The 90th Oscar awards ceremony was witness to something extraordinary, this past Sunday. Probably for the first time ever, an acceptance speech was delivered in sign language. It happened when actor Rachel Shenton took the stage, having won an Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film, with her film “The Silent Child”. She said she was keeping her promise to the film’s 6-year-old protagonist, Maisie Sly, who is hearing-impaired.
Rachel Shenton and Chris Overton – nominated for an Oscar for The Silent Child – arrive with the film’s star, six-year-old Maisie Sly pic.twitter.com/vheAH1vEbn
— BBC Entertainment (@BBCNewsEnts) March 4, 2018
Many from the deaf community responded with joy online, saying how much the representation mattered to them. After all, the Oscar stage is broadcast worldwide, and last year it was viewed by 39.2 million people!
In North America and Western Europe seeing people with disabilities (PWDs) on screen today is as rare as seeing people of colour and queer characters on TV 20 years ago. Shenton’s gesture no doubt made the impact it intended to. It was an open reminder to a hall full of people who work in film that hearing-impaired people exist, and it is media’s responsibility to represent them with respect, sensitivity, and creativity.
Have we had something like on home turf? Not exactly but close. The movie “Black” was an important moment in Indian cinema. It centred the narrative of a woman with disabilities, and Rani Mukherjee’s performance as Michelle McNally gave us a small (if dramatised) glimpse at what being life without sight, sound, and speech is like. Despite its wild success at the box office, and its transformational potential, little changed for Indians with seeing and hearing disabilities. In fact, we haven’t even seen another film like it since, leave alone any sign language in our awards shows.
The roughly 80 million PWDs in India deserve to be represented in the media they consume, as well as have media in formats that can be consumed by them. Why? Because media has the power to build empathy, and empathy brings forth gestures of support, which in turn can build real-world policies that protect and promote the rights and well-being of marginalised sections of society. Isn’t that what we should all be working towards?