I find most movies about hearing loss and deafness disappointing—Sound of Metal is a perfect example—because they contain inaccuracies or they portray the Deaf experience as representative of all people with hearing loss. Our documentary We Hear You tries to offset this trend by focusing specifically on the hearing loss experience.
But CODA, the new movie on Apple TV+, was a pleasant surprise, albeit with a few missed opportunities. Plus it was open-captioned, which means the captions are burned directly onto the film and cannot be turned off. Open captioning is a rare, but welcome move towards making the movie accessible to all audiences.
The title of the film, CODA, stands for child of deaf adult and is typically used to describe a hearing person whose parent(s) are Deaf. I found the plot engaging and its portrayal of the communication challenges that Deaf families face in the hearing world to be eye-opening. It is a very specific story, yet it is also a universal one mirroring the myriad sacrifices that we all make for those that we love.
Where are the Accommodations?
The movie centers around a Deaf family living in Gloucester Massachusetts. In many ways they are a typical family. They cope with sibling rivalry, embarrassing parents, love and tension. But in other ways they are not, because three of the four are Deaf and communicate only with sign language. Ruby, the youngest child is hearing (the CODA) and serves as the family’s liaison to the hearing world. The burden she faces is unfair, but the family’s circumstances have seemingly left her no other choice.
As the movie shows, CODAs must often interpret for their parents in business dealings, at the doctor and during legal proceedings. This should not be the case. The law requires that accommodations be provided in many of these situations, but the unfortunate reality is that family members must often step in to fill communication gaps.
Ruby’s family does not ask for accommodations in these settings. And the doctors, lawyers and other town professionals don’t offer to provide them. Why not? This is a missed opportunity for the film to educate the public about accommodations like CART (communication access realtime translation) and sign language interpreters that could have eased communication for both sides.
Interesting Insights into the Deaf Experience
The film does a good job showing the isolation that comes with communication differences. One scene depicts Ruby’s Deaf older brother Leo attempting to join his fellow fisherman for a drink at a bar after work. You can feel his increasing panic and unease as he fails to keep up with the rapid fire conversation. Neither side makes an attempt to bridge the gap, making it almost impossible for Leo to find the camaraderie that he seeks.
A second scene takes place at Ruby’s music concert where she performs a well-received duet. The crowd loves it—you can tell by the excited looks on the audience members faces as they sway to the catchy tune. As the film soundtrack fades to quiet, Ruby’s family looks around with interest, yet without understanding at the crowd’s enjoyment. Disconnected from the experience, it is hard for them to appreciate Ruby’s love and talent for music.
Communication is a Team Sport
Whether Deaf, hard of hearing, or hearing, communication is a two-way street. All participants must put in effort to enhance understanding. While most accommodations must be made by our hearing partners, we must take responsibility as well, by self-identifying as a person with hearing difficulties and asking for the assistance we need.
Sometimes communication breaks down and we must rely on those closest to us to step in for assistance. Like at a store, when someone asks me a question from behind a mask and my daughter must repeat the question for me. Or at a tele-health appointment when captions are not available and my speech-to-text app is missing some of the dialogue and my son must repeat what is said.
Sometimes I feel guilty for leaning on them in this way. It feels unfair to thrust them into adult situations that may not be appropriate for them. I use this only as a last resort—utilizing technology and my own self-advocacy skills before leaning on them. I wish I had seen Ruby’s parents make more of an effort to do the same.
CODA is available for viewing on Apple TV+. If you are not a subscriber, a free 7-day trial is available.
Readers, did you enjoy the movie?