‘Through Deaf Eyes’

Jan 13, 2008  •  Post A Comment

When yet another hearing president was appointed to lead Gallaudet University in 1988—after more than a century of hearing presidents—the students at the college for the deaf revolted.
Building on the foundations of the civil rights movement, Gallaudet faculty, staff and alumni joined the protest, winning public support and the subsequent appointment of Dr. I. King Jordan, the first deaf president at the Washington, D.C., university.
WETA-TV’s two-hour duPont-winning documentary on the deaf community, “Through Deaf Eyes,” ties this galvanizing event at Gallaudet to the history of the deaf culture in America, and its education and advancement over the last 200 years.
“There was an exhibit [“History Through Deaf Eyes”] that was curated by [author and historian] Jack Gannon at Gallaudet,” said Karen Kenton, director of national programming for WETA in Arlington, Va. “That’s what really inspired the film, which explains why these issues of identity are so powerful and meaningful to deaf people.”
Ms. Kenton contacted producer Lawrence Hott, who wanted to do the film but questioned his role as a hearing producer. Ms. Kenton, Mr. Hott and his producing partner Diane Garey, along with writer Ken Chowder, enlisted the help of Henry Lang, a professor at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf at Rochester Institute, and started talking about using deaf filmmakers.
“We couldn’t go with an unknown director if we wanted to get funding,” Mr. Hott said. “But we thought, ‘What if we commission filmmakers to make films that could fit right into the documentary without having to be interpreted?’”
It took five years to mount the production, Ms. Kenton said, but in the end they got what she and Mr. Hott wanted: Six short films by deaf filmmakers are incorporated into “Through Deaf Eyes,” integrated into the footage through the use of animation and graphics. A deaf comedian and a rock band composed of deaf musicians also are showcased, along with new forms of technology such as teletype machines and even cochlear implants.
In addition to being broadcast on PBS, Ms. Kenton said, “Through Deaf Eyes” has been shown in public libraries and schools across the nation.
“The film seeks to expand people’s concept of what is normal,” she said. “We chose to focus on similarities, where American history intersects with deaf life.”
“Being deaf has tentacles that reach out into all society,” Mr. Hott said. “You talk to any family that has a child who’s handicapped in some way, and that family wants to integrate their child into the world.”
Narrated by Stockard Channing, the documentary also highlights an ongoing controversy inherent in the education of the deaf, beginning with Alexander Graham Bell’s insistence that deaf children should not be instructed in sign language, but should learn to speak when possible and be educated only by speaking teachers.
“This is a big battle, because it goes right to the heart of what it means to be human,” Mr. Hott said. “Are we human because we can speak?”
Credits: Lawrence Hott, Diane Garey, producers; Ken Chowder, writer; Stockard Channing, narrator; Diane Garey, editor; Allen Moore, Michael Chin, Stephen McCarthy, cinematographers; Amit Sethi, animation and graphics; Judy Hyman, Jeff Claus, music; Jean Bergey, project director, Gallaudet University; Karen Kenton, Dalton Delan, executive producers; Sharon Rockefeller, president, WETA

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