Movie Report: Netflix’s The Dragon Prince

Genre: Children’s fantasy animation
Released September 2018 – current (the fourth season is expected to be released later this year or early in 2022)
Rated PG

Brief Summary
The world of Xadia is divided between the humans, who practice dark magic, and the elves, who use primal magic. The border between them is protected by the King of Dragons, whose only egg was destroyed years ago by the humans.
Callum and Prince Ezran find the last dragon egg and set out on a journey with elf Rayla, to return the egg to the Dragon King and restore peace to Xadia. But there are many who do not want them to succeed and do everything they can to stop them.

Credit: Netflix

When I was about ten years old, I set out on a quest to find a book with a leading deaf character. I didn’t want just any random book. I specifically wanted a medieval fantasy story, with a female, deaf knight, and involved dragons. I was so determined to find this story that I got up the courage to ask the school librarian for help. We didn’t find anything available in the library, so I looked on the internet, which also had nothing. I came to realize that if I wanted to read a story about a deaf knight and dragons, I would have to write it.

Well, that all changed when I got to watch Netflix’s original series The Dragon Prince, which has General Amaya, one of the highest-ranking military official in Katolis, entrusted with guarding the human side of the Border, sister of the late Queen Sarai, Aunt to two of the show’s main protagonists Callum and Ezran, and who happens to be deaf and uses American Sign Language (ASL) to communicate.

General Amaya, front and center, with her trusted advisor Commander Gren (left) and her nephew Callum (right). Credit: Netflix

Getting my childhood dream at the age of twenty-two, you bet I cried. While it wasn’t the first deaf character I have come across, General Amaya was the first portrayal of a deaf person in a position of power and who plays a big role across the story that I have experienced. In general, the whole show is amazing on so many levels. It was literally designed to push for diversity and representation. For that reason alone, it comes across as special and meaningful because so many minorities are being represented at once—and in positions of power! You have LGBTQ+ queens and assassins, so many powerful female leaders, and people of color by the dozen (among both elves and humans).

Not only is General Amaya deaf, but she uses real sign language—like proper grammar and everything. It’s not just a few token signs to help sell the part. And—something else that is noticeable—when she speaks, there are no subtitles to translate what she is saying. You have to know sign language to understand. I think this choice has a powerful impact because it allows the audience to see her differently. Plus there are some hilarious jokes you’ll only catch if you know sign language.

I did some more research into this. The ASL was so good, I wanted to know if there was a deaf person involved in the creation of this character. It turns out that one of the show’s co-creators, Aaron Ehasz, asked the question “What if [General Amaya] is deaf?” Ehasz also worked on another famous show Avatar: The Last Airbender, and is responsible for the tough-loving, sassy Toph, a blind earthbender. In creating General Amaya, Ehasz and the other producers reached out to several Deaf and Hard-Of-Hearing organizations, met with several deaf people, and worked with several ASL interpreters to make sure Amaya’s signing was authentic.

General Amaya is also in a position of power—one of the King’s most trusted advisors and one of the highest-ranking Generals in the Katolis Army. Serving in the military alone is something extremely meaningful and powerful for the Deaf and Hard-Of-Hearing community. In America, disabled citizens are not allowed to join the army or serve in any related military role. Now, that might come off as strange to you and maybe you can think of a few examples of disabled veterans who are actively working in the military. That’s because the US military has a loophole. If a soldier in the military acquires a disability during active service, the military will make all accommodations necessary for them to continue doing their job. So there are people with disabilities serving, but only able-bodied people are allowed to join.

“If the US military can retain their disabled soldiers, why can’t they accept disabled citizens?”

Keith Nolan

This becomes even more questionable when looked at from a global standpoint. America is one of a small handful of countries that do not allow people with disabilities to serve, in contrast to the rest of the world where they are allowed and even encouraged to serve. Or, if you look at this issue from a historical standpoint, there have been deaf soldiers serving in every single war in US history up thru WWII.

Credit: Keith Nolan

Keith Nolan, a deaf man and a teacher at the Maryland School for the Deaf, has been fighting for years to get the military to open for the Deaf and Hard-Of-Hearing. He participated in an ROTC program for two years and was able to earn the rank of a cadet private before he was barred from advancing any further simply because he was deaf. Nolan also traveled to several other countries to interview deaf soldiers actively serving in military roles and wrote a 98-page paper on why the Deaf should be allowed to serve.

“If you remember back in US history, African-Americans were told they couldn’t join the military, and now they serve. Women as well were banned, but now they’ve been allowed. The military has and is changing. Today is our time. Now it’s our turn. Hoorah!”

Keith Nolan

Nolan’s activism was successful up to the point that a bill, named after him, was drafted and sent to congress. The bill would open up a test program for the Deaf in the Air Force. If it went well, it would open the doors to regular service and test programs in other branches of the military. Unfortunately, the bill suffered from bad timing. Obama was a big supporter of Nolan, but the bill didn’t reach congress until Trump was in office. Trump has never been supportive of disability civil rights. Thus the bill ended up getting swept under the rug.

The topic of deaf in the military hits home for me. I remember the first time I was ever asked the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I was in kindergarten and still learning how to write. All the other kids were writing down that they wanted to be doctors, lawyers, firefighters, veterinarians, but I decided I wanted to be a soldier. I still have that assignment tucked away in one of my memory boxes.

It’s not something I talk about a lot. I used to tell people that I wanted to be a soldier, but apparently, I have such a reputation for being kind, that my friends and family laughed at the idea of me being a soldier. Growing up, it never crossed my mind that I wouldn’t be allowed because I was deaf. When I was seventeen years old, I started doing more research as I knew there were early military programs for high school students. That’s when I found out that I would never even been given a chance. That put me in a dark place for a long while. But I still hold out hope that things will change and maybe I’ll still have the chance.

To learn more about Keith Nolan’s story, you can listen to his TEDtalk, check out his website, or read more about the Keith Nolan Air Force Deaf Demonstration Act of 2018.

Coming back to The Dragon Prince, that’s one of the reasons that General Amaya is such a powerful representation. She is an example of something the Deaf community is actively fighting for. She represents hopes and dreams and inclusion and recognition.

Now, I wish I could leave this blog post at that, but if you recall my last blog post, I introduced my own literary theory about the nullification of disabilities. As much as I hate to throw General Amaya under the bus, she does fall prey to this.

General Amaya is introduced to viewers as a nonverbal character, meaning she relies on sign language for communication. So either people know sign language to communicate with her, like her nephews Callum and Ezran, or as it turns out, she has an interpreter, Commander Gren, to communicate with those who don’t know sign language. Everything is great.

That is until General Amaya assigns Gren to stay at the castle and keep an eye on Viren, while she goes on to check the border. Now, of course, deaf people do not require an interpreter at all times. There are plenty of other ways to communicate. The issue with this is that the writers didn’t show how Amaya communicated without an interpreter. Do her soldiers all know some sign language and that’s how they communicate? Is there another interpreter? General Amaya is in a powerful position where she is communicating with others all the time. By removing Gren and not showing how she communicates otherwise, it ends up nullifying her disability by refusing to acknowledge and respect the limitations of her disability.

Commander Gren signing with General Amaya, Credit: Netflix

Unfortunately, it gets worst. After she leaves Gren, she seems to gain the ability to lipread everything. There are scenes where Amaya is in a room full of people speaking verbally and she follows the conversation without any questions.

I have said it before and I’ll say it again, lipreading is extremely inaccurate! Lipreading at best—at best—can give you 30% of what someone says, depending on the language. If it is a tonal language (meaning words change based on the tone of voice, such as with Mandarin), you’ll get even less. In addition, lipreading has so many factors—how expressive someone’s face and body is, how fast they talk, if they mumble their words, and we haven’t even gotten to accents yet or being in the right mindset to lipread. Lipreading is exhausting work. I’ve had times where I am so tired at the end of the day, trying to lipread is like trying to understand a foreign language. When I reach this point, I say “I can’t understand English right now.” People laugh at that because they think I’m being funny, but really, I’m being serious. Basically what I’m saying is relying on lipreading alone is the crappiest form of communication on the face of the planet. It only works when it is put together with other things—like knowing the context of the conversation.

Yet, General Amaya doesn’t seem to have any of these issues. But wait—it gets worst (again). In Season 3, General Amaya is taken captive by Sunfire Elves. Now, the elves have a completely different set of cultures and languages than humans do. Yet, despite having no experience with elvish dialects and accents, General Amaya seems able to lipread most of what they say. Not all of it though, as they do bring in a non-native sign language interpreter into the story when they are interrogating General Amaya in a ring of fire.

To draw from my own experiences, I have a lot of opportunities to work with people who speak Spanish as a first language. In some cases, I have worked with the same people for years and let me tell you, even though I’m familiar with the Mexican accent, I struggle to lipread it. It’s like trying to lipread a foreign language. That’s why I’m saying General Amaya being able to lipread the Sunfire elves doesn’t make sense. These elves have a completely foreign accent and English is not their first language, so it doesn’t make sense that she can lipread what they are saying. In addition, she is not always at her best. In the ring of fire scene I mentioned above, she’s weak and beaten down, which would affect her ability to lipread in the first place because it takes so much mental effort to try to piece together what someone is saying even under fair conditions.

So in short, General Amaya, as awesome as she is, is a good example of nullification by refusing to acknowledge and respect the limitations of a disability. When the limits of a disability are not respected, it ends up reinforcing stereotypes. In this case, it encourages the myths that lipreading is 100% accurate and that all deaf people have an innate ability to lipread. These myths, which are already common beliefs among able-bodied people, then affect the lives of deaf people. I hate it when people just expect me to lipread what they say and refuse to listen to the accommodations that I actually need to communicate. Like when I ask for something to be written down, they refuse and point at their mouth and keep repeating what they say. In other cases, I’ve had people grab me, pull me into their face so that they speak directly into my hearing aid as if that’s going to make things clearer. It’s frustrating and uncomfortable. But it’s also frustrating because I can’t fault others for doing this as they have never been taught otherwise.

With all that said, I still love General Amaya. She is my favorite character in the series and it is so cool to see how much she is involved in the story! She’s not some token side character. She’s almost a main character at this point. I will never forget the moment that I first saw her appear on screen, the way I did a double-take when she started signing, the way the realization hit me, and the tears started flowing—this is the story I’ve been waiting for my whole life to hear, the story I’ve been looking for since I was ten. She is such an amazing character, representative of so much more than just being deaf, and her signing is authentic ASL. Her portrayal is not perfect, as I pointed out the issues with her lipreading, which leads to the nullification of the disabled experience and which directly impacts people’s perceptions and understanding of disabilities. Because like it or not, most people are introduced to disabilities through a screen, that’s why increasing accurate representation and visibility is so important to the disabled community.

The Dragon Prince is an amazing story to watch and it has so many unique elements in it. It is one that I highly recommend. And it is family-friendly too. I am excited to see the next season, which is expected to be released sometime this year or early in 2022.

What’s on your “to be watched” list? Got any recommendations for me? Comment below and let me know!

Book Report: A Disability History of the United States by Kim E. Nielsen

Genre: Historical Nonfiction
Published October 1, 2013

Brief Summary
Kim E. Nielsen is a professor of disability studies and history. As a result, she wrote the first book to place the experiences of disabled people at the center of the American narrative. Encompassing pre-1942 to 2013, this book shows how disabilities have been a significant factor in the formation of the United States, its values, and how it formed democracy.

Good morning Listen Up readers! This week I’ll be wrapping up the “Disability History” series and beginning the “Writing Characters with Disabilities” series. Check out the archive for more information as well as other upcoming series.

I have briefly mentioned A Disability History of the United States in Disability History, Part 1. It is one of few books on the market about disability history. With that being said, it is a shorter book—only 187 pages, not counting the works cited or the index. Despite its small size, there is so much information in this book! If readers would like to continue learning about disability history, this is the book I would recommend. It covers from pre-Colombus to 2013 and includes Native Americans’ perspective on disabilities, what having a disability meant in the original thirteen colonies, the rise of institutions, the Civil War, the Industrial Revolution, eugenics, and the Disability Civil Rights Movement. In addition, this book not only talks about the impact of disabilities but also how the concept of disabilities have changed over time. This happens due to cultural changes, which I’ll talk about a little later in this post.

A Disability History of the United States began with the argument that disability history is at the core of the American story. . . The experience of people with disabilities is pivotal to US history, just as the concept of disabilities is at the core of American citizenship, contested explorations of rights, racial and gender hierarchies, concepts of sexual deviance, economic inequalities, and the process of industrialization. There is no question that the power to define bodies as disabled has given justification, throughout US history, for subjugation and oppression.”

Nielsen, page 182

Knowing history is important, not only to teach to current and upcoming generations but also writers as they construct new worlds and culture. This is a mistake I see in a majority of stories. When writers create a world, there are often no disabled people or evidence of disabled people. Even worst, some stories state that all disabilities have been wiped out, which seems to be particularly common in science fiction. Even if all “disabilities” as we know and understand them today, are erased from existence, there will always be other disabilities that arise in their place. This is because disabilities are created by social and cultural means. An example I have used before: are wheelchair users disabled by their chair? Or are they disabled by a culture that relies on stairs? Most wheelchair users see their chairs as an extension of their body. It allows them to be free and independent, like wings that allow birds to fly. To non-disabled people, however, a wheelchair seems like a limitation.

Disability history provides a blueprint for writers, as history is a series of cultural changes. What I mean by cultural changes are events that affect, alter, or shift a culture. For example, whenever there is war there is a significant increase in people with disabilities. If a writer is working on a story that involves warfare, then naturally, disabled characters should be included. Another example of a cultural change is the industrial revolution, which left behind a huge wake of disabilities. Due to poor manufacturing processes and a severe lack of safety regulations, many factory workers lost fingers, limbs, lives, or received other injuries. Once a worker became disabled, they were seen as “defective” and promptly replaced. These disabled workers had trouble finding jobs and providing for themselves because of the stigmas attached to disabilities, which leads me to my next point.

“Given that disability was defined as the inability to labor, white women, free African American women, and slaves came to be associated with the disabled.”

Nielsen, page 56

The values of a culture will be reflected in how people with disabilities are treated. For example, one of the most important values in American culture is independence. When it comes to disabilities, not everyone is completely independent, thus this is one of the reasons why the disabled community has faced so much discrimination. This causes a culture clash, so there is a divide between independent Americans and interdependent Americans. Another great example of cultural values comes from the early immigration era (roughly 1870 to 1924). During this time, immigration to America was at an all-time high. But Americans only wanted American-like people coming in. This meant that people were being turned away for their skin color, their religion, their body shape (such as too tall or too short), being too old, for being poor, being suspected of a disability, among other things. Ellis Island (an immigration station where officials decided who could enter the country and who would be deported) was designed to be as inaccessible as possible. Steep, narrow stairs and pathways would test immigrants physically. If an immigration officer saw an immigrant struggling with stairs or running out of breath, they would be marked to be deported.

“When [President] Coolidge proclaimed that ‘America must be kept American,’ he had a very specific American body in mind.”

Nielsen, page 110
Ellis Island

Cultural values about independence and disabilities can also be found at the heart of discrimination against people of color.

“The racist ideology of slavery held that Africans brought to North America were by the definition disabled. Slaveholders and apologists for slavery used Africans’ supposed inherent mental and physical inferiority, their supposed abnormal and abhorrent bodies, to legitimize slavery. Indeed, slaveholders argue that the bodies and minds of those they enslaved were disabled to such an extent that slavery was a beneficial kindness owed to those in need of care. Disability permeated the ideology, experience, and practices of slavery in multiple and profound ways.”

Nielsen, page 42

The concept of disability applied to women as well, who were thought to be too weak and feeble to labor. Nor were they thought to be mentally capable of making educated decisions or allowed to vote.

Traveling back to the foundation of the United States; disability, like skin color, was a determining factor in whether or not a person could be a citizen of the new nation. This idea was challenged by the Revolutionary War, which left several disabled people in its wake. Thus, people who fought for the nation were no longer considered citizens, so disability had to be reevaluated. Any veteran with a disability would be a full citizen and had the right to vote. But if someone was born with a disability, they were not eligible for these things. This divide in particular says so much about America because even today, someone who becomes disabled as a result of warfare is treated differently than someone who is born with a disability or becomes disabled as a result of an accident.

This especially comes out in elections. When a politician has served, they will never fail to mention their service—particularly if they have a disability from it. But, at all other times, they will refuse to be seen as disabled. Like George Washington said during a campaign speech, “Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country” (77). His blindness served as a marker of his nobility and worthiness to be president, but for any other man, blindness would be seen as a defect.

George Washington is not the only president to have a disability. Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had polio that paralyzed his legs, needed to use a wheelchair. However, for speeches and other events, he walked short distances with the use of iron braces (hidden under his pants) and a cane to hide his disability from the public. He was particularly careful not to let the media photograph him with his wheelchair, as that would “damage” his image. Today, there are only a small handful of photos that exist of Roosevelt with his wheelchair. In photos where he is not sitting, you can see that he holds onto other objects or is supported by the arm of a family member.

All of this is but a scratch of the surface of what A Disability History of the United States has to offer.

So, to briefly summarize world-building for disabilities; look at the culture of the story and circumstances that affect it. If there is industrialization, slavery, warfare, poor or limited medical access, lots of illness or spreading of diseases, or high crime, there will be lots of disabilities. List the society’s main values. What do these fundamental values tell you about society? If society values things like independence or the ability to fight, what does that mean for disabled people in your world? What happens to people if they don’t meet the status quo? Who is considered a citizen or how is citizenship obtained? Are there divisions in disability, like the divide between disabled veterans and disabled people?

What does the architecture of your world say about disabilities? Are buildings and streets accessible? Are doorways wide enough for a wheelchair or someone on crutches? Is there sign language or closed captions for those with hearing disabilities? If the culture has rights for disabled people—how did they get them? If your world is missing people with disabilities, then where are they? Are they segregated or placed in institutions? What does that segregation tell you about society’s values?

Try to think about disabilities as a result of cultural circumstances and reflections, rather than as just a singular, individual character. If your society is progressive and has rights for disabled people, then there must be a disabled community to reflect disability pride. Even though I was born deaf, I didn’t grow as a disabled person until I started connecting with other deaf people. This is a common story in the disabled community. When disabled people can connect with other disabled people, it is like a spiritual experience. You can share your struggles with people who understand exactly what you are talking about, and oftentimes, you’ll hear things put into words that you’ve always known, but have never been able to explain. The disabled community is incredibly important to help characters grown.

The reason I mention the disabled community is I’ve seen quite a few situations where a writer composes a society that is discriminatory against disabilities (by clues like inaccessible architecture, exclusion/segregation, or the general attitude) but has a disabled character who is confident and bright in his/her disability but has never met another person with a disability—it comes off as not realistic. If a person is told their entire life that they are worthless, which is reinforced in so many subtle ways, it doesn’t make any sense for them to develop confidence in themselves without outside influence. If you are having trouble grasping this, flip the example to a different minority. If a black character grows up in a society that recently believed colored people should be slaves, it makes no sense for him/her to become self-confident in who they are without a reason. They likely have to act in certain ways and follow certain behavior guidelines, because being too confident or acting out of the ordinary, or behaving in any other way that society deems as “wrong,” can get them hurt or killed. It’s the same for those with disabilities.

“US disability history is not only the history of people with disabilities. Whether one’s life is shaped by able-bodiedness and the economic and legal advantages that issue from that, or by the economic and legal implications of disabilities’s long-stigmatized past, disability, both as lived reality and as concept, impacts us all. . .
“The story of the US nation is a contested, sometimes vicious, sometimes gloriously marvelous story of creating a national home. People with disabilities have been and will continue to be an integral part of that story. It is my home, our home, and your home.”

Nielsen, page 182-183

In short, this book does a fantastic job at tackling historical silencing and bringing awareness to the fact that America has been built by people with disabilities just as much as any other minority group. It is a great resource for writers who want to learn more about culture and what kind of circumstances or cultural changes are realistic for portraying characters with disabilities in building other worlds.

Did you like today’s post? Was it helpful to you? Leave a like or comment below to let me know!

Disability History, Part 4: NAD v. Netflix

A lawsuit that shook the internet

Good morning Listen Up readers! Today I am excited to talk about a civil rights lawsuit that helped to make the internet more accessible to people with disabilities. This lawsuit in particular has impacted my life in a big way and it’s cool that I got to witness it happen in my lifetime.

To briefly review, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed in 1990 and established civil rights for disabled people in American. Well, what happened right after that? The explosion of technology and the widespread use of the internet. Because it was drafted before this, the ADA didn’t have guidelines for accessibility in the digital world. This meant that many powerhouses, such as Netflix, were not being made accessible.

Movies have consistently been a huge part of my life. My Mom, in particular, has always loved movies. When my brothers and I were toddlers, my parents would rock us to sleep while watching episodes of Star Trek. As we got older, we would watch movies like Star Wars, What’s Up Doc, Titanic, and The Matrix. Every weekend my family would settle down on the couch, eat cardboard pizza (our nickname for frozen pizza), and watch movies. On Sundays we would watch AFV and Extreme Home Makeover. In those days, there was no streaming entertainment. Even YouTube wasn’t invented yet. If we wanted to watch a new movie, we would either have to buy it in a store (ordering things online was uncommon), see it in theaters, or rent it from a local video store. I still remember wandering through the racks at 3D Video, our local video store. It was a lot like going to a used bookstore, but with VHS tapes lining the shelves instead of books.

When Netflix began, it was the world’s first online DVD rental store. It started in 1997, four months after the invention of the DVD. Since Netflix offered more choices to its consumers, an ever-expanding library, and provided videos in newer technological format, it quickly became popular. We could rent up to two movies at once which would be delivered by mail. Mom always picked the first movie, then the second one would be picked by someone else. There were some spectacular fights over who got to pick the next movie.

In 2007, Netflix introduced a streaming service, which allowed subscribers to watch movies on anything with an internet connection. Waiting for movies to come in the mail was a thing of the past! My family was on board with it from the start. But I noticed there was a problem with Netflix’s streaming service.

Nothing was closed captioned.

As a deaf person, I have to have closed captions. I can’t understand any movie or video otherwise. As a child, I generally spent more time with my nose in a book than staring at a screen, simply because it was hard to understand what was being said. I remember one particular day, I had just come home from school and I laid down on my parent’s bed to flip through channels for something interesting to watch. I stumbled upon a game show where the contestants were dressed in oversized diapers and baby bonnets. Then they had to run through a playroom-themed obstacle course. I watched for almost ten minutes, trying to understand what was being said before I realized they were speaking Spanish.

One of the difficult things about growing up with a disability is isolation. I was never around other deaf people. I never learned how to handle different situations because I’m deaf. I had no deaf people to learn from. No one taught me how to advocate for myself—or when I needed to advocate for my needs. I like to sum it up as “No one taught me how to be deaf.” This isolation means that I grew up not knowing what kind of technology is available to me to use. As an adult, I still don’t know what kind of accessibility options are out there are for me. Every day I’m still learning how to be a deaf person in a hearing world.

As it was, I didn’t know closed captions were a thing until I was about twelve or thirteen years old. When I did discover them, it was by accident! I remember being bored while watching TV (as it was difficult for me to understand the characters talking) and started playing around with the TV remote, pressing random buttons to see what they would do. One of the buttons turned on the closed captions. I was stunned at the white words scrolling across black banners on the screen. I thought it was weird and changed the channel. The words changed too. That’s when it hit me that the words being displayed were what was being said. I could understand everything. I had big fat, tears of joy rolling down my face that day as finished I watching an episode of The Brady Bunch.

After that, I turned the closed captions on everything. Because of the ADA, movies made after 1990 had to have closed captions available. I learned how to turn closed captions on DVDs and how to use the TV captions for VHS. I insisted on the captions being turned on whenever my family watched movies. Later I learned the difference between English subtitles versus subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing (the latter includes sound in addition to speech). Closed captions opened up my world. What’s more, that was the first time in my life that I started advocating for myself and my needs as a deaf person. Which is a vital life skill to have when you have a disability.

So when Netflix started streaming caption-less videos, it affected my life. My family would keep watching movies, but without captions, I was lost on the story. It is boring to watch a movie that you can’t understand. I often preferred to do my own thing rather than watch a caption-less movie. It was a lonely experience. Not that my family excluded me from the activity, rather they often begged me to join them—but I would be so bored and upset if I did, that I found I’d rather be lonely.

“Why aren’t there closed captions?” I would say. “It doesn’t feel fair. They really ought to have closed captions.”

It turns out I was not the only deaf person to say this. Netflix was sued several times by various deaf individuals who recognized Netflix was violating the civil rights of disabled people. But Netflix won each lawsuit.

In addition to not providing closed captions on their streaming service, Netflix decided to raise the price of their mail-only service while lowering the streaming service price. Since DVDs generally have closed captions, this further discriminated against the deaf and hard-of-hearing community. This price gap earned the nickname “the deaf tax.”

Word of this reached the National Association of the Deaf (NAD), a non-profit organization that seeks to promote and protect the civil, human, and linguistic rights of deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals in the United States. The NAD made several public statements and open letters to Netflix over the subject of closed captions. Now, at the time Netflix was working on closed captions, but progress was extraordinarily slow. In 2010, nearly 7,000 movies and TV shows were available to stream. Only 300 of these had closed captions. Clearly, captions were not a priority.

The NAD decided it was time to take things to the next level.

“While Netflix is making progress, which is great it is painfully slow. Further, Netflix does not provide a means for consumers to identify captioned Watch Instantly videos, except by trying to watch them. Looking for a captioned video on Netflix is literally like ‘looking for a needle in a haystack.’

. . . The NAD calls on Netflix, again, to caption all of the videos on its Watch Instantly services now. No exclusion, no discrimination, no special discounts, no exceptions. We do not want to pay more and get less. We want equal access” (1).

Rosaline Crawford (Director of Law and Advocacy for the NAD) in an open letter to Catherine Fisher (Director of Communications for Netflix) on December 17, 2010

In June 2011, the NAD filed a lawsuit against Netflix.

“We have tried for years to persuade Netflix to do the right thing and provide equal access to all content across all platforms. They chose not to serve our community on an equal basis; we must have equal access to the biggest provider of streamed entertainment. As Netflix itself acknowledges, streamed video is the future and we must not be left out” (2).

Bobbie Beth Scoggins, President of the NAD

Netflix had already won several lawsuits over this topic. Their defense was that the ADA was drafted to increase access to physical spaces. Since they were an online service, they had no obligation to make their business accessible. Unfortunately, it was a strong case. As I mentioned before, the ADA had nothing about accessibility for web services or virtual products simply because it was written before these things were invented.

The NAD acknowledge that the ADA was written before the digital age, but argued that it didn’t mean the internet is an exception to the ADA, but rather, lawmakers needed to redefine what a physical space meant in a digital world. People with all sorts of disabilities were being left behind and excluded, which is what the ADA was supposed to prevent.

One year later, on June 19, 2012, the judge ruled in favor of the NAD. Netflix was required to pay nearly $800,000 in legal fees. Their entire library was required to be closed captioned within two years and new content could not be uploaded unless it contained closed captions.

“In a society in which business is increasingly conducted online, excluding businesses that sell services through the internet from the ADA would run afoul of the purpose of the ADA. It would severely frustrate Congress’s intent that individuals with disabilities fully enjoy the goods, services, privileges, and advantages available indiscriminately to other members of the general public” (3).

Judge Ponsor, on ruling for NAD v. Netflix

The lawsuit made waves through the internet. Netflix was a multi-million-dollar business and the powerhouse of streaming entertainment. They were one of the biggest businesses at the time. When they lost the lawsuit, it sent a message to all the other digital giants who thought they were exempt from the ADA.

In the following years, these giants took steps to became more accessible. YouTube continues to work on improving its closed captions and encourages creators to add closed captions to their videos. Hulu, HBO Max, and Amazon Prime worked to add closed captions to all their content. Even Facebook took strides to be more inclusive. When Disney+ came out, everything they had to offer already had closed captions. Accessibility is being recognized as a fundamental need rather than an optional suggestion.

However, there are still a good number of companies that have yet to make themselves accessible. Today, while the ADA has website guidelines, there are no enforceable legal standards for web accessibility. In 2017, regulations were drafted to include digital accessibility in the ADA. Unfortunately, when it came to approving these regulations in 2020, Donald Trump chose to ignore them. As of today, these regulations have yet to be approved and enforced. Until they are, the civil rights of disabled people will always be questionable for web-based services and products.

As for me, I would have been in my last years of high school before Netflix became accessible to me and I could rejoin my family to watch movies. Now, I watch just as much Netflix as anybody else (which is to say, too much)! And every Friday night, you’ll find me sitting beside my family, watching the latest episode, and reading the closed captions.

Don’t forget to watch the Oscars tonight! Three disabled films have been nominated (a record)! For the first time in history, the Oscars stage will look different as it has been redesigned to be accessible to actors and directors with disabilities. The nominees include Sound of Metal (available only on Amazon Prime), Feeling Through (available for free through YouTube), and Crip Camp (available only on Netflix).

References

  1. Crawford, Rosaline. NAD Calls out Netflix on “Deaf Tax”. 17 Dec. 2010, http://www.nad.org/2010/12/17/nad-calls-out-netflix-on-deaf-tax/.
  2. “NAD v. Netflix.” Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund, 7 Mar. 2014, dredf.org/legal-advocacy/nad-v-netflix/.
  3. Leduc, Jaclyn. “NAD v. Netflix ADA Lawsuit Requires Captioning for Streaming Video.” 3Play Media, 26 Mar. 2021, http://www.3playmedia.com/blog/nad-v-netflix-ada-lawsuit-requires-closed-captioning-on-streaming-video/.

Movie Report: Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution

Genre: Documentary
Released Date: March 25, 2020
Rated R for sexual references and some language

2020 Sundance Film Festival Audience Award
2020 Miami Film Festival Zeno Mountain Award
2021 36th Annual International Documentary Association Award, Best Feature
2021 Oscar Nominee

Summary
Whenever a bunch of disabled people gets together, it spawns a unique culture. Crip Camp is no exception. A documentary about Camp Jened, which served as the seedbed for the Disability Civil Rights Movement, the bonds these campers made had a global impact. These stories are told in the words of the activists themselves, including Judy Huemann, Jim LeBrecht (who is also the director and producer of this film), and many others. The film includes first-hand footage of the Capitol Crawl, Section 504 protests, and the age of institutionalization. This film is humorous, heart-breaking, victorious, and beautiful.

I’m going to be honest. When I first heard about Crip Camp, I was ecstatic. It was shortly after I was introduced to disability studies and this film was one of the things that introduced me to my history as a disabled person. It is comprised of activists telling their stories interview-style, as well as a compilation of first-hand recordings made by the activists as they participated in these ground-breaking protests and events. For me, it was powerful to watch because it was the first time in my life that I got to see footage of the Disability Civil Rights Movement. And yes, this film made me cry as well as laugh out loud.

Camp Jened was a camp specifically for disabled teenagers that ran from 1951 to 1977. Whereas in the outside world, each of the campers had to deal with discrimination and barriers, Camp Jened was the opposite. Instead of being kept isolated and barred from living life, trying to hide their disabilities as best as they could, campers found independence and connection.

“At the camp you could do anything that you thought you wanted to do. You wouldn’t be picked to be on a team back home. But at Jened, you had to go up to bat!”

Lionel Je’ Woodyard, Camp Jened Counselor

Campers would help each other out. If you couldn’t play soccer with your feet, but you could crawl, then that was how you played. If you couldn’t crawl, then fellow campers would help drag you after the ball. And this was true of everything, not just sports. In this way, Camp Jened created a culture of inclusivity. They would find a way to make things work.

“It was so funky. But it was a utopia! When we were there, there was no outside world.”

Denise Sherer Jacobson, Camper

But camp also provided a place for connection. Campers were able to talk about difficult subjects, such as overprotective parents, sexuality, and the struggle for independence. People with disabilities are often not able to be as independent as they would like to be. For example, growing up I didn’t have a deaf-friendly alarm clock. I had to rely on my Mom to wake me up for school. While she did it without complaint for years, I was frustrated because I didn’t have the luxury of getting up when I wanted to. If I wanted to wake up earlier and Mom didn’t want to—I didn’t have a choice. I was seventeen years old when I got a deaf-friendly alarm clock. I found out about it shortly after joining a deaf basketball team. Being able to get up whenever I wanted to was a freedom I’ve never experienced. The freedom of being independent.

This is my current alarm clock. It comes with a special vibrator that goes under the mattress.
Instead of using sound, I am awakened by vibrations.

Another example of struggling for independence comes from Judy Heumann’s book Being Heumann. She talked about how her mother would always choose her outfits for her, even if Judy wanted to wear something different. But because Judy couldn’t reach her clothes and needed help to get dressed, and her mother was often busy helping Judy’s siblings get ready for school, she often didn’t have a say in what she wanted to wear. While everyone experiences a different version of struggling for independence, it is a common experience throughout the disabled community.

“At camp we tasted freedom for the first time in our lives. Camp is where we had freedom from our parents dressing us, choosing our clothes for us, choosing our food for us, driving us to our friend’s houses. This is something we would have naturally grown out of, like our nondisabled friends, but we live in an inaccessible world, so we have not. We loved our parents, but we relished our freedom from them.
“. . . The freedom we felt at camp was not just from our parents and our need for their daily assistance in order to live our lives.
“We were drunk on the freedom of not feeling like a burden, a feeling that was a constant companion in our lives outside of camp.”

Judy Heumann, Being Heumann pages 24-25

Having these kinds of discussions, connecting with other people with disabilities, and experiencing a culture of complete inclusivity, had a lasting impact on these teenagers. As Jim LeBrecht said, “What we saw at camp was that our lives could be better. The fact of the matter is you don’t have anything to strive for if you don’t know it exists.” They wanted the world to be more like Camp Jened. They kept in contact and started forming organizations. That’s how the Disability Civil Rights Movement started. Many of the campers from Jened participated in the Capitol Crawl, Section 504, and many other protests.

These protests, as I have mentioned in previous blog posts, changed the world. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was the first civil rights bill for disabled people in the world. The ADA was based on Section 504, which is an incredible story in itself and the first legislation of its kind in the world as well.

Camp Jened also brought together disabled people from many different backgrounds. Some were kept isolated at home, others were allowed to go to school with non-disabled peers, some were enrolled in special education classes, and others came from institutions.

Institutionalization started around the 1800s. At this time, because so many people were living in poverty, institutions were established to provide housing and access to food and water. But it was also a way to segregate the undesirable person from society. Institutions were intentionally built outside of cities, away from society. But institutions in this age were more focused on education and teaching valuable life skills.

With the 1900s came the rise of eugenics. The quality of institutions dropped as it was believed that people with disabilities would never contribute to society. In Germany, institutions were used as part of a program called Aktion T4, which served as the precursor to the Holocaust. In America, it was common practice for families to abandon disabled children at institutions so as not to deal with the social stigmas surrounding disabilities. Many families would never visit their child, opting instead to tell friends, relatives, and siblings that they lost the baby.

Images from these institutions might be mistaken as photos from the Holocaust. Understaffed and overfilled with patients, many of these facilities were dirty and cramped. Patients were malnourished and abused. Some didn’t even have clothes and most would sit in the dark emitting mournful cries.

Crip Camp includes a news story about an institution called Willowbrook. Footage includes children sleeping on the floor in hallways and bathrooms, naked or nearly naked, some covered in their own feces. Willowbrook was so understaffed that each of the children had three minutes to be fed. Jim LeBrecht recalled that one of the campers at Camp Jened was from Willowbrook.

“I remember being in the dining hall and this guy comes in. He was basically eating as much as he could. He was just… kept on shoveling it in until the point where he threw up. It was kind of like somebody coming in from the wild.”

Jim LeBrecht

Ending institutionalization was also a huge part of the Disability Civil Rights Movement. Today, institutions still exist, but there are a very limited number of them. In addition, lot more laws and government oversight are in place to make sure they are healthy and safe places. It helps that we live now in a society that no longer seeks to segregate disabled people from nondisabled people.

Crip Camp is an amazing and powerful film that shows a side of history most don’t know. Currently, it is only available on Netflix. It has been nominated for the 2021 Oscars, which will be taking place one week from today. There have only been two Oscars awarded to disabled people to date. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that this will be the third. There is a huge lack of disabled representation in films and this goes a long way in the fight for visibility.

“Even though [more than] 20% of the population has a disability, 2% of roles in Hollywood are for disabled characters and of that 2%, only 5% are played by people with disabilities. The rest are played by actors without disabilities.”

Marlee Matlin, 2017 Oscar for Best Actress
Marlee Matlin is an American actress, author, and Deaf activist

This means of all the roles in Hollywood .001% are played by disabled actors. Even though the disabled community is the largest minority on the planet, we are still invisible. And we want more than representation, we want authenticity. We don’t want to be represented by discriminatory stereotypes or by able-bodied actors. We want to be shown as ourselves and as people because that is who we are. When people see who we are and what we are capable of, barriers start burning down.

One last thing that I will talk about is how Crip Camp talks about sexuality. Too often, people with disabilities are not expected to be in relationships or be sexual. We are predominately seen as disabilities, not as people. One of the campers in the film talks about her various relationships, including having an affair with the bus driver. Later she had to go to the hospital for stomach pains. The doctor, assuming it couldn’t be anything other than appendicitis, operated on her. The appendix was healthy, however, and the stomach pains persisted. Only after the doctor had exhausted all other options, did he realize that the camper had an STD. It never crossed his mind that a disabled person could be sexually active.

Because so many people share the same perspective as this doctor, it was one of the most powerful moments of the film. It challenges everything audiences think they know about disabilities.

Camp Jened doesn’t just represent the past. It also represents the future.

Who do you hope wins wins at the Oscars this year? Comment below and let me know!