Deaf Culture Signals Access: How Can Industry Do Better?

An Interview with CODA Actor Daniel Durant

By Weezie Melançon

Daniel Durant became a household name in Hollywood this year when he showed the world his bona fide acting chops and raw talent playing the character of Leo Rossi, a Deaf son, brother, and fisherman with an entrepreneurial ambition, in the Best Picture Oscar-winning film CODA.

Born in Detroit, Michigan and bred in Duluth, Minnesota, Daniel is a stage and screen actor, an ASL artist, a video game lover, and an advocate for Deaf accessibility.

Image Source: Collection Christophel/Alamy

Ava had the opportunity to speak with Daniel about his experience growing up Deaf, his thoughts on equality for Deaf people, and his excitement for the future. He shares insight on how accessibility and inclusivity impacted his life in school, and speaks to the importance of understanding and appreciating Deaf culture.

As the Deaf community maintains its position in the limelight, there is a clear call to action for all industries to implement necessary changes to improve accessibility practices. The conversation with Daniel spurs the pertinent question: What can corporate entities and educational institutions do to ensure there is an equal playing field for the Deaf?

“CODA exposed Deaf culture and put it in the spotlight. My question is, “Will this continue?” I want this to continue. We have to work hard to keep it going.”
– Daniel Durant

The following is the transcript of an interview with award-winning Deaf actor, Daniel Durant.

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Weezie Melancon (in sign language) : Hi, Daniel! Nice to meet you.

Daniel Durant: Hello! Nice to meet you, too.

WM: Before we get to CODA and your amazing performance in the movie, let’s start a couple of decades earlier. I understand you went to a mainstream school up until eighth grade before transferring to a Deaf school. Will you share what those experiences were like?

Daniel Durant: Yeah, definitely. I grew up in a mainstream school, like you said. I was the only Deaf student in school, so I always had an interpreter with me - by my side, usually. And at that time, I struggled to socialize with other kids. I wanted to make friends with other students, but in elementary school, it was weird because my interpreter was an adult. Having an adult always by my side interpreting for me didn’t make kids very comfortable. They didn’t want to come play with me because I was the kid with an adult attached to them, if that makes sense. I always had an interpreter with me, and I like to be independent. I like to be by myself, and I like to do what I want.

Transferring to Deaf school made such a huge difference. Everyone on campus was Deaf. Everyone was signing — all of the teachers could sign, my football coach could sign. So, I could play any sport I wanted. It was a brilliant experience. I was dropped into Deaf culture, and I caught up. I caught up in classes. I caught up in athleticism. I learned Deaf culture and I advanced my language because I was in a school for the Deaf. It was night and day difference.

'CODA' Star Daniel Durant Shares Hysterical Story Of Unknowingly Jamming Out To NPR Talk Radio

Source: YouTube

WM: Do you think there are specific practices mainstream schools should implement to improve inclusivity for Deaf students in order to bridge the two worlds (hearing and Deaf) and teach hearing kids about Deaf culture?

Daniel Durant: Yeah, I think it would be better if mainstream schools had Deaf studies, or had Deaf languages on offer. That way, Deaf children wouldn’t feel all alone. Then maybe there would be more Deaf students [in mainstream schools] and there could be Deaf groups and classes. That would be nice as hearing and Deaf kids could grow up together. It’s so important to have Deaf friends, and I think that would help.

WM: Sign Language is such a beautiful language and visual form of communication. Do you think it should perhaps be required in schools as part of the curriculum?

Daniel Durant: That’s a great idea. Teaching ASL (American Sign Language) in schools — that’s the answer. If it was always an option, just like with Spanish and French in most schools. I remember in elementary school, some students would learn sign language and it helped. It helped with access. I think it would be nice if ASL was added as another language offered. I think it would benefit everyone. It doesn’t matter if you’re far away, or speaking through a window, or speaking underwater, ASL comes in handy during specific moments in time — for hearing people, too. It can benefit anyone.

WM (in sign language): I’m learning sign language, slowly.

Daniel Durant: (smiling) Perfect.

WM: Late, but better late than never.

Daniel Durant: That’s right.

Image Source: Getty

WM: Fast forward to Hollywood. How would you describe your experience as a Deaf actor and do you feel a shift after all the attention CODA has received?

Daniel Durant: I would say, as Daniel, I still feel the same. I still feel I have to work hard to get my opportunities. I’m very thankful for the experience of CODA, and for all the success of CODA for opening doors to more opportunities — not just for myself, but for other Deaf actors. I’m definitely getting invited to different projects. I now work with a wonderful agency (Buchwald & Koopman Management) and lots of things are happening, and I am thankful to CODA for that. CODA changed the world, for sure. It let everyone know about Deaf culture. CODA exposed Deaf culture and put it in the spotlight. It was the first film to have authentic Deaf actors casted, so all of this is going to open doors and create more opportunities for the future. My question is, “Will this continue?” I want this to continue. We have to work hard to keep it going.

WM: Do you see technology, such as Ava, helping with Deaf accessibility and inclusivity in your industry?

Daniel Durant: Yes, definitely — any handheld caption technology. I like to use an interpreter, myself, and on the set of CODA, we had interpreters around; but if there wasn’t an interpreter or if an interpreter had to go to the restroom or something, then I would use Ava. It was nice to have to fall back on as insurance. I'm sure Ava helps people worldwide, in general, not just with Deaf people, but with languages. It’s a really cool thing and I can see what people are talking about because Ava is really just about access.

Image Source: Apple

WM: We’re starting a series, called “Agents of Change” focusing on corporations committed to accessibility and inclusivity in the workforce and among their employees. Do you have ideas on how companies can improve DEI for the Deaf?

Daniel Durant: That’s a very good question. As you know, CODA is raising awareness about Deaf culture. It has turned people on to create new ideas for technology. There are so many people out there with ideas on how to improve access for Deaf people, and I hope that companies are listening and paying attention to Deaf culture — and being more open to hiring Deaf people to join their team. Simply, being Deaf friendly — not just with the language, but with the culture. Hopefully, they are able to see how they can benefit from a Deaf person, and see how a Deaf person can benefit from their company.

“I'm sure Ava helps people worldwide… It’s a really cool thing, and I can see what people are talking about because Ava is really just about access.”
– Daniel Durant

WM: Did you see Tim Cook is giving the commencement speech at your alma mater, Gallaudet?

Daniel Durant: Yes, that’s very exciting. It’s so nice of Tim Cook to go speak there. It’s really been a great year for the Deaf community.

Tim Cook at Gallaudet (Instagram)

WM: We hope to interview Tim Cook to ask him what Apple, as leaders in technology, is doing for Deaf accessibility and inclusivity.

Daniel Durant: Yeah, I’d like to know, too. That would be awesome.

WM: Maybe we could come up with an accessibility “challenge” to present to corporations, like Apple.

Daniel Durant: That’s a great idea. We should.

WM: We’ll work on that. Is there anything else you’d like to add on this topic, or another?

7 Minutes of Daniel Durant [CC]

Video Source: YouTube

Daniel Durant: I’d like to add something on accessibility because my passion is improving accessibility for everything. I love video games. For example, with Call of Duty, Deaf people struggle [when playing the video game] because you can’t compete with a hearing person since a hearing person can hear footsteps behind them, or where the gun shots are coming from. On the other hand, I play the game Fortnite and they have visual effects so you can see if someone is shooting because your screen wiggles and such, so it’s very accessible for Deaf people. I can see if someone is shooting at me from behind. There are Deaf Pro-players in Fortnite, so it proves that if it’s fair and accessible then Deaf players can be equal. So, I would love to improve accessibility with video games for the future. That’s not something a lot of people talk about, but I wanted to add that because I love video games.

WM: Sounds like you should be an ambassador for Deaf accessibility in the Gaming industry. Perhaps a follow-up article: Gaming and Deaf Culture.

Daniel Durant: Yes, that sounds great! I would love that.

WM: Do you have any projects coming up that you’d like to mention?

Daniel Durant: Florida Man on Netflix should be coming out soon. I’m excited to see it. And I have a few projects coming up this summer I’m going to start working on. There’s a lot of things going on. I’m excited. I just have to keep it going!

WM: Keep it going, indeed. Thank you, Daniel!

Daniel Durant: Thank you! This was a great chat.

Image Source: Twitter

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The growing awareness of Deaf culture has sparked innovation and advancements for Deaf accessibility in technology, and other sectors. Two key tools that promote Deaf accessibility, include subtitles/captions and visual cues/communication.

From schools to social settings to the work place, education proves to reduce discrimination and promote inclusivity for the Deaf community. Accountability remains instrumental as more institutions install DEI divisions to improve access for minorities. This goes beyond ADA compliance and other regulations. It’s about equal access.

Ava currently empowers Deaf & hard-of-hearing people with instant voice-to-caption technology for in-person or online discourse. As we align with fellow agents of such change, whether it be individuals or corporations, bridging hearing and Deaf communities remains the collective mission.