing the role of Puck in the drama department’s production of “A Midsummer’s Night Dream.”
I was so proud of Miranda as this was her first play after winning the Helen Hayes Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Musical a few months earlier. She won the award for portraying Helen Keller as a teenager in a DC theatre company’s show “Visual Language.”
For a deaf person to act like a deaf-blind person is extremely difficult because a deaf actor relies so much on their eyes — one “wrong,” clear-eyed look and the illusion is gone. In addition to learning to speak a little like Helen Keller, non-verbal Miranda moved me by using her voice and by how well she pretended to be deaf-blind. It forced me to imagine how challenging it would be to communicate with her were she ever to lose her sight.
So there I was a year or so later in the deserted student union lobby when a middle-aged Deaf-Blind man came in with his cane. (Deaf-Blind guide dogs are hard to come by because they must be “extremely mature.”) I looked around to see if he was meeting with others, but there was no one else there. It was eerie how empty the place was.
Immediately, I felt the dilemma of how and if I should approach him. He didn’t seem to be needing any help as he found his way to a bench. I didn’t want to be patronizing by assuming he needed help. As he sat down, I worried if I signed well enough for him to put his hands on mine and converse tactilely. Also, I worried that he might want to put his hands on my face ala Helen Keller. The thought made me very uncomfortable.
Sadly, my fear got the best of me, and I cowardly left the man alone without introducing myself and trying to initiate a conversation as I normally would have done with a hearing person or a Deaf person. I was no better than the people (often relatives) I was very critical of who didn’t know ASL and were too shy or intimidated to initiate a conversation with Miranda over the years.
My hypocritical failure to just connect with a fellow human being who may be leading a lonely life of limited engagement because of disability is not something I’m proud of — and the irony of my daughter’s portrayal of Helen Keller does not escape me.
I see this blog that reviews and promotes the 18-minute film “Feeling Through” as a form of penance. Please watch the film (Marlee Matlin is one of executive producers) and then watch the 24-minute documentary “Connecting the Dots — The Story of Feeling Through.”
Doug Roland, the young writer-director, of the film cannot get enough praise for not only this project, but for doing what I did not do in real life — reaching out to a Deaf-Blind man and assisting him. This incident inspired Roland and is the source of the plot of “Feeling Through.” His Oscar nomination for Best Short Film is well deserved.
In addition to realizing that a Deaf-Blind man’s interaction with a young man in the middle of the night in New York City would be good fodder for a film, Roland was also smart enough to understand that he needed a Deaf-Blind actor to play the lead role.
Roland found his Deaf-Blind actor Robert Tarango working as a cook at the Helen Keller National Center. The documentary footage of Tarango’s first meeting with the filmmakers and later learning he got the part is so sweet, I get emotional just writing about it.
An adorable teddy-bear
Mr. Tarango is an adorable teddy-bear of a guy. His performance is grounded and authentic and, like my daughter, he does not ruin the illusion of being totally blind by using his residual eyesight that allows him in real life to see ASL and not rely on tactile signing.
Roland’s casting of the homeless young man was an excellent choice too. Steven Prescod delivers an emotionally powerful and heartwarming performance. I’m not going out on a limb in predicting Prescod is an actor that we’re going to be seeing a lot more of in the future and, hopefully, in feature films.
“Feeling Through” is a great short film — but not a perfect one — I have a problem with one significant moment in the story, when Prescod’s character takes the Deaf-Blind man into a bodega to buy a drink for him. Tarango’s character gives him his wallet and Presond’s character pays cash and keeps one of the bills for himself.
Perhaps Roland didn’t want the character to seem like a perfect angel but the visual and the fact that Prescod is a Black male makes me very uncomfortable with reinforcing the stereotype that the homeless and/or young Black men are criminals.
This is an unnecessary event that briefly took me out of the world of the film. Roland knows his film’s “hero” has to answer for this “sin” and at the end — after putting the Deaf-Blind man on a bus for home — Prescod’s character gives the bill to another homeless man.
The problem is he still stole money from a Deaf-Blind man!
Not cool. If I were rewriting Roland’s screenplay, I would suggest these options:
- Pay for the drink with the Deaf-Blind guy’s debit card, who writes a note telling the young man to get something for himself too.
- The young man finds a bill on the street and uses it to buy his new friend a drink rather than keep it for himself.
- The young man feels remorseful and slips the bill back into the Deaf-Blind guy’s pocket or backpack.
- The young man admits he stole the money and apologizes.
Despite this one glaring flaw, this is a film you must see. Please do, it will inspire you and guide you on how to approach and interact with Deaf, Blind, and Deaf-Blind people.
This post was previously published on Equality Includes You.
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Photo credit: Feeling Through