Summer Shorts: My Deaf Family

04-Jun-10 11:00 AM by
Filed under Television; 1 comment.

Confession: I follow Sesame Street on Twitter. That may not seem an appropriate pastime for a thirtysomething, but it's hard to resist such clever witticisms as espoused by Cookie Monster: "Me tried fat-free, sugar-free, gluten-free cookie today. Or, as me like to call it: crime against humanity." Big Bird: "There are lots of birds that can’t fly: turkeys, ostriches, penguins, Larry…" and Grover: "It is Frank Oz's birthday. I do not know who he is, but I will try to find out. Wait, what do you mean, there is no 'try'?"

It was in these wanderings that I came across a video of Billy Joel singing to Oscar the Grouch. His song was signed by a woman who looked familiar. Some brief research revealed her to be Marlee Matlin, a deaf actress who has been performing on stage, film, and television since her Hollywood debut in 1986. She was even the star (though a passive one) of a film in my own DVD library, What the Bleep Do We Know?.

After appearing on shows from West Wing to Desperate Housewives to Dancing with the Stars, Ms. Matlin recently struck out on her own by hosting and financing a reality series called My Deaf Family. The only deaf person in her family, Ms. Matlin wanted to bring attention to the lives and obstacles of members of the deaf community and their loved ones. When no network picked up the series, she uploaded the pilot to YouTube:

Although I don't know if this pilot could be extended into a full series, the questions and dilemmas raised by this short segment are substantial. All parents wants what's best for their children, but it's not always clear what that is. For two deaf parents to raise a hearing child can be exceptionally difficult. As Jared indicates in the above video, there are some things Jared can't talk to his parents about, and he had trouble learning how to pronounce words without his parents to teach him. Children in his scenario often have a lisp or other speech impediment, at least until they are mainstreamed into a school where they have teachers and peers. Whatever issues Jared has faced, few of them are likely to arise with his siblings who share their parents' abilities.

That raises a significant question: is deafness a disability, or an identity? Are there moral ramifications to two deaf parents wanting a child who is deaf? We want our children to be strong — but should we want them to have to be strong? The 2005 holiday film The Family Stone has a horrendously awkward scene in which someone asks the mother of a gay man, "You didn't actually hope for a gay son, did you? I mean, life is hard enough when you're normal…" Although this quotation has good intentions, the implication is that there is some physical and emotional "status quo" to which we should be born, and anyone who doesn't fit this archetype is somehow impaired. That's complete hogwash, of course; otherwise we'd see nothing distasteful in the genetically sequenced dystopia that is Gattaca, in which Stephen Hawking would never have existed — or, if he had but with no motivation to develop his mind over his body, might have pursued a fabulous career in the NBA. If deafness and other conditions are limits, they are limits that can be overcome.

Having written this post, I realize that I do want to see more in Ms. Matlin's series, though perhaps with a broader scope. I don't want a Chicken Soup for the Soul television series, but a closer look at the lives and hurdles of people with various mental and physical challenges could prove not only inspiring, but also enlightening. Consider it an adult vehicle for the love and acceptance we were taught to practice as children by Sesame Street.

Is there a network brave enough to pick it up?

(Hat tip to AOL)