Right before sitting down to write this post about d/Deaf representation, I finished the middle grade graphic novel, El Deafo, by Cece Bell. It’s a semi-autobiographical story of the author’s experience with hearing loss as a small child, and chronicles her friendships, crushes, and adventures in learning how to navigate elementary school while deaf. She often struggles to communicate her needs and is shy because she’s worried others judge her, so she creates an imaginary superhero version of herself, El Deafo, that has the bravery and appreciation for her deafness that Cece herself feels she lacks.
Throughout the book she has missteps with friends who use her, tokenize her, and don’t treat her the way she wants to be treated. One girl in her class introduces Cece to everyone as her “deaf friend,” while others speak incredibly slowly or just shout at her, both of which actually make it harder for her to read their lips and understand what they are saying. Cece doesn’t always make it clear what her needs are (which is understandable for a shy elementary school child), but in how Cece imagines El Deafo responding, readers can see an easily digestible example of how not to treat a deaf person, and why these behaviors are so upsetting. It’s a quick way to show kids and adults how to treat to deaf people respectfully.
There are other themes too, like the gym teacher dismissing her needs and breaking part of her hearing aid, that have deeper meaning when reading this book as an adult. People often dismiss the unique needs of those with disabilities or those that need alternate accommodations, and don’t understand how their behavior can ostracize or create unnecessary barriers. This can be true whether it’s an extreme example, like breaking the only device that helped Cece participate in school without realizing how important it was to her, or smaller examples like speaking to Cece without facing her and showing a movie in class without subtitles. Most of the time these things aren’t malicious, but the lack of awareness of accessibility needs can make it hard, if not impossible, to participate. What I might have understood to be a sad accident if I had read El Deafo as a kid now reveals an ignorance that is more insidious, even if unintended.
El Deafo was also a really interesting contrast to another book I read recently, The Silence Between Us, by Alison Gervais. Written for a slightly older audience, this book is a coming-of-age romance between the Deaf protagonist, Maya, and a hearing love interest. Whereas Cece sees her deafness as a disability and tries to conform to the hearing world, Maya is proud to be Deaf, doesn’t consider it a disability, and rejects cochlear impacts when she is offered them. This is a very real contrast that exists among d/Deaf people, where some consider it a disability, prefer to hide their deafness, or conform to hearing society through things like lip reading and cochlear implants (and most often refer to themselves as deaf), and others consider it a positive difference, not a disability, and generally prefer communicating through American Sign Language (and most often refer to themselves as Deaf). If you’d like to know more about the difference between deaf and Deaf communities, check out this article.
Besides these two recent reads, there are a decent number of children’s books that include d/Deaf characters, but it can be hard to find positive portrayals in adult fiction. As is true with many marginalized identities, representation often starts with children’s or young adult fiction, then as it becomes more acceptable to discuss, adult fiction plays catch-up. While this is great for children and teens looking for representation or a better understanding of d/Deaf people, it does a disservice to adults looking for the same thing. The good news is that there is still some positive representation, and you’re never too old to enjoy a children’s or young adult book. If you’re looking for that representation, or you’d like to read fiction of all genres and age groups that feature d/Deaf characters, check out this booklist.