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My Life as a CODA: Someone Made a Movie About It

The Sundance-winning film CODA, streaming on Apple TV, hit close to home. My hope is that more movies will be made depicting the richness of deaf and CODA culture

This blog originally posted on my Medium blog. Follow me here.

When I first heard there was a coming-of-age movie about Children of Deaf Adults, and that it had won acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival, I couldn’t wait to see it. The streaming experience would not do. So my wife, Jennifer, and I decided to drive one hour to Santa Fe to see CODA on the silver screen in a real theater. It lived up to its promise to be a tearjerker—many reviews called it the “feel-good movie of the summer”—yet because I lived the CODA experience, as a child of deaf adults during a time when technology was not available to support deaf-and-hearing families like mine, it hit close to home.

CODA, offered on Apple TV streaming, centers on Ruby, the only hearing member of a deaf family in Gloucester, Massachusetts, who has served as an unofficial family interpreter all her life. Seventeen-year-old Ruby starts her day at the crack of dawn working on the family fishing boat before school, where she often sings as she works, though no one in her family can hear her. But when she joins her high school choir club, she discovers a passion for singing (and her singing partner) and a mentor who believes in her. Oscar winner Marlee Matlin, a deaf actress, plays her mother. Troy Kotsur plays her father, and Daniel Durant plays her brother. Both actors also are deaf.

As a CODA, my eagerness to view this movie was because I’ve long hoped to spark conversations between deaf, CODA and hearing communities about connection. That’s partly why I wrote my memoir, “Between Two Worlds: My Life As a Child of Deaf Adults.” This movie presented that possibility, and so we headed up the road.

In an interview in Variety magazine, director Sian Heder, a hearing person, acknowledges that she was approaching Deaf culture as an outsider. One thing she wanted people to understand was that understanding Deaf culture is more than just learning American Sign Language. Absolutely! American Sign Language is what binds the Deaf with the culture. Even as she made the movie, she had to advocate for a scene where she cuts to silence, one of the most touching scenes in the movie. In that scene, Ruby is belting out a soulful “You’re All I Need to Get By.” Her parents and brother in the audience cannot hear the gorgeous sound of her voice or capture the lyrics to the song by lip reading. They are forced to scan the audience for clues, taking in the response through others. A woman cries into a tissue, and some clap to the beat. We are immersed in their silence, experiencing their world. It’s palpable. It’s a poignant moment, because no matter how much they love their daughter, they will never know the full emotional experience of what happened in that room that day. Heder, who is a writer on the Emmy-winning Netflix series, “Orange is the New Black,” had to fight for that scene. She had to convince the sound producers that silence speaks volumes.

As the eldest hearing person in my family, I inherited the responsibility of interpreting. My place was not a New England fishing village but deaf sports clubs in Los Angeles, where my father played. Every Thursday evening my family jumped in the car and drove from Fullerton, California, to be with other deaf athletes. A cluster of CODA children would gather in a room with a chaperone while the deaf adults mingled with each other and caught up on community gossip. While they signed, we talked. We did what kids do—we played games and roughhoused. But what was different was that we were the outsiders on the edges of a culture, not the other way around, as most Deaf people often find themselves. The experience may have been my first understanding of something I didn’t yet have words for—Deaf culture was a world of its own. All I knew was that it seemed like my father thrived when we were there. Deaf clubs at the time were a big part of the Deaf culture. Understand that there were no telephones, TTYs or relay services at the time. This gathering was the way for the Deaf world to socialize and communicate together, on their own terms.

The deaf athletic clubs that thrived during the 1950s and 1960s were popular and well-organized, but they depended on the one “technology” that was readily available at the time: All those hearing CODA children gathered in the chaperoned room. Today we’re so used to scenarios where, if you need an interpreter for an event, you call an agency. Then, we were the ones who were called. When it was game time and there was a prayer that needed to be interpreted I was there. I was a bit anxious because I was a small fry with limited signs. When the prayer was spoken, the Deaf team huddled together with me in the center. It was a bit scary looking up and knowing the team depended on me to understand what was being spoken. They knew I was anxious so they would smile and through facial gestures indicate, it is all right, do the best you can.

It would have been rare to find a community interpreter then, and as we see in the CODA movie, Ruby has to step in and interpret when the fishing board sets out new rules, and her family is at risk of being taken advantage of because they are deaf and cannot capture all the details of a new, prohibitive tax that’s being assessed on the fishermen—one that could put her family out of business. Similar to the movie, when I was growing up, if there were interpreters available, they were only to be found in education. At that time very few interpreters were certified or licensed to interpret. If you as deaf person needed to go to the doctor, you the deaf person would bring along the portable interpreter—your hearing child. It was humiliating and inappropriate—hey someone needed to do it—even if the wrong sign was used. Nowadays, every state requires a certification or licensure to interpret in some capacity. There are laws that require businesses or federal agencies to use a licensed interpreter for events.

As the oldest of five hearing children, the “responsibility” for interpreting was laid upon me until I left home at the age of fourteen. Luckily, my sister was next in line. She and my sisters and other CODAs took on this responsibility as we would any household chore such as washing the dishes, taking out the trash or mowing the lawn.

My father carried a small pocket-sized spiral notebook in his left pocket of his shirt. This was convenient for him to communicate with a hearing person. However, when we went out into the community, and my parents needed to communicate with a hearing individual either my sister or I would interpret. I made many exceptions to this. When my father wanted to talk to the hearing person I would look earnestly to his left pocket to sign to him, Use the pad!

That’s only a small sampling of what it was like growing up in a deaf family. As CODAs, we learned nuances of the culture such as: understanding the politics of the deaf; debates about ASL vs. oral and what best fosters literacy in the deaf; exposure to deaf art, poetry, humor and film. As CODAs, we were part of the culture simply because we were the ones sent to the neighbor’s house to use the phone and we were the last kids to get a radio.

Watching CODA, I could identify with each character, either personally or what I have learned from others over the years. The father character reminded me of a close family friend, also known for his raw expression, with graphic sign language and gestures that described sex in all its glory. I appreciated the undercurrents in the scene where the father discusses Ruby and her beau, making her beau a bit uncomfortable. In another scene, Ruby tells her mother she is going to college. Her mother’s response was, “What? Why?” All to imply how ridiculous a notion that is and that she was needed at home to continue her role as the family interpreter and to help with the family business as a worker and interpreter. Some movie reviewers found the mother’s response “narcissistic.” I saw this in my family and the families of a couple of my CODA friends. It was not narcissism but a lack of knowledge about education. Not once did my parents ask or say anything about college.

Ruby’s brother may have been my favorite character. He was the only family member who supported Ruby’s desire to attend college. He knew Ruby deserved another life than just being their parent’s personal interpreter. He tells Ruby that he and his father can manage the business without her (in fact, he and his father lead a movement to form a co-operative to avoid the stringent new taxes on the fishermen).

As a CODA, I could feel Ruby’s internal struggle about leaving the family, about balancing her concern for their survival without her against her passion for singing. Deaf parents and music just do not equate—that is a hearing thing. I know this part was Hollywood and that it did not matter that I bawled at this scene putting myself in the scene and wishing my parents could have heard me sign the song.

I understand that CODA was narrow in scope focusing on the interpreting aspect of one teen CODA’s relationship with her parents and choices for her future as she comes of age. Much of it glossed over CODA culture, which is a vital part of the deaf culture. For example when Jackie asked Ruby to interpret and Ruby told her mom no use the Video Phone, barely a mention. Also, the family seemed isolated from not having Deaf friends or attending the Deaf club. CODAs have their own culture that many times are overlooked and not much credit given. Back in the 1950s and 1960s there was no such thing as a CODA; yet that is now what someone like me is called. The warm reception I receive from being a CODA allows me to be part of another culture and to be accepted. One could say that a CODA is more inclined to be Deaf culture, being born and raised within the deaf family as opposed to being deaf and raised in a hearing family in which the deaf individual has to learn to be enculturated into the culture of the deaf.

It’s movies like this that can help us reimagine a future where deaf are not marginalized. The movie left me wanting more movies like this that depict the deaf, CODAs and their rich culture.

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