by Lisa Bryant
From the Editor: For almost two years now, we have been involved in an effort to “Let Us Play Us.” The idea is simple: when a blind person is portrayed, whether on Broadway, on television, or on the big screen, we want blind people considered for these roles. It is not surprising that people with other disabilities want the same. Here is an interview conducted by our own Lisa Bryant, a member of the Keystone chapter of the National Federation of the Blind of Pennsylvania. Lisa is a freelance writer, and when she heard about this movie, she decided to see if she could get an interview for the Braille Monitor. She asked, they said yes, and here is our outstanding article:
“I welcome the industry to invite more of us to the table. Let’s take this and build upon it.”
—Robert Tarango, deafblind actor in Feeling Through
The Miracle Worker is undoubtedly the most famous movie featuring a deafblind character. Based on the autobiography of Helen Keller, who was deafblind, the film also tells the story of Anne Sullivan, Keller’s blind teacher. In the film, Sullivan is the only person able to reach Keller—transforming her from a wild, frustrated young girl, misunderstood, and even feared by her own family, to a tender and in her way, communicative Helen.
That was in 1962. The film received multiple Oscar nominations with its two lead actresses winning for their roles. Patti Duke, a sighted and hearing actress played Keller, while Anne Bancroft, also sighted, played the role of Sullivan.
At this year’s Oscars, Feeling Through, a short film by Doug Roland was nominated for its portrayal of a deafblind character. But, unlike more than fifty years ago, Feeling Through casts Robert Tarango, who is deafblind in real life as Artie, the deafblind character in the film.
Based on a true encounter Roland had one night in New York City, the eighteen-minute short tells of a chance meeting between Tereek, (played by Steven Prescod), a young man wondering where he will sleep that night, and Artie who is making his way home from a date. To help Artie, Tereek learns on the fly how to communicate with him; mainly using the print on palm method.
“I knew I wanted to cast an actor who was deafblind,” said Roland who contacted the Helen Keller National Center (HKNC) in the very beginning of the project. He added that it was important that he make the film alongside the community it portrayed.
Roland worked closely with Christopher Woodfill, associate director of HKNC, who is also deafblind. According to Roland, Woodfill provided a host of potential “Arties” from a nationwide pool of actors.
Yet, after several in-person and remote auditions, the role of Artie remained open. That is until interpreter Erin Quinn suggested Tarango who worked in the kitchen of the center. Although Tarango had no professional acting experience, Roland said he knew almost instantly that they had found their Artie.
For Tarango, it was a day he will never forget. “I was working in the kitchen as an aide, just doing what I do every day,” said Tarango. That is until his boss summoned him to a meeting in another building on the center’s campus. “I thought I was in trouble,” said Tarango, never imagining he would become the first deafblind actor cast in an Oscar-nominated film.
But when Roland first approached Sue Ruzenski, Ed.D. and CEO of Helen Keller Services, the parent company of HKNC, she was initially cautious, wondering if the team’s efforts were sincere and if they really did “get it.” “I first thought here is a completely different field coming through. What are their understandings, and will they be respectful?” said Ruzenski. “They could have their own agenda, and it might not be aligned with our community,” she added. It seemed like a risk.
However, once the two teams met, Ruzenski, who is also co-producer of the film, was assured it was a risk worth taking. “Doug was a listener and a learner from the start,” Ruzenski said; adding that Roland was intentional in keeping her and HKNC included at every turn.
As co-producer, Ruzenski assisted with a variety of resources from fundraising to accommodations such as both voicing and signing interpreters. For Roland, providing these and other accommodations never felt burdensome but instead gave even more value to making the film.
“It feels like the wrong approach to look at working with people with disabilities as an extra cost or an extra challenge,” Roland said. Adding that, “Anytime we work with people who are different from us, we learn more about our world and ourselves.” He also said there was the ripple effect of providing a transformative teaching moment for the film crew. Perhaps more important than providing accommodations is a genuine and respectful treatment or in this case portrayal of persons with disabilities.
In Feeling Through, Artie seems to quickly trust Tereek, in one scene handing Tereek his wallet to pay for a juice. Perhaps not surprisingly, Tereek helps himself to a ten-dollar tip (you will have to watch the short for the conclusion to this scene).
During one watch party, viewers were mostly pleased with the film’s treatment of a deafblind actor. But some questioned that scene as unrealistic.
Marsha Drenth is a longtime Federationist and president of the Pennsylvania Association of the Deafblind. She said it was great to have a film giving attention to deafblindness and reaching Oscar-level recognition. “But I don’t think any deafblind person would just hand over their wallet.”
In addressing the criticism, Roland notes that when there are too few stories or examples of a certain group, the one more publicized story becomes representative of an entire community—“which is what we shouldn’t do,” he said. Roland also urges viewers to look at the full context of the film rather than isolating the one scene.
As for future projects, Roland, Ruzenski, and the HKNC team are collaborating on developing a curriculum for high school and college-aged students. One goal of the curriculum is to break down fears and hesitancy in communicating with a deafblind person. Ruzenski plans to involve deafblind staff at HKNC in developing the program.
As for Tarango, who was born deaf, being in the film was fulfillment of an acting career he thought was deferred when he later lost his vision as an adult. He has not so subtly hinted at wanting to do a Feeling Through part two, and he hopes to have been an inspiration to others in his community. “Look at what I just did! You can do it too!” said Tarango.
To hear her full interview on Blind Abilities with both Robert Tarango and Doug Roland go to: https://traffic.libsyn.com/secure/blindabilities/FeelingThrough.mp3, and to watch Feeling Through with audio description go to: Feeling Through (with audio description) - YouTube
Deafblind Awareness Week is June 27-July 3. For more information go to HKNC: Deafblind Awareness Week 2021 (helenkeller.org)
Lisa Bryant is a freelance writer living in Philadelphia. She is an active member of the Keystone Chapter.