Images of an Invisible Disability: Framing Hearing Limitation in Film and Television

Arising from an internal cause, a hearing disability in people creates no external physical signs. Thus, directors and screen writers of films and TV programs define this invisible disability by resorting to physical and  behavioral stereotypes of characters with it.

This book is based on Nan Edith Johnson’s reviews of around 200 films, made-for-TV movies, TV episodes, or TV series having a character with a hearing disability. She assesses these images according to the lived experience of hearing disability, the accessibility of the show to hearing-disabled audiences, and the changes in these factors over the nine decades covered in her filmography. Her critique is based on the genre of the shows; such as: crime (Chapter Two); horror, science fiction, and fantasy (Chapters Three and Four); romance and marriage (Chapters Five and Six); sports (Chapter Seven); and Comedy (Chapter Eight). Chapter Nine discusses how the accommodations that hearing-disabled people use to empower themselves are portrayed in films and TV. Finally, Chapter Ten evaluates how far movies and TV programs have come  in dropping negative stereotypes of hearing-disabled characters and whether TV shows have been more progressive than films.

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Praise for this Book

“When I was first approached about a TV series being spun off my time as a lip-reader for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), my desire was that all aspects of deafness and all methods of of breaking the sound barriers would be shown. When people ask me how much of the TV show was true to life, I reply: ‘When it is true, it is really true; and the rest of the time, the creators had a lot of fun.’ I have been blessed with how the series has brought more awareness to deafness and particularly to Hearing Dogs. While it is true that that I had a Hearing Dog named Levi, I did not receive him until after I left the FBI. I have owned four Hearing Dogs over the past 35 years, and can say that Nan Johnson has done an excellent job by showing not only how ‘Sue Thomas, FB Eye’ educated people about Hearing Dogs … but she also exposes areas where the TV script leaves people with romanticized notions of about the real work and training of a certified Hearing Dog.”  — From the Office of Sue Thomas

“Clearly written, exhaustively researched, and nuanced in its analysis, Images of an Invisible Disability is a groundbreaking and innovative contribution to Disability Studies, Media Studies, the Sociology of Culture, Visual Sociology, and many other fields. In addition, the study’s broad and sophisticated analysis makes it an unmatched resource for students and scholars interested in exploring the depiction and characterization of human abilities.”
-Dr. Steven J. Gold, Sociology Professor, Michigan State University; Past President, International Visual Sociology Association

“Nan Johnson has written the most comprehensive analysis to date of characters appearing in visual media that have any range of a hearing disability – a term she uses to include all of those who range from being hard-of-hearing to deaf. From crime to romance to comedy and everything in between, she situates characters appearing in both classic and contemporary television and film within the context of their time. With detailed appendices and thoughtful consideration, you will be hard pressed to find a more complete or accessible source; she has truly made these characters who had an invisible disability visible.”
-Dr. Laura Mauldin, Assistant Professor of Family Studies & Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, the University of Connecticut; nationally certified American Sign Language interpreter; author of Made to Hear

“In ‘Images of an Invisible Disability’, Nan Johnson does an extraordinary job of educating readers about the challenges that people with hearing loss face, including family acceptance/non-acceptance, of the hearing loss; lack of access to appropriate accommodations; and safety issues that result when one is unable to hear. The book provides numerous examples of the various types of assistance that are available for persons with hearing loss, including Hearing Dogs, closed-captioning, telephone communication devices, alerting devices, hearing aids, and cochlear implants – and she clearly describes how such assistance improves the lives of the characters she is discussing. This is an enjoyable book for all to read, as we all can benefit from a better understanding of hearing loss and the impact it can have on one’s life.”
– Dr. Teresa A. Zwolan, Professor and Director, Michigan Cochlear Implant Program

“Nan Johnson presents an invaluable reference for anyone interested in the cinematic portrayals of people with a hearing disability.”
-Richard L. Baldwin, hearing-disabled author of mystery novels

“The book is encyclopedic in its reach into the film and TV shows (200 in all). The author is impressive in her detailed understanding of plot and characters in each show, perceptive in her interpretation of the rendering of each show and its effect on the viewing audience, and tireless in her search for social justice for the hearing-impaired in these shows. Her concern is not only with the portrayal of characters in the shows but also with the accessibility of the shows to deaf audiences. She includes excellent discussions and photos of electronic aids. In addition, this is a merciful and encouraging book, accepting hearing loss but noting successful pathways to unlimited success. This is a true learning tool for scholars and the public at large, and should be studied by creators of film and TV.  The end matter is easy to use and comprehensive. There are six appendices characterizing all the shows into various genres. There is a compilation of references used for this work, and there is an Index of Titles of Films and TV Programs and an Index of Names and Subjects”. — Dorothy Karandanis, M.D.

“I think your Cinema of Isolation – Cinema of Liberation typology is a good way to organize your study. I also like the fact that you were able to look at your findings in the context of concepts of social science writers like Goffman and Cooley. I recently read The Presentation of Self [by Goffman] for the first time and see the relevance of your study to Goffman. — Denton Morrison, Ph.D., Sociology

“The analyses in Chapter Two (Crime Shows) are quantitative (where relevant and possible), as well as qualitative. Johnson also weaves in relevant background and literature, such as Norden’s historical periods of presentations of disability (in general) in the Crime Shows chapter to provide background and context for her own analysis. The Crime Shows chapter also includes an explication of the role and importance of background characters, helpful for those of us who are more or less illiterate in visual media. The gendering of crime films/shows should not come as a surprise: hearing-disabled men are more likely than similar women to be criminals of some sort, while women with hearing limitations are more likely to be portrayed as victims. Despite such stereotypes, Johnson finds evidence of a shift toward a Cinema of Liberation, more so in TV shows than in film. Three crime shows in particular are featured for their hopeful emerging images: ‘Reasonable Doubts’, ‘Sue Thomas, F. B. Eye’, and ‘Music Within’.

“Horror, Science-Fiction, and Fantasy Shows (Chapter 3) brings us to monsters, simply villains, villains as victims, heroes, and important background characters. Not surprisingly, character types are gendered, with men more likely than women to be monsters or villains, women slightly more likely to be victims or heroes and almost twice as likely as men to be background characters. Characters sometimes fulfill multiple stereotypes. In addition to gender stereotypes, ageism also plays a role: hearing disabled monsters are defined as old men.

“Chapter 9 provides a wealth of information (and a significant critique of misinformation in visual media) on sign languages, assistive devices, and hearing dogs. Given the level of detail and the photos, this chapter is invaluable for those teaching Disability Studies. While this is especially true for teachers who focus on hearing disability, the chapter is also useful for teaching a more general course, because it shows some of what is possible in the field of engineering and what accommodations can mitigate disabilities.

“Finally, Chapter 10 pulls everything together. Rather than review Johnson’s chapter conclusions, I want to touch on her vision for possible futures. First, she notes the growing diversity in media of characters with hearing limitations/disabilities, in terms of the type of characters played (i.e., stepping past stereotypes) and the representation of more diverse characters with hearing limitation (e.g., gay characters, African American characters, teen characters, and the like). Even though stereotypes continue, some of the new films and TV shows show promise for moving toward a Cinema of Liberation. Second, Johnson steps between film and real life to discuss implications of the 1993 requirement that all newborns be tested for hearing limitations. Even if parents of newborns found to have such limitations want cochlear implants for them, there are considerable financial and social hurdles that not all will be able to surmount. This suggests the potential for growing inequality among those born with hearing limitation, and perhaps new media stereotypes tied to poverty, race, and the like. It seems that the future holds hope for decreased stereotyping but also risk for changes in continuing reliance on stereotypes.” — Linda Liska Belgrave, Associate Professor, Department of Sociology, University of Miami (Florida)