Jesus Film and Deaf Accessibility

https://www.jesusdeaffilm.com/

Have you heard of the new all-Deaf film coming out? Deaf Missions’ Jesus Film uses native signers to bring the story of Jesus to life from a Deaf perspective for a Deaf audience. According to Deaf Missions, “Roughly 98% of the worldwide population of Deaf people have never encountered the real Jesus. What is the number one issue Deaf people face when it comes to knowing Jesus? The answer boils down to two words: communication barriers.” JESUS: A Deaf Missions Film, uses Deaf actors to bring the story of Jesus to life from a Deaf perspective for a Deaf audience. Deaf producer/director Joseph D. Josselyn (of Deaf Missions) and Deaf producer Michael Davis (of GUM Vision Studio) bring the movie to life for Deaf audiences. The film includes a soundtrack and English subtitles for those who have not learned American Sign Language yet.

I am Megan, a Deaf instructor at StartASL.com and a Deaf actress. I am an actress based in Los Angeles and I was involved in the film Jesus. I come from a hearing family. I went to a school for the Deaf, Boston School for the Deaf in Randolph, and became mainstreamed in middle school. Then I transferred to Newton North High School in Newton which had a program for the Deaf and hard of hearing. That was where I met Joseph Josselyn, the director of Jesus. We attended some of the same mainstream classes such as biology in high school.  We even did skits together as we were part of a troupe of Deaf and hard-of-hearing actors.  We also went to Gallaudet University at the same time although we did not share the same classes since we had different majors.

In more recent years of my experience as an actor, past projects I have been involved in were mostly with an all-hearing cast and crew.  I had to stay alert to make sure I did not miss anything while on set.  This time, I was excited when I heard about an opportunity to be involved in the film, Jesus.  It was an awesome experience being in Jesus since all of the cast and crew were Deaf like me. I did not have to worry about communicating with an ASL interpreter.  I was much more relaxed since we all belonged to this planet “Eyeth” since we communicated via ASL! I had a great time interacting with all of the cast and crew when we filmed a scene in Los Angeles. I loved interacting with costumes, crew members, and cast by using ASL, not feeling out of place or left out.

When I arrived on set, I had to stop in at costuming. It was different than usual. This time, it was awesome having the people sign to me about what to wear. Then during lunchtime, I loved talking with everyone via ASL. The experience made me feel like I was at home, not feeling out of place. I had fun talking with everyone since we did not have a language barrier, which I often face while being on sets with hearing cast and crew who do not know American Sign Language. On a regular set with an all-hearing cast and crew who did not know ASL, I would work harder to keep up with what was going on and what would happen next. I always have a positive experience on set but being on set with everyone knowing ASL made me more relaxed.

Jumping back to the past, Joseph was always making films and doing skits in high school, and I would act with him sometimes during skits at school. I felt excited when I heard about casting for the film Jesus especially when Joseph was the director. It was great seeing him again after so many years of being apart. I loved having him sign to us instructions on how to do scenes. I played a woman who gave a rock to Jesus in one of the scenes. It is funny since on a set with an all-hearing crew, I’d hear “Camera, Lights, Action.” However, on a set that uses ASL, I would just see everything in ASL instead of hearing it (with my cochlear implants). It was awesome seeing a set using ASL which is so different from a regular set run by non-signing hearing people. I have been in projects with other Deaf people who sign but Jesus was my first film being run by both a Deaf crew and cast.  I finally could understand what the crew was saying while they planned out shots and other logistics.  I will always remember this experience.

You know what is ironic about this film, while Deaf and Hard of Hearing people struggle with access at the movies, this team of Deaf cast and crew have made this film accessible for hearing people too.  Accessibility is an ongoing issue in the Deaf Community. For example, Dad and Deaf daughter duo TJ and Kylee recently went to see the movie Inside Out 2.  TJ and Kylee are a father and daughter sharing life experiences on social media as a family that uses American Sign Language with their Deaf daughter.  They went to three different movie theaters, and they were unable to watch the movie. 

Can you imagine being excited to see a movie as a kid and not being able to watch it? Get your tickets, maybe some popcorn, and get to your seats. Unfortunately, this is an all-too-common scenario. The first movie theater did not have closed captioning sticks. The second attempt was also a bust when they found out they did have closed caption sticks, but it was broken. In the last attempt at the 3rd movie theater, the employee said the closed caption sticks weren’t even accessible with the movie. The only option was to come back the next day with the one showing closed captions.

Through my own personal experience attending the movies, E.T. was the first movie I attended as a child with my sister.  It was in the 1980’s so of course closed captioning was nonexistent at the movies.  I still loved the movie, E.T., since it was so visual.  However, nowadays I still enjoy watching movies at the theater but oftentimes they are not easily accessible.  I hate using caption glasses or caption sticks since they make me “look” different from hearing audience members.  The goggles that are sometimes available are so bulky, heavy, hard, rigid, and uncomfortable to wear for even 5 minutes.  Additionally, speaking of those embarrassing caption sticks–those are designed to fit in the cup holders behind the seats and the long stem leads to a viewer box where you can see the subtitles.   Yet, I want to keep my eyes on the movie screen itself, not being distracted by the caption stick.  I feel self-conscious using this since people would easily notice me using the device, which stands me out of the crowd.  Therefore, of course like a teenager,  I want to blend in, and just watch the movie like everyone else.  I wish movie theaters would offer a button where you can simply press subtitles to pop on the screen.  That would make my world perfect.

However, unfortunately, movies at theaters are rarely open captioned like what you see in Jesus and CODA which already have burned in captions.  Also, even on TV at home, some shows and movies are still not captioned, even after I attempt to click on the subtitles feature.  So, I end up watching a different program that I didn’t originally pick.  I just put up with it while my hearing sister can watch anything she chooses.  This is 2024 and I just simply hope that that red button for open captions will show up one day.

There is a lot of work to be done with accessibility for the Deaf. That does not hold this community back, they make their community and own access as much as possible. This movie is one example of how Deaf people adapt and overcome. They cannot simply sit back and wait for accessibility; they create it themselves.  There are more Deaf filmmakers out there today, and of course many of them rely on ASL to communicate.  That is why Start ASL has a goal to expose more people to ASL and Deaf culture.  The more people who can communicate via ASL means the more people the Deaf community can communicate with in the real world and on set while making films that utilize ASL. 

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