Deafness on Grey’s Anatomy (Again)

Over the years, Grey’s Anatomy has been a bit all over the place on disability. Sometimes the show really nails it, and other times…not so much. That’s why, when I saw parents Signing with their daughter on ‘Go It Alone’ (10×20), I braced for the worst, but I ended up being pleasantly surprised, because the way the show handled D/deaf issues was refreshing, and it made me think that someone had finally done some homework which might have included talking to actual D/deaf and hard of hearing people — not least because the mother, Nicole Kaslinger (Deanne Bray) was played by an actress who is hard of hearing herself and fluent in both English and American Sign Language.

The setup: Jackson and April are called to a facial laceration in the ER, where a young girl waits for attention after the family dog has bitten her face. Within a few moments, it becomes apparent that the girl and her mother are Deaf, with the father acting as a translator. Rather than focusing on what’s brought them into the ER, Jackson asks if they have considered a Cochlear implant, and becomes quite pushy about it.

As the father translates, it’s clear that Nicole is increasingly agitated and upset, until April intervenes to firmly tell the parents that she respects their decision, it’s their choice, and everyone should focus on cleaning and sewing up the dog bite. It was a brief cameo, but it was a striking one: I’ve seen Cochlear implants come up on Grey’s Anatomy before and in this scene, the discussion about the implant was framed as inappropriate, intrusive, and disrespectful. April definitely came out as being on the right side in the conversation, while Jackson looked pushy and rude.

Though the moment was brief, it came up again later in the episode, when Jackson and April had a vicious argument in their apartment on the subject. He made a comment that if it was his kid, he’d fit her for a Cochlear as soon as possible, and April got angry, asking if she’d have any say in this decision since it would presumably be her child as well. Jackson seemed genuinely taken aback that April might consider doing anything other than fitting her child for an implant, and the conversation got more heated as April pointed out that Deaf culture was a real and present part of society, and that members of the Deaf community don’t consider themselves broken or in need of fixing.

Jackson shut down and didn’t seem to want to take the conversation seriously, while April kept pushing, pointing out that this was a conversation with big implications, that the couple needed to be able to talk about things that they might disagree on. What about faith, she asked, or Bible study, or christening, or other things that might be important to her? Viewers learned in the next episode that the conversation was particularly important to her because she was pregnant, but the conversation could have stood on its own, as well, because she asked some challenging theoretical questions.

While parts of April’s lines about Deaf culture came off as a bit servicey, they were huge for a mainstream audience to be hearing. When the Deaf community does show up in pop culture, it’s often in fleeting glimpses, and it’s often in negative, misleading, and inaccurate ways. That’s starting to change with Marlee Matlin on ABC’s Switched at Birth, among other things, and a larger shift may be happening as hearing people come to a deeper understanding about the Deaf community. Hearing people need to learn about the differences between the big and little D, about what it means to be hard of hearing, and April provided a window into that, though it was through the lens of a hearing person talking hypothetically about having a Deaf child — it would have been better to encounter her passionate arguments through the hands of the actual Deaf characters.

In a single theoretical conversation about parenting, though, Rhimes and the production crew along with the writers managed to bring up a contentious and provocative issue: in an era where it’s possible for hearing loss and deafness to be treated with implants and sophisticated technology, many people are debating whether they should ‘cure’ deaf children, even as the Deaf community is speaking out on how this affects them.

Writing about the trend of ‘people hearing for the first time’ videos that are making the rounds these days, in yet another iteration of disability porn, Lilit Marcus pointed out such videos and their framing are extremely harmful, making it seem like deafness is a thing to be fixed, and excluding Deaf people who can’t get implants, or who choose not to because they are Deaf and proud, identifying as vital members of their own community and culture. Jackson’s comments in Grey’s Anatomy were part of a larger social attitude that is regrettably and disturbingly common, while April voiced support for the Deaf community, expressing a stance on the issue that should be more pervasive.

The choice of whether to get a Cochlear implant should be in the hands of the individual, not the hearing community. And the conversation about implants within the D/deaf community is a complicated one that hearing people might want to sit down and watch, rather than jumping into, because there’s a lot more going on here than the assumption that hearing loss is a bad thing that needs to be repaired.

Image: sign language in action, elyse patten, Flickr.