The Unheard of in Fantasy: Advocacy for the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing in fantasy and science-fiction
Imagine that you are a huge fantasy or science-fiction fan. You’ve watched every Game of Thrones episode. You own all of the merchandise. You’ve seen the “Lord of the Rings” and “Star Wars” trilogies so often your friends never need to ask what gifts you want for the holidays. Even your cat is named ‘Aragorn’.
Now picture the next big movie you’re excited about is announced. You watch all the actor interviews, cling to every spoiler and hint dropped by the studios, and the week before the premier you have your head shaved to carve your favorite clan symbol into your left temple.
Except when the movie comes out, you can’t watch it. It’s in a foreign language and the only way for you to enjoy it is with a small glass device attached to your chair that keeps slipping. You can watch the words or the action, but not both. At the end of the film all of your friends are going on and on about the wonderful fight scene with the main heroes but all you saw was your subtitles dropping away when someone bumped your chair going to the bathroom and you scrambled to put it back.
Oh sure, you could wait for it to come out dubbed in English, but you’ll have to wait for an entire week. A week of all of your friends ruining the best scenes because they’ve seen it already. Or avoiding all social media and TV because you don’t want to stumble on any spoilers. And when it does come out, you’ve scene all the best scenes already because it’s all people put on your fan sites since opening night.
Now imagine you’re Deaf.
There are two kinds of deafness in the United States: ‘small-d’ deafness and ‘large-D’. ‘Small-d’ deafness is the result of hearing loss. Advancing age, congenital hearing loss, or just too many rock concerts can all cause hearing loss.
Big-Deafness is a culture and history within the United States that communicates with American Sign Language, cherishes Deaf History, and fights for equal access to things like captioning for new movies. Deaf, Hard-of-Hearing, and Children of Deaf Adults can all identify with the Deaf Community, and several more like this author work or live with them as friends or colleagues.
With advances in technology, cellphones and texting have vastly improved the access Deaf people have to everyday conveniences like calling the cable installer or booking a restaurant. FaceTime and video relay enable them to call anywhere and anytime for taxicabs or doctors’ appointments. There is so much access in fact, that places where they cannot have access have become the glaring exception.
Deaf people buy manga and watch drone races. They buy Millennium Falcon replicas and write Elvish. They roll dice, draw orcs, dream about dragons and buy fantasy novels just the same as every other fan of the genre. The only thing they can’t do is hear.
In cultures defined by their ability to supersede reality, shouldn’t all Fantasy and Science-Fiction be accessible? Shouldn’t conventions be close-captioned and panelists interpreted? Can’t more movies or television series use American Sign Language for their characters like The Dragon Prince show does with their Deaf General Amaya on Netflix? Productions that include Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing actors, even as extras, are still woefully small. Do you really need to hear to dress like a zombie and eat people? Or add shadows to an alien monster’s CGI graphics?
A person’s gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity or social class are not the only obstacles preventing brilliant and invested fans from reaching their ideal careers or childhood heroes. Let all people be Writers. Let them be Artists.
Let them be Dreamers.
Biography: TJ Kahn is an American Sign Language interpreter and retired hospital chaplain living in the San Francisco East Bay. A sci-fi/fantasy enthusiast and a devoted dog parent, he stays active supporting Podcasts and various artists, hoping to become a professional game designer himself someday.
Follow him on Twitter as Theopedes.