Hot Docs Review/Interview – Only I Can Hear – April 29 to May 9, 2021
Only I Can Hear is a wonderful documentary that represents a lesser-known aspect of Deaf culture – CODAs. A CODA is a Child Of Deaf Adults.
Here is the synopsis of the film:
Nyla wants to be Deaf. But as she turns 15, she finds herself inextricably pulled towards the hearing world, and away from her beloved Deaf community. Meanwhile, Jessica, a wry 16-year old, just wants to be “normal”, and 14-year old Mackenzie feels trapped in a “double life.”
For these young CODA, a unique summer camp offers a chance to explore their identity, under the gentle guidance of their mentors—the first-wave of self-identifying CODA.
Ashley, a role model for the girls, is happy to help them grow into their identities. But when she becomes pregnant, she confronts doubts of her own. What if her son is hearing? Could the Deaf lineage, and her profound connection to that world, end with him?
Part 1 – Growing Up Fast
A CODA typically grows up very quickly. It is readily apparent that our society was not created with Deaf folks in mind, and it is only during current times that more attention is being given to accessibility and inclusion of all members of our society, regardless of their abilities.
Deaf people have faced a long-standing history of institutionalization and abuse by hearing counterparts. This goes some way in explaining why we capitalize Deaf when speaking about those in Deaf culture. It also goes some way to explaining why many Deaf parents may prefer to have Deaf children – it is a way to ensure the continuation of a culture that has survived unbelievable trauma – and furthermore, it is a way to ensure that one will always be able to relate to the experiences of his/her child (at least in the not hearing sense).
CODAs, therefore, are placed in the middle of both worlds and cannot really choose one or the other. The director of Only I Can Hear, Itaru Matsui, stated that, “there are many CODAs who are longing to be Deaf, like Nyla. I’ve learned that this kind of desire is not something special among CODA.” He clarified by saying that while there are better job opportunities in the hearing world, a desire to be close with one’s Deaf family could never be ignored.
Expectations of interpreting are placed on CODAs at a young age – they answer the phone when it rings (if not a TTY), they answer the door and speak with the postal worker, they provide directions to lost passersby, they provide orders at restaurants, they help negotiate sales, they go to the bank with their parents and perhaps learn about financial woes before the rest of us get our first credit card. In other words, they “adult” before adulting is even a verb. The weight and expectation placed on a CODA to help make sense of the world for their Deaf parents is stifling at the best of times, and isolating at the worst of times.
Part 2 – Right to Inclusive Communication
Itaru became immersed in the world of CODAs when he first experienced a Japanese play that was conveyed in American Sign Language, and which was about the experiences of Deaf people during the Japanese tsunami disaster of 2011 which resulted in nearly 20,000 deaths.
As Itaru told me, “I learned about Deaf people who died by tsunami when I was covering [the] Tohoku earthquake. There was a case of Deaf parents who were saved because a CODA who lived nearby came to save them; however, there was a case [where a] CODA [who] lived away from her parents and couldn’t save her Deaf parents. [CODAs who lost their parent(s) were still devastated and confused.] Five years had passed since the disaster at the time of the interview, but they were still full of regret, thinking [about] what they should have done. They feel that they couldn’t completely understand their parents. Is this the burden that only children have to bear? There is not enough social consideration for Deaf people in Japan.”
A key question asked in the film is whether governments ought to be responsible for alerting Deaf people of impending disasters so that they can best prepare to survive them.
Subject/co-producer/CODA Ashley Ryan indicated that governments should use an approach rooted in inclusive design to provide emergency information to all citizens, not just Deaf citizens. For example, an emergency bulletin that goes out using speech, sign language, and closed captioning (along with print materials in Braille, perhaps as well as materials posted online) would be a way to inform many people about what is going on. Hopefully using inclusive communication would help prevent scenarios where a Deaf person is unaware of an impending crisis.
I confided to the filmmakers that the reason I, a deaf-blind individual, moved back to my hometown of Kingston from Toronto was because I was overwhelmed by information and misinformation about COVID-19.
The implementation of inclusive communication would lessen the burden on CODAs and perhaps help them feel that their Deaf parents can live more independently – the world would become more accessible for them to navigate on their own.
Part 3 – You Are Not Alone
An important message conveyed in the documentary is that despite the isolating nature of being a CODA, one is never alone. There are other CODAs, and when one finds another, there is an immediate sense of community and camaraderie, as one is able to relate to the experiences the other has had in growing up too quickly.
The majority of the documentary features the joy of CODAs finding community by attending Camp CODA, a two-week summer camp designed to provide a reprieve for CODAs aged 8 to 17. Ashley stated that she was a gatekeeper for Itaru and his other crew: she helped them gain access to the world of CODAs in order for him to film them and tell their story.
Itaru is not a native English speaker, so had some difficulty in communicating with his subjects, yet his passion for the project inspired him to keep going. In the Zoom chat we had, Itaru explained how his artistic process changed from that of attempting to control the process to taking more of a backseat and letting the story be told by his subjects. Itaru said, quite movingly, that, “It is an act of violence if you pretend that you understand when you don’t really understand.” – and this has stuck with me. It is clear that Itaru, by working with others such as Ashley, has taken great care to understand and depict his subjects sensitively.
Itaru, co-producer Mayu Hirano (Nakayama), and Ashley all indicated their desire to ensure that this film reaches the biggest audience possible so as to educate everyone, including isolated CODAs (that may not know there is a term for their own experiences), about the CODA community. They are taking great efforts to ensure the accessibility of this film for all audiences, and I am honoured to have met them all.
Being a CODA means that one is in between worlds. Many queer folks feel this way too – do we ‘buy’ into straight culture and norms to make things easier for us while diminishing our special bonds that we have as members of the LGBTQ community?
CODAs are presented with a world that has a limited number of options for Deaf folks, and this is a world that encourages CODAs to leave the nest and not look back. This is in part due to cultural differences between hearing and Deaf people, as well as the lack of opportunities for Deaf people to find success in a hearing world.
However, it is due to the inner strength and resiliency that CODAs find within themselves (as well as the strong bonds they and their families share) that CODAs continue to be a source of support for their loved ones. Please definitely check this documentary out!
More info and tickets here.
About the Author
Michael McNeely law student graduate, entertainment and accessibility critic; filmmaker; and aspiring actor. He enjoys meaningful representations of LGBT folks and those with disabilities in the popular media, and is waiting for the day where nuance, instead of stereotype and prejudice, is the norm. Michael is deaf-blind, meaning that he enjoys the presence of subtitles and other accessibility features.