“Do you think that we could find a place that we can meet, not in silence and not in sound?”
James Leeds (William Hurt), a speech teacher, presents this question to Sarah Norman (Marlee Matlin), a deaf custodian, as they try to reconcile the differences between their worlds. While James demands Sarah to speak in the mainstream world, Sarah wants to represent herself with ASL– “her language”, as she says. After spending an entire relationship trying to force Sarah into English and “change [her] into a hearing person”, James finally accepts several important concepts.
Fast forward thirty years, and each of these ideas still ring true. That said, the way they should be addressed has radically changed. Children of a Lesser God was released in theatres before several advents that provided opportunities to Deaf and Hard of Hearing Individuals. Sarah is correct in defending her choice to stay in Deaf Culture and advocate for herself. James’s question, “How are you going to manage”, however, has lost some relevance, thanks to technological and legal advancements making contemporary choice possible.
In 1984, two years before the film was released, the controversial cochlear implant was approved by the United States’ Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use in adults. Only in 1990 would it be approved for children, along with the Americans with Disabilities Act, (ADA) which “prohibits discrimination and ensures equal opportunity for persons with disabilities in employment, State and local government services, public accommodations, commercial facilities, and transportation” and “[mandated] the establishment of TDD/telephone relay services”. The 1990’s also had the approval of the World Wide Web and the invention of text messages–visual forms of communication that dominate contemporary interactions.
Problems presented by Sarah’s losses would either be reduced or eliminated outright. One example is a scene where Sarah gets a phone call. To converse, Sarah must sign to James, who then voices “her answers” into the phone. She is dependent on him to represent what she thinks and feels. With the advent of TDD/TTY services, Sarah would be able to advocate for herself. Under the ADA, Sarah would be able to have greater opportunities for employment and bring an interpreter in hearing classes, should she want to attend college or leave custodial work. Self-advocacy in a mainstream world would be significantly increased with text messages and website interactions. If Sarah qualified for a cochlear implant, she could choose whether she wanted to hear or not.
When watching Children of a Lesser God, I wondered how Sarah would age with the ADA, TTY phones, text messaging, the Internet, and cochlear implants. What kind of career would she build for herself? Would she be active in the online basis for the Deaf community? Would she get a cochlear implant and prove James’s idea that “[She doesn’t] think being deaf is so great?” Or would she stay in the Deaf community and say, “I am proud to be Deaf through and through”? Watching this movie was especially important to me because of its questions about choice, and how much someone can change when presented with opportunities.
Sarah was not the only reason I thought about choice, however, while watching Children of a Lesser God. I also thought about choice when watching her sign, and remembering my ignorance of Deaf culture when I had hearing restoration surgery. With the information I was presented, tympanoplasties were my only choice. Having no eardrums meant that I could eventually be deaf from bone damage. Everyone I knew insisted that, if I became deaf, I would lose the ability to communicate, I’d have no friends, and there would be no reasonable future for me. Once I learned about Deaf culture, however, I wondered if I had made the right choice. In contrast to James’ accusation towards Sarah, I wondered if hearing restoration was really so great.
Though the surgeries restored my drums and guaranteed that I would never be deaf, I still could not hear enough to be “normal.” I found myself out of place at meetings for the hard of hearing because I wasn’t allowed to learn sign language, and I spoke like a “normal” person. At the same time, I do not easily fit into the hearing world because I have a hearing loss in the first place. I wonder if having surgery was worth forsaking a culture that could have accepted me without it. We scorn people for plastic surgery to fit into cultural standards of beauty. At what point do we scorn people for not having hearing restoration to stay within Deaf cultures? Where do we scorn people for having restoration, but falling short of “normal”?
With new questions about choice in the deaf and hard of hearing community, I think we need representation in a movie about 21st century options. While we are closer to a place that is “not in silence and not in sound”, thanks to the internet, the gap between the two is still wide. Whether or not we choose to bridge that gap is very personal. Sarah, within what she had, chose to stay in silence and not speak. I opted to leap from silence to sound, even if I stumbled on my landing. Regardless of what one chooses, however, making the decision is extremely painful. Children of a Lesser God best represents what happens when choices are limited, and what was available in the 1980’s. Thirty years and a whole world later, we have new choices and new pains with each one. Children of a Lesser God is still important to remind us of how far we have come in opportunity and choice, but we still need an equally merited film about the choices of the 2010’s.