Deaf community celebrates CODA’s Oscar wins and message

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Published: Mar. 28, 2022 at 8:44 PM CDT
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (Dakota News Now) - As a deaf woman, Julie Luke was elated last night when she learned Troy Kotsur became the first deaf man to win an Oscar for acting.

But the outreach coordinator for the South Dakota School For The Deaf found out just how deeply moving it was for many others like her when she spoke with the mother of a 13-year-old she works with.

”The boy looked at her and said, ‘That means I can do whatever I want. I can be successful,’” Luke said. “And the mom said, ‘that is right.’ So, our deaf kids, through their eyes, they realize they can accomplish any goal they set their mind out to, regardless of their hearing status.”

Kotsur won the best supporting actor award for his portrayal of a deaf father struggling to keep his fishing business alive in “CODA,” which also took home the Oscar for Best Picture. An acronym for Children of Deaf Adults, “CODA” is known as the first major motion picture to bring deaf people and their lives to the forefront, as opposed to being bit characters.

The low-budget independent film was well-received by critics as a nuanced and accurate depiction of deaf life, and it stands to gain a major boost in views on AppleTV+ should it follow the trend of best picture nominations of the past decade.

The flick resonated with those in the deaf community of Sioux Falls that Dakota News Now reached on Monday. They are excited that many more people worldwide will get a glimpse into their world and its struggles.

The lead character, Ruby Rossi, is a high school senior who can hear, but whose parents and older brother are all deaf. Turns out, she is gifted at singing, a storyline that flourishes throughout the movie. The others in her house can’t hear her beautiful voice, something viewers who are not hard of hearing experience in a scene in which she sings at a concert.

All of a sudden, Ruby’s voice goes silent, and the viewer hears what her mom, dad, and brother hear — nothing. Their only clue of her immense talent is given in the warm reaction of smiles, tears, and applause of the audience members around them.

“I mean, that just touches our heart,” said Kim Wadsworth, the superintendent of the South Dakota School for the Deaf, which helps connect hearing-impaired children with resources and counseling to function and thrive.

“That just makes us think, ‘wow,’ what is this all about? This movie really gets people talking about it.”

CODA hit home for Larry Puthoff — a deaf dad of two hearing children (who are now 50 and 48). He enjoyed how the movie depicted the way the family communicated and exchanged ideas.

”It’s a challenge, yes, but it’s a wonderful experience,” said Putoff. “Children can communicate with me wonderfully. The more, the better. My children spoke at a very early age, but they learned how to sign before they could talk.”

Puthoff met Kotsur when the actor — who Puthoff called “a wonderful man” — was filming Wild Prairie Rose, a 2016 field that was both shot and took place in Beresford, S.D.

A lab assistant in Augustana’s sign language interpreting program, Puthoff also liked the different personalities of the deaf characters, which combats what he feels is a misperception hearing people have of the deaf population.

“A lot of people think one deaf person represents everyone in the deaf community,” Puthoff said. “We also have variety within our community, just like hearing people do.”

Carrie Culhane said she uses her “up front” personality — full of humor and candor — to overcome some of the obstacles of being marginalized as a deaf person, obstacles which are also shown several times in the movie when the deaf characters are ignored, ridiculed, or treated with scorn because of their disability.

“I am who I am, I make no concessions for any lack of hearing that I have,” Culhane said. “If you’re embarrassed by it, people will often pick up on it pretty quickly. You have to be able to live with it and see it as a strength.”

The 47-year-old human resources consultant and writer lost most of her hearing when she fell out of her father’s semi-truck at age 3. For three years, she “acted on” and got in trouble at school, and one doctor thought she was mentally retarded.

In first grade, her teacher figured Culhane might have had a hearing problem, and suggested Culhane take a hearing test. Others’ knowledge of her disability changed Culhane’s childhood for the better, but the difficulties of being hearing impaired and interacting with others never go away.

She said people will think she’s unintelligent, just because of her speech impediment. They’ll think she’s rude if they try to say something to her when she walks by and she doesn’t hear it. She also said she wonders how much her deafness has hurt her in job interviews.

”Sometimes, I think, for me, the speech deficit is just as off-putting to them than the hearing loss,” Culhane said. “You know, how is she going to present herself? How is she going to get the information out clearly? Will she miss anything?”

The Covid-19 pandemic made it even worse. A skilled lipreader, Culhane does not use an interpreter. This made things difficult when masks covered the mouths of those she would engage.

There was the time she notated on a flight ticket order she was deaf, but when the plane was boarding, she couldn’t hear her name being called over the airport’s intercom system, asking to her to check in to see if she needed any extra assistance.

“There is still so much more education to communicate what we need,” Culhane said. “It can lead to so many frustrations. People are frustrated with us, and I think that kind of goes into the marginalization of us — the disappointment. I know they are frustrated with me.”

To combat that, both in work and family life, Culhane informs as many new people she can about her deafness before they communicate, and uses humor as her favorite weapon.

And she says if you went back and offered her full hearing, she’d say ‘no.’

“Our intuition may be a lot higher than other people’s,” Culhane said. “Or, what we see is a lot higher than other people’s, because we put that effort and energy into another area of living. And so, you’re missing out.”

But Luke, a deaf woman who for a living helps bridge the gap between those who can hear and those who can’t, said the thing that can bring the worlds together is what they have in common, which is the resounding message of CODA.

”Be patient,” Luke said. “I’m human. I’m just like you. Let’s work together. Let’s form a relationship so we can make this work. We’re all part of the world. So, let’s get along. Let’s work together to be successful. Students I work with feel exactly the same.”

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