Children of A Lesser God: Authentic Representation in Deaf Community

Marlee Matlin Children of a Lesser God

A movie review of the 1986 film Children of A Lesser God

By Nils Skudra

This weekend I had the opportunity to watch Children of a Lesser God, a beautiful 1986 film about a romance between a hearing teacher and a young deaf woman working at a school for the deaf and hearing-impaired.

I felt that this film was a worthwhile topic for review since it stars Marlee Matlin, an actress who is deaf in real life and has become a prominent advocate for people with disabilities. Since there is a common trend in Hollywood for disabled characters to be portrayed by non-disabled actors, Children of a Lesser God is a notable exception, and the developments that have taken place since the film’s release profoundly demonstrate how far services have come for deaf and hearing-impaired individuals, as well as the challenges that the general disabled community faces in terms of representation.

The film opens with Professor James Leeds (William Hurt), a new teacher with an extensive background in deaf education, arriving at the Governor Kittredge School for the Deaf in New England. During his interview with Dr. Franklin (Philip Bosco), the insensitive school principal, James is told that his purpose is not to “change the world” but simply “help a few deaf kids with getting along.”

This conflicts with James’ outlook since he firmly believes in helping deaf individuals reach their full potential, which he hopes to accomplish by teaching them to speak, a necessary skill in social interaction. Upon meeting his class, James discovers that they are not highly motivated, with some showing a complete reluctance to even try speaking. He promptly takes steps to remediate this by implementing an unorthodox teaching style, which includes standing on his hands and comparing it to potential scenarios in which the students may have to speak, as well as encouraging them to respond vocally when reading lips and interpreting his sign language.

James’ teaching methods become a source of inspiration for the majority of his students, who begin practicing their speech regularly. In order to help them respond to music, he plays the song “Boomerang” on a record and instructs one of his students to place her hand on it, so that she can feel the rhythm, and lipsync to the lyrics by reading his lips. However, this approach provokes the irritation of Dr. Franklin, who abruptly enters the room and turns the record off. This reaction demonstrates a disturbing lack of empathy on the part of the principal, which viewers would find shocking since they would expect a person responsible for deaf education to empathize with the students in his charge. For James, this provides further proof that the principal only expects him to help deaf students achieve the bare minimum of communication skills instead of encouraging them to broaden their sensory abilities.

During one evening after class, James meets Sarah Norman (Marlee Matlin), a young deaf janitor who has lived at the school since the age of five. He invites her into his classroom and, upon realizing that she does not read lips, offers to teach her to speak. However, she exhibits a hostile and belligerent attitude, responding in sign language that she has no interest, and then abruptly leaves the room. Nonetheless, James is impressed by Sarah’s quick-wittedness and urges the principal to allow him to instruct her, emphasizing that she can achieve so much more with her intelligence. Dr. Franklin initially refuses, explaining that Sarah had a miserable childhood and is therefore content with her life, but agrees to give James a trial session with Sarah.

When James attempts to teach Sarah, she continues to resist the prospect of speaking but agrees to go out on a date with him. During their dinner at a restaurant, her self-consciousness about how others perceive her is made clear when the waiter turns to James to ask about the wine they would like after Sarah does not reply. After James orders for them, Sarah states in sign language, “He thinks I’m stupid,” to which James responds, “Only stupid hearing people think deaf people are stupid.” Sarah then invites him to dance with her, during which he becomes captivated by her beauty and directness in articulating her thoughts, oblivious to the unwelcome glances that other partygoers make as he communicates with her in sign language.

Eager to learn more about the reasons for Sarah’s refusal to speak, James visits her mother (Piper Laurie), who displays a complete disillusionment with past efforts to help her daughter communicate. She explains that when Sarah tried to speak as a child, “she looked horrible and she sounded horrible,” and other children mocked her, but as an adolescent she was treated with respect by her sister’s boyfriends.

However, when James questions Sarah about her upbringing, she indicates that in fact she was sexually exploited by her male peers, who took advantage of her deafness, and that her sister was essentially an accomplice to this abuse.

This revelation makes it clear that Sarah’s resistance to speaking not only stems from the fear of how her voice will sound, but from a deeper place of emotional and psychological pain, which she thinks will reoccur if she opens herself up to him. However, it has the effect of drawing James closer to Sarah and reinforcing his determination to help her find her voice, and they soon become romantically involved.

As James and Sarah’s relationship progresses, he seeks to broaden her understanding of the hearing world, taking her to the movie theater for a classic Marilyn Monroe film and inquiring about what sounds she can process. Sarah responds that she can feel the rhythm of the ocean waves, using sign language to illustrate what they sound like in her mind.

Despite this, James occasionally makes insensitive jokes that hint at his desire for Sarah to speak, which upsets her. This becomes volatile when she bitterly observes him conducting his students in a successful lip-syncing performance of “Boomerang,” prompting her to shatter a glass mirror and injure her hand in the process. When he meets with Sarah shortly afterward, she expresses her interest in starting a family with him, to which he responds that while he does not want to have deaf children, he would have no objection if that were to happen.

In spite of Dr. Franklin’s objections, James convinces Sarah to leave her job at the school and move in with him. Although his efforts are well-intentioned since he wants to help Sarah reach her potential, he is rather overbearing and micromanaging since he does not show much consideration for her feelings about giving up the life that she has grown accustomed to. As she settles into living with James, there is a constant tension between them due to his expectation that she will agree to vocalize her thoughts, in spite of his promise not to raise the subject, and the fact that he cannot share the joy of listening to music with her. In addition, when they attend a party hosted by a prominent advocate in the deaf community, James experiences the feeling of being an outsider as Sarah converses with the other guests in sign language. For Sarah, however, this event makes her self-conscious about her lack of opportunities and instills her with the aspiration to attend college.

A pivotal moment in the film takes place when James asks Sarah what she really wants, following an argument about her refusal to speak. She subsequently delivers a monologue in sign language, stating that everyone else in her life has spoken in third person about what she wants without actually thinking of Sarah as an individual but that she won’t stand for that anymore. Regarding her relationship with James, she articulates:

This sign, to connect – simple. But it means so much more, when I do this. Now it means: To be joined in a relationship, separate but one. That’s what I want. But you think for me, think for Sarah, as if there were no ‘I.’ ‘She will be with me, quit her job… learn how to speak.’ That’s all you, not me. Until you let me be an ‘I,’ the way you are, you can never come inside my silence and know me. And I won’t let myself know you. Until that time, we can’t be like this, joined.

This speech is a powerful commentary on Sarah’s personal growth. Throughout her life, she has been accustomed to living in silence, letting other people speak for her as a deaf person but never opening herself up to express her true feelings. Through her relationship with James and subsequent exposure to the broader world, she has developed a new mindset about herself as an individual, but she realizes that in spite of his love for her, James does not truly respect Sarah in this way since he wants her to live according to his standards. This prompts James to furiously accuse her of lying about her inability to read lips, insisting that she must speak in order to live an independent life and then repeatedly yelling “Speak to me!” at her.

Agitated and overwhelmed by his outburst, Sarah finally screams in a strained and high-pitched voice, “See my mouth? Hear my voice? I’m not afraid!”, after which she breaks down crying and leaves the house.

This volatile exchange forces James to come to terms with his controlling behavior and the effect that it has had on his relationship with Sarah. Despite his well-meaning efforts, his failure to treat Sarah as an individual has proved alienating, and her forced vocalization truly exposes her vulnerability and the potential humiliation she could suffer when speaking. This leads him to seek reconciliation with Sarah, which she achieved with her mother after leaving James, and they finally reunite at a school party. James expresses his understanding for her feelings about opening herself up and risking being hurt, and she communicates that she used her anger to push him away but has learned that she “can hurt and won’t shrivel up and blow away” in loving another person.

In the film’s climactic moment, as they stand by the lake, James asks in sign language, “Do you think that we could find a place where we can meet – not in silence and not in sound?”, to which she responds by embracing him tenderly, indicating her openness to the prospect of learning to speak.

Children of a Lesser God is a beautifully crafted film that addresses numerous issues that are still debated within the deaf community today. These include the questions of communicating through speech or sign language, whether deaf individuals should be allowed to lead the lives they are content with or step out of their comfort zones in order to expand their horizons, and whether social integration is worth sacrificing fundamental aspects of deaf culture. In the decades since the film’s release in 1986, there have been numerous advances made in speech education and hearing aids for deaf individuals, which enable them to speak more articulately and process sound more efficiently.

However, these innovations have been subject to significant scrutiny since many deaf advocates maintain that deaf individuals are forced to give up their identity in the name of assimilation and that communicating through sign language helps to preserve that identity. Throughout the film, this is powerfully conveyed through the ongoing tension between Sarah and James over her refusal to speak.
The film is also highly relevant because of what it reveals about the representation of disabled characters by disabled actors in Hollywood.

Marlee Matlin, who received an Oscar for Best Actress for her phenomenal performance, is the first and thus far the only deaf winner of this award, and in the subsequent decades she has become an active advocate for the disability community.

In a recent interview that I watched, Matlin stated that 95% of disabled roles are portrayed by able-bodied or neurotypical actors, while only 5% are given to actors who are disabled in real life.

Although there have been some notable breakthroughs in recent years, such as Down syndrome actor Zack Gottsagen in The Peanut Butter Falcon, this tremendous discrepancy poses significant representational issues for the disability community, and therefore films like The Theory of Everything have been met with protest over their portrayal of prominent disabled figures by able-bodied actors. Hopefully Children of a Lesser God will instill viewers with an appreciation for the strides that have been made in services for the deaf community, as well as an inspiration to address the challenges that are still present today.

Nils Skudra

I am an artist on the autism spectrum. I received an MA specializing in Civil War/Reconstruction history at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, and I have been drawing hundreds of Civil War-themed pictures since the age of five and a half. I’m now working on a secondary Master’s in Library Science. As a person with Asperger’s Syndrome, I have a very focused set of interests, and the Civil War is my favorite historical event within that range of interests. It is therefore my fervent desire to become a Civil War historian and have my Civil War artwork published in an art book for children. I am also very involved in the autism community and currently serve as the President/Head Officer of Spectrum at UNCG, an organization I founded for students on the autism spectrum. The goal of the organization is to promote autism awareness and foster an inclusive community for autistic students on the UNCG campus. The group has attracted some local publicity and is steadily gaining new members, and we shall be hosting autism panels for classes on campus in the near future.

2 Comments

  • It’s rare that in so engrossed by a review (and i work in performing arts marketing) and felt it do relevant. As an actor for 20 years I was (ironically) asked to play autistic characters a few times. What started as a concern for taking a role from an autistic actor became an understanding that i was in fact autistic, and that the casting was right. It wasn’t the superficial research but was when i started talking to autistic people about their experience that things clicked.
    Thank you again Nils.

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