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May 31, 2022

SCA Disability Rights Organization Launches with Oscar-winning Film

It was definitely one of the most auspicious launches a student organization has ever had at USC. On April 20th the SCA Disability Caucus hosted a screening of CODA, the reigning Academy Award winner in the Best Picture category about high-schooler Ruby Rossi (played by Emilia Jones), who is the child of a deaf adult (CODA) and is struggling to separate from her family in which she is the only hearing person. It was also the launch of the SCA Student Crip Club, a student-led organization focused on disability issues. Following the screening, writer/director Sian Heder was joined on a panel by three of the film’s four lead actors: Marlee Matlin, who plays mom Jackie; Daniel Durant (brother, Leo)  and Troy Kotsur, who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar in March for his portrayal of father, Frank Rossi. 

The SCA Disability Caucus and SCA Student Crip Club were developed by School of Cinematic Arts (SCA) graduate students, Howard Emanuel and Slava Greenberg, a post-doctorate teaching fellow at the School. They proposed the student group under the auspices of the SCA Council for Diversity & Inclusion, but it will be open to all students across the university. The Student Crip Club, which is open to everyone, is the only student-led organization focused on disability issues, and will work to make USC more accessible and accommodating for community members who are living with apparent and non-apparent disabilities. High on the agenda is an effort to create an online resource guide that will consolidate information about disability services across campus. Plans also include a proposal of a “quiet room” in one of SCA’s buildings that will also serve as a tiny disability library. And, of course, additional screenings and panel events to engage and educate the university community about disability issues.

The CODA screening and panel discussion were a great indication of welcome changes to come, with closed captioning, sign language interpreters, and even the audience signing applause. The panelists talked about the film and its success, but also their careers, especially the battles they have fought to gain greater opportunities for actors who are deaf or have other disabilities.

After a studio struggle that was stereotypically focused on casting big stars that would ensure the bottom line, Heder ended up having to make the movie as a financially scaled-down, independent project, so that she would hire actors who were really deaf, and be able to focus on making the ASL as authentic as possible. “Obviously I had written the script in English but I knew 50% of the dialogue would be in ASL,” said Heder. “English and ASL are completely different languages…and it was really a process to figure out how my intention as the writer would live within ASL, not only within the language but within deaf culture as well.” Heder worked with actor, director, and educator Alexandra Wailes to translate the script. Wailes and Anne Tomasetti then worked as ASL masters on the set, helping the actors and crew to communicate, for example allowing the actors freedom to ad-lib the way actors regularly do. As Kotsur pointed out to laughs from the audience, they needed people who knew the difference between him flailing his arms around, and actually signing. “It was important to have deaf eyes behind the camera to help out and I had more freedom as an actor to truly express myself creatively.”

Like hearing actors may learn a different language for a role, the deaf actors also had to learn how to sign as their characters would. “I had to develop a character who doesn’t sign like me,” said Matlin, who plays the mother, Jackie. “People might think ‘Oh you’re deaf and you can sign so you know what it’s all about but that’s not necessarily the case. It’s a whole different ballgame.”

Heder said the language preparation was important to the film’s success. “Obviously, Troy and Daniel and Marlee have their own ideas about the signs they want to use when they read the script,” she told the audience. “And then we wanted to all work on having this family sign like a family as well and regionally like the area they were in because there are signs that were specific to the Boston area.”
The film also served as a vehicle for three of the best deaf actors working today to collaborate. Matlin won an Academy Award for Best Actress for the film Children of a Lesser God (1986). Kotsur and Durant are acclaimed stage actors, celebrated for their work in deaf productions including with the acclaimed Deaf West Theatres, which has put up Tony-nominated productions. Durant said it was a dream to work with two of the most celebrated deaf actors: “I’ve looked up to them first since I was a kid,” he said of Matlin and Kotsur. “I have huge respect for them and they are the ones who have been fighting in Hollywood longer than me, and it’s a huge honor to work with both of them.” He said he discussed the entertainment industry a lot, particularly the limitations it tries to place on actors with disabilities. “They have shared with me how Hollywood work and they have given me so much advice and how to overcome these obstacles.” 

While the atmosphere at the event was celebratory, the consensus in the room was that there is still a lot more work to be done, at SCA and in the industry. Heder and the cast members pointed out that during Awards season, where CODA was being feted at every event, there were frequently no interpreters scheduled, or even live captioning planned. Heder described it as being invited to a party that they couldn’t participate in. “I’ve been fighting the fight for 35 years.,” said Matlin. “However, the fight for my community in terms of representation, equality, accessibility, inclusion, and diversity continues. Regardless of what CODA has done. Regardless of the attention we’ve gotten, it hasn’t stopped.” She added that the film’s success has helped the fight progress. “I think the door has opened much more as a result. It’s opened ears, it’s opened eyes and discussions have begun.”

The SCA Disability Caucus and SCA Crip Club will meet again in the Fall 2022 semester. For more information, or to participate, look out for emails from the SCA Council for Diversity & Inclusion. Or contact diversity@cinema.usc.edu.