Sign Language and Deaf Culture in Books and Film
September 23 is International Day of Sign Languages and this week is International Week of Deaf People (September 20-26). These annual awareness dates are an opportunity to recognize the importance of sign language and to celebrate the unique linguistic identity and rich diversity of Deaf people and Deaf culture.
For this post, I have put together a selected list of books and films that feature sign language, Deaf people, and Deaf culture. It's not a complete list so if you have more recommendations please share them in the comments below.
Sign Language Facts
According to the World Federation of the Deaf, there are about 70 million Deaf people in the world. Sign language is the first language of many people who are Deaf. Sign language is also used by hearing and hard-of-hearing people.
Sign language is a visual and kinetic mode of communication. It uses hand shapes and movements, facial expressions, and body posture to convey meaning. Sign languages are complete and complex languages with their own grammar, syntax, slang, and regional dialects. It is estimated that there are about 200-300 different sign languages around the world.
Sign Languages of Canada include American Sign Language (ASL), Quebec Sign Language (LSQ), Oneida Sign Language (OSL), Plains Indian Sign Language (PISL, also known as Plains Sign Talk), Inuit Sign Language (IUR), and Maritime Sign Language (MSL).
If you'd like to learn the basics of American Sign Language (ASL), check out this great post by Myrna and Melanie: Learn American Sign Language (ASL) at Home.
ASL spelled out in American Sign Language fingerspelling. By Psiĥedelisto from Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain.
What is Deaf culture?
Sign language is an important element of Deaf culture. Deaf culture is the set of shared values, behaviours, histories, literary and artistic traditions, and, importantly, languages, of Deaf people and communities.
Just as there are many different and unique sign languages around the world, there is great diversity among Deaf people and within communities too. Deaf identity intersects with other kinds of cultural and social identities, such as race, gender, and sexual orientation.
A note about terminology. The word Deaf is written with a capital D when used to describe people who identify as culturally Deaf. This is known as “big D Deaf” in sign and speech. When used to describe the audiological condition of having little or no hearing, the word deaf is written with a lower case d. It may also be styled as D/deaf when used to refer to both Deaf people who identify with Deaf culture and deaf people who do not.
Fiction featuring sign language and Deaf characters
Show Me a Sign by Ann Clare LeZotte
ASL originated in the 19th century and was strongly influenced by other sign languages including Martha's Vineyard Sign Language (MVSL). The island of Martha's Vineyard was once home to a thriving Deaf community where, by the mid-19th century, one in every 25 people were Deaf, and nearly everyone was fluent in MSVL.
This is the setting for Deaf author Ann Clare LeZotte's historical children's novel, Show Me a Sign. It tells the story of Mary Lambert, a Deaf 11-year-old girl living in Martha's Vineyard, who is abducted by a scientist with the intent of discovering the origin of the island's widespread deafness. If you have already read and loved this book you'll be happy to know a standalone companion called Set Me Free is coming soon.
The Silent House by Nell Pattison
Even though English is the spoken language in both America and Britain, American Sign Language (ASL) and British Sign Language (BSL) are two completely different languages. This debut thriller is told from the perspective of a BSL interpreter who is called to the scene of a heinous crime: a toddler has been murdered and it seems someone in the family, all of whom are Deaf, is hiding something. First in a series by Nell Pattison, a teacher in the Deaf community who lives with a progressive hearing loss. Pattison was inspired to write this book because she felt the Deaf community was underrepresented in fiction
You're Welcome Universe by Whitney Gardner
Some Deaf people are fluent in ASL and have English as another language. As a result, they may express themselves in English using ASL idioms and sentence structure, seeming inarticulate to non-signers, but grammatically correct in their native ASL.
This is nicely conveyed in You're Welcome, Universe, a Young Adult novel about a Deaf teenager who is kicked out of her School for the Deaf and sent to a mainstream high school. This book portrays language on the page in many forms, including in American Sign Language (ASL), text messages, emojis, speech, and includes drawings too. Although the author is hearing, her book has been praised as an authentic portrayal of deafness.
Memoirs by Deaf people
Finding Zoe by Brandi Rarus
Deaf from the age of six due to spinal meningitis, Brandi Rarus grew up feeling caught between the Deaf and hearing worlds. As an adult, she came to embrace Deaf culture and was involved in the Deaf President Now movement at Gallaudet University in 1988, a student-led protest to name a Deaf person as president of the world's only university for Deaf and hard of hearing students. Rarus also raised a family, with three hearing sons and an adopted daughter, Zoe, who is Deaf. An uplifting memoir about being Deaf, Deaf culture and history, adoption, identity, and hope.
I'll Scream Later by Marlee Matlin
Actress Marlee Matlin was just 21 when she won the Academy Award for Best Actress in Children of a Lesser God. She was also the first, and still the only, Deaf performer to win an Oscar. Matlin has been a strong advocate for the rights of D/deaf people throughout her career in film and television. She has taken acting roles only if producers agreed to caption the films, fought for quality captioning in streaming movies and TV shows, and advocated for casting deaf actors in deaf roles.
This is a breezy memoir but delves into some heavy topics, including traumatic sexual abuse she experienced growing up, physical and emotional abuse she endured while involved with her Children of a Lesser God co-star William Hurt, drug addiction and rehab, the many highs and lows of Hollywood, as well as her advocacy for the rights of Deaf people.
Song Without Words by Gerald Shea
At the age of six, Gerald Shea contracted scarlet fever and became partially deaf. He grew up thinking everyone heard the way he did but that they could understand it and he couldn't. Over time, he learned to translate what he calls "lyricals" - the spoken words he hears as poetic riddles, instead of what people are saying - into conventional speech. It wasn't until a routine physical in his mid-30s, after graduating from law school and establishing a career in international law, that he discovered his deafness. An engaging, witty, and poignant memoir that anyone who loves language - English, French, sign language (what Shea calls The Language of Light) - may enjoy.
Voice by Adam Pottle
Saskatoon's Adam Pottle is a writer who was born deaf in both ears and whose deafness profoundly impacts his writing style and imagination. In this slim book, Pottle describes the isolation he has felt as a deaf person in a hearing world and writes about his experiences growing up practicing speech, using assistive listening devices that both connect and separate him from the hearing world, the influence of closed captioning on his poetry, learning ASL at an older age, and the development of his internal voice. A combination of memoir, writing advice, and narrative non-fiction, with plenty of salty passages, plus imaginary conversations with Motörhead frontman Lemmy Kilmister.
Deaf history and culture
Deaf Gain edited by H-Dirksen L. Bauman and Joseph J. Murray
Deaf Gain is a concept coined in opposition to "hearing loss." It challenges the commonly held assumption that Deaf people are somehow "missing" something and, instead, positions Deafness as a form of human diversity and an important gift, benefit, and contributor to society and culture.
This is a scholarly collection of essays by experts in a range of disciplines - neuroscience, linguistics, bioethics, history, cultural studies, education, public policy, art, and architecture - to advance the concept of Deaf Gain and challenge assumptions about what is normal.
Deaf Heritage in Canada by Clifton F. Cabin
Extensively researched history of the Deaf community in Canada, spanning from the establishment of residential schools for deaf children in the 1800s through to the legal and human rights struggles of the late 20th century. A project of the Canadian Cultural Society of the Deaf.
Inside Deaf Culture by Carol Padden
Written by authors who are themselves Deaf, this sequel to Deaf in America (Reference copy only) explores a range of topics in Deaf history, culture, education, and identity, resistance, and how "being or becoming deaf opens the door to an enormously rewarding life."
The Language of Light by Gerald Shea
An in-depth history of sign language and Deaf people by the author of the memoir Song Without Words: Discovering My Deafness Halfway Through Life. Explores the damaging history of oralists, hearing educators who insisted on teaching Deaf people in a language they could neither hear nor speak and argues for sign language education as a human right.
Seeing Voices by Oliver Sacks
The late neurologist and prolific writer Oliver Sacks delivers a thoughtful and informative journey into the subject of deafness, exploring topics ranging from sign language and neuroscience to the treatment of Deaf people and civil rights.
Movies and Documentaries
Audism is the belief that one is superior based on one's ability to hear, or a system of advantage based on hearing. This hour-long documentary uses real-life experiences of Deaf people to show the lasting damage and harm caused by audism.
Released in 1986, Children of a Lesser God nabbed 5 Academy Award nominations, and a Best Actress award for Marlee Matlin, still the only Deaf winner in Oscar history. Based on the hit Broadway play, it's the love story of an idealistic teacher (William Hurt) and a headstrong Deaf woman (Matlin) who both work at a School for the Deaf. The film has been criticized for telling the story from a hearing perspective and for a hearing audience - for example, Roger Ebert noted that all of Matlin's signed dialogue is repeated aloud by Hurt's character, and asked why the film was not captioned instead, which would have given the audience a deeper experience. I am including the film in this post because of Matlin’s ground-breaking performance and achievement.
A short National Film Board documentary that offers a look at a vibrant group of young Deaf artists in Quebec who have embraced their Deaf identity and are building Deaf culture and community through art and sign (langue des signes du Québec, or LSQ).
This horror movie hit has been generally embraced by the Deaf community thanks to the film's Deaf co-star, Millicent Simmonds, and the use of ASL. It's the story of a family living in a post-apocalyptic world where silence is the only way to survive mysterious and terrifying creatures that hunt by sound. We also have the sequel, A Quiet Place Part II, and a behind-the-scenes photo book, A Quiet Place: Making of a Silent World.
An oscar-winning short live-action film about a deaf four-year-old girl who lives in a world of silence until a social worker shows her how to communicate with sign language. The film's star, Maisie Sly, who was six at the time of filming, is herself deaf.
A two-hour documentary that explores 200 years of Deaf history in America. Includes interviews with prominent members of the Deaf community and incorporates short mini-docs produced by Deaf media artists and filmmakers.
Set in a Ukrainian boarding school for Deaf teenagers, this is an intense, critically-acclaimed crime drama about a student who is drawn into a world of crime, robbery, and prostitution. The film is told entirely in Ukrainian Sign Language (USL) with no subtitles and features a cast of Deaf non-professionals.
For information about accessibility at Toronto Public Library, including how to request sign language interpretation for library programs, please visit tpl.ca/accessibility.
Edited September 2022 to remove the Stories in Sign Collection. Streaming videos are no longer available through OverDrive as of September 1, 2022. This includes the Stories in Sign collection.