June 23, 2024

CODA,” starring Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur, made history at the 2022 Oscars. The film, written and directed by Sian Heder, became the first featuring a predominantly deaf cast to win best picture. Kotsur’s best supporting actor win made him the first male deaf actor to win an Oscar and the second ever deaf actor to win — with Matlin being the first for her 1987 best actress win for her role in “Children of a Lesser God.”

Heder and Kostur were among the honorees at the National Association of the Deaf’s 2023 Breakthrough Awards. Hosted by Matlin and civil rights attorney Alexis Kashar, at the Audrey Irmas Pavilion on Wednesday night, the event celebrated trailblazers working to advance the Deaf and hard of hearing community in arts, media and technology. The other honorees included Tim Cook, Linda Bove, Howard Gordon, Christine Sun Kim, Chella Man, John Maucere and Lauren Ridloff.

Other attendees included “CODA” actor Daniel Durant and “Dancing with the Stars” professional Britt Stewart, among several others. Kashar was also given a surprise honor, the Entrepreneur Breakthrough Award, at the end of the night.

“This is the time where we can come together and … spread the message that we as a community who are deaf and hard of hearing, whether we’re actors or directors or writers, we’re here. We exist, and we want to collaborate with people in the entertainment industry,” Matlin said.

Reflecting on the strides Hollywood has taken to support the Deaf community, Matlin said: “I’ve seen incremental changes when it comes to hiring actors authentically. That means not just hiring hearing people to play deaf people, actually hiring actors who are deaf to play roles where they are written as deaf. I have seen some improvement, but I think we still have a long way to go.”

Kostur said he has seen doors open for deaf actors, with him having five projects in development and several of his deaf friends now working on feature film productions. He emphasized the importance of authenticity at the script stage when it comes to supporting deaf actors.

“Of course, there’s the politics of marketing and business strategy and A-listers learning sign language, but it’s never quite the same as having real authentic deaf actors on screen. The bottom line is we need more opportunities because all of these marginalized groups have stories to tell,” he said.

The next critical step, he says, would be for Hollywood to start utilizing a consulting team on projects that include American Sign Language or Deaf culture: “For example, if I have to improv, it’s not in the script. How are they going to know what I’m signing? So it’s great to have a deaf eye with the director behind the monitor in real time, and then they can add the improvisation into the script and do what the director asks.”

Reflecting on the success of “CODA,” Heder said she has not only seen changes in the industry — but also in the world at large. “My nine-year-old is in ASL club at school this year — that club never existed. I’m not going to say that ‘CODA’ did that. But I do think that ‘CODA’ was part of a wave of Deaf representation that started to ignite interest in Deaf culture and ASL.”

As a hearing person who told a story about Deaf culture, Heder said she stayed in a “state of learning” while making “CODA.”

“It’s not just enough to decide to cast a deaf actor. It’s about creating an environment where that deaf actor can work and feel comfortable and be included in all aspects of the filmmaking process,” she said.

While guests were served dinner, Matlin and Kashar presented the awards individually to the honorees. Deaf dancer Shaheem Sanchez also performed alongside Kayla Cornish during the ceremony.

Cook was the last of the slated honorees to be presented with his award, receiving the Access Breakthrough Award for Apple’s support for the Deaf community through technology, arts and media. In his speech, he emphasized the importance of accessibility: “The best technology should be for everyone.”

“We pledge to keep working every single day to help people everywhere chase their passions and achieve their dreams, to innovate inclusively, to expand possibilities, to keep imagining, advocating and collaborating with the Deaf and hard of hearing community to build a better future for all,” Cook said.

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