Listening with an Open Eye: Identifying Deaf and Hard of Hearing Actors

There is a national pool of professional Deaf and hard of hearing actors, reachable through the unions, through resource organizations, through talent agencies and managers and through Deaf-specific organizations.

How do I go about finding Deaf and hard of hearing performers?

There are a variety of ways to locate Deaf and hard of hearing actors. The performing unions -Actors’ Equity Association (Actors’ Equity), the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) and Screen Actors Guild (SAG) – each have lists of members who are Deaf and hard of hearing. In the case of SAG, you will soon be able to locate these members on the internet. Also, the three performing unions have a joint, tri-union Performers with Disabilities Committee.

Several resource organizations can assist in the identification of Deaf and hard of hearing performers. The Non-Traditional Casting Project (NTCP) provides Artist Files/Online (AFO). The largest talent bank of its kind in the country, AFO contains headshots and resumes of actors who are Deaf and hard of hearing, actors with disabilities and actors of color, available for viewing by appointment in NTCP’s New York office or over the internet on NTCP’s website. To obtain access to AFO, please contact the who will provide a username and a password to those with professional credentials.

Another important organization is the Media Access Office based in Los Angeles. The purpose of the Media Access Office is to actively promote the employment and accurate portrayal of persons with disabilities in all areas of the media and entertainment industry. The Media Access Office also offers a database of professional performers with disabilities.

In addition to resource organizations, you may also find Deaf and hard of hearing actors through theatre companies such as Deaf West Theatre and the National Theatre of the Deaf.

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Deaf West Theatre was established in 1991 as the first professional resident Sign Language Theatre west of the Mississippi. DWT productions have featured multi-award winning artists and have earned over 30 prestigious entertainment industry awards for artistic merit.

Since it was established in 1967, The National Theatre of the Deaf (NTD) has produced national tours, performances throughout the country, all the continents and international tours. NTD is the oldest continually-producing touring theatre company in the United States.

Independent casting director Sharon Bialy encourages decision-makers to be resourceful. She applauds the example of Deaf West Theatre offering space for an open call of the film Mr. Holland’s Opus, when Bialy was seeking Deaf actors. Bialy found Deaf West extremely helpful in reaching and attracting Deaf actors and in getting the word out to the Deaf community.

Thinking Creatively and Thinking Ahead

Four years ago, when Artistic Director Irene Lewis was still thinking about the upcoming season of plays she would produce at Center Stage, she made a special effort to identify and introduce herself to the available talent pool of Deaf actors. Six months before the season started, with the help of her casting director, Judy Dennis, and calling on various resources including NTCP’s Artist Files, she set up interviews with a number of Deaf actors. The purpose was to meet and see a general audition from each one. Then, she asked each actor what roles they were most interested in playing. Lewis opened her thinking to the creative possibilities the inclusion of Deaf and hard of hearing actors could bring to Center Stage. “Now, we automatically consider a number of these actors with each show we do,” says Lewis.

How do I contact or place a call to a Deaf or hard of hearing actor?

For Deaf and hard of hearing actors who have e-mail or pagers and for whom you have their contact information, it works in the same way as when you contact a hearing actor.

If you are using telephone, you can use Relay. Simply, you dial the national Relay number, 711, which connects you with a Relay operator. You then tell the operator you are calling Jane Doe at a given telephone number (include the area code) and the operator will place the call for you on his or her TTY (also called TDD for Telecommunication Device for the Deaf). It is a small machine with a keyboard (resembling a laptop computer) with a digital readout. When you use Relay, the operator takes your voiced message, types it out on her keyboard where it is then transmitted and received as an electronic digital readout by the Deaf recipient. When the Deaf person responds, the reverse happens: s/he types in her response which the operator reads and speaks back to you. There is simple comportment to follow when using the Relay system. When each person is finished with his or her turn “talking,” the appropriate etiquette is to say (or type) “GA”, for “Go Ahead,” meaning, “it’s your turn”. When the conversation is concluding, the person signing off indicates “SK” (as in “Stop Keying”) which is normally confirmed with an “SK” by the other party. To give the party warning that you are moving toward the conclusion of your business, you might also indicate “GA to SK”.