BYU Deaf community reacts to Oscar-winning ‘CODA’

(Andrea Zapata)

Members of the BYU Deaf community shared their thoughts on disabilities and how they related to — as well as felt frustrated by — Oscar Best Picture winner “CODA.”

The movie received the award at the 94th annual Academy Awards on March 27, making history by being the first film with a predominantly deaf cast to win.

“CODA” was also the first movie to screen at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City before winning the Oscar for best picture.

Directed by Sian Heder, the film tells the coming-of-age story of Ruby, a teen girl who has a passion for music and singing but also happens to be a “CODA” — a child of deaf adults.

The movie takes the audience through the journey of Ruby’s challenges of having to interpret for her deaf parents and brother, explaining her love for music to her family and feeling like an outsider of both the hearing and the Deaf world.

Although cast member and best supporting actor Oscar winner Troy Kotsur said “CODA” was dedicated to the Deaf community, some people had mixed feelings regarding the movie’s take on the Deaf world and experience.

BYU senior Emilynn Bleazard is a CODA, as both of her parents are deaf. She explained she wasn’t sure what to expect from the movie, as various people from the Deaf community had shared their thoughts and mixed feelings before she watched it for the first time.

Bleazard said as a CODA she related to the feeling of responsibility of needing to make sure her family was understood.

“Fortunately for me, my parents did not require me to interpret for them most of the time, and so I couldn’t relate to the main character’s challenges,” Bleazard said. “But I did relate to the responsibility for successful communication.”

Bleazard also pointed out her confusion about some scenes in the movie where Ruby interpreted for her parents in medical and legal settings.

“I think the movie does show the feeling of interpreting in a bit of a negative light, because it made it seem like the deaf family was a burden for the daughter, and generally it’s not like that,” Bleazard said. “It’s also not appropriate that children interpret in professional settings.”

BYU ASL program co-coordinator Cami Wilding is deaf and grew up in a family of 11 deaf members. She talked about how there has been a general spread of awareness in the last 20 years about not using children as interpreters in deaf families.

In an interview with USA Today, National Association of the Deaf CEO Howard A. Rosenblum said, “There are still many hearing children today who function as the family interpreter for their deaf parents. This should never happen in formal settings like a courtroom or a hospital where professional neutral interpreters are required.”

Bleazard and Wilding also agreed on how they felt “CODA” failed to represent the Deaf community in regard to music.

Bleazard said her mother lost her hearing when she was a teenager but was very involved in music until then, so she still has a great love for it.

Nonetheless, Wilding said the movie could have not possibly captured the full essence of what being deaf is like, as there is a wide range of experiences that may greatly differ from one another.

“Watching the movie was really touching, and although there were some parts when I just had to laugh and hope that people know that not all deaf families are like that, I think they did a good job at showing the overall dynamics because the experiences felt very real,” Wilding said.

What members of the BYU Deaf community want hearing people to know

“I have always felt like deaf people can do everything that hearing people can, except hear,” Bleazard said when asked about the challenges she observed in her family, and now in her deaf husband.

She said others sometimes seem surprised to learn deaf people are able to work regular jobs or drive and there needs to be more conversation with and about the community.

Bleazard, former president of the BYU ASL Club, now volunteers as a mentor for ASL students to help them understand the Deaf culture and learn the language better.

Bleazard and Wilding also talked about how communication during the COVID-19 pandemic got more challenging as it was hard for deaf people to lipread when everybody was wearing masks.

They said it felt like progress when people would agree to pulling down their own masks so deaf people could lipread.

“I think education is the key, and I hope that this movie helps people to wake up and realize that deaf people are human,” Wilding said. “Yes, the approach may be a little different, but if hearing people just had an open mind and remember that we all have different communications preference, they could ask what the best way to communicate with us is.”

Janelle Bullock, BYU ASL program co-coordinator along with Wilding, shared her experience entering the Deaf community as a hearing person and talked about what she learned from her interactions with them.

“It was during my college freshman year that I started taking ASL classes, and it was then that I realized I had to be assertive as a student,” Bullock said. “I had to put myself in the community, I had to meet deaf people and make friends. I had to learn from them their language because even though I was taking classes, you still need that interaction.”

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