Inclusive design for the deaf and hard of hearing in the media

Universal design is the intentional fabrication of the environment to allow it to be accessed by all people. This is not specific to the deaf or hard of hearing; it also includes senior citizens and people with disabilities. Universal design has eight major goals: body fit, comfort, awareness, understanding, wellness, social integration, personalization and cultural appropriateness. Essentially, it means to build a world in which everyone is included. Recently, at schools that are giving more equal opportunities to gain experiences, whether they be professional or personal, it is much easier for everyone to enjoy their environment when it is universally designed. As the physical environment is beginning to incorporate the concept of inclusive design, the media should follow its lead.

The movie industry, for instance, should not only strive to represent every community in a society, but also make films that are relatable and appealing to all audiences. Deaf and hard of hearing audiences, specifically, should be represented in movies in a way that expresses their real experiences, not the way they are viewed by others. Since most people who are hard of hearing speak sign language, also known as ASL (American Sign Language), it is pertinent that movies incorporate sign language and centralize it as a major form of communication. For example, in the movie “Hush” (2016), which is about a serial killer invading a deaf woman’s home, the main character is deaf and speaks sign language, but the movie cuts off the signs. This contradicts the representation of the deaf community because the film does not portray ASL as a major communicative tool to those who are hard of hearing. “A Quiet Place” (2018) centralizes sign language in its plot and portrays a common hardship faced by members of the deaf community through Regan Abbott’s experience with her deafness and hearing aids. While she struggles with her deafness in the beginning, she finds that the soundwaves from her hearing aids kill the predators that her family has been hiding from. Feeling insecure about being deaf or hard of hearing is common among people who are part of this community, so Regan’s experience in the film both inspires and represents these individuals.

In universally designing the media, it is important to make all movies accessible to everyone, specifically the deaf and hard of hearing. A main way to provide a relatively equal experience of a film is through subtitles, which are often confused with closed captions. While closed captions display dialogue on the screen, they fail to provide any context for a viewer who cannot hear. For example, if a song is playing before dialogue begins in a scene, closed captions will not display the name of the song, unlike Subtitles for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (SDH). According to Lily Bond, “SDH are subtitles in the source language of the video that also include important non-dialogue audio sound effects and speaker identification." If subtitles (SDH) already exist and are offered in some films, they should be expanded to all movies. Hearing people who prefer to watch with subtitles will still have them on the screen and the deaf and hard of hearing will have a better transcription of the film.

A popular obstacle for the deaf and hard of hearing is listening to music since it is almost all about sound, except for the lyrics. If one were to implement universal design in the music industry, it would be important to transcribe the lyrics of songs or have a way to communicate them to deaf or hard of hearing audiences. There are some artists who make efforts to do this. For instance, Chance the Rapper has an ASL interpreter at all of his performances who expresses his lyrics in ASL to the audience. In the last few days, Young Thug released a music video of his new song “Anybody” with Nicki Minaj, which is a video of various people signing the lyrics to the song out of respect for his brother, who is deaf. These artists should be widely respected for their efforts to make their work accessible to everyone, especially those who cannot or have difficulty hearing. It is a very trying barrier to overcome in the music industry, and they are exemplifying the concept of universal inclusion.


Keren Blaunstein is a weekly columnist for The Daily Campus.  She can be reached via email at keren.blaunstein@uconn.edu.