Once in a while a film comes along which makes you want to be a better person, giving you an insight into a world to which you were hitherto tone deaf. I mix my metaphors of sight and hearing quite deliberately.

The film CODA does this to the T – indeed to the very T in ‘tone-deaf’. Until watching it, I had never heard of CODA as an acronym, still less did I know what it actually meant. Child of Deaf Adults (CODA) refers to a child (or children) raised by one or more deaf parents or guardians.

Apparently, 90 per cent of those born to deaf adults can hear normally, which means that they can straddle the deaf and hearing worlds, serving as crucial communicators and mediators – a veritable bridge between their deaf parents and the hearing world they also inhabit.

This thought-provoking film made me question things for the first time, indeed things that had never even occurred to me before. And that, of course, made me realise that the world we live in is not really made for people with disabilities. Indeed, ‘able-bodied’ privilege is alive and well. And the film beautifully and subtly underlined the hearing world’s complete failure to understand deafness, let alone engage with it.

My own self-absorption and lack of awareness were eye (and ear) openers. I had never, for instance, stopped to consider whether deaf people could drive cars while the discovery that 26 countries still deny them that right was, quite frankly, rather shocking. No wonder deaf people often have a fight on their hands, even in places where the right exists.

All too often, an accident involving a deaf person will cause many of us to leap to hasty conclusions. Put simply, we fail to appreciate that what deaf people lack in hearing they more than make up for in increased peripheral vision. The other thing is that we don’t take into account the electronic devices deaf people install in their cars alerting them to external noises.

Boating, on the other hand, is a universal no-no for deaf people. Given that radio communication is vital at sea, that’s perhaps understandable, for a deaf person can’t possibly be allowed to operate as ‘captain’ if a hearing person isn’t on board to alert coastguards and other vessels in the event of an emergency. Now, this is where the film CODA comes in and focuses on the life of Ruby, a child of deaf adults who tries to juggle the demands school against those of home, especially when she is counted upon to work on the family’s fishing boat, quite literally hook, line and sinker.

Have you ever stopped to chat with a deaf person?- Michela Spiteri

The film explores with sensitivity the enormous pressures and hardships that exist for deaf and CODA individuals alike in a predominantly hearing world. The nub of the matter is simply this: deaf people see everything but hear nothing. And, perhaps most crucial of all, they don’t have a voice to communicate their already compromised experience of the world.

Think of crying rooms in churches (where you are seen but not heard) and then imagine living like that for good. And this, of course, is where CODAs come in. From a very early age, they are hard wired into a life of interpreting and signing and without any formal training. They are the ‘unmute’ button, giving a voice and agency to the deaf community.

CODA the film helped me both understand and respect a world that is, for the most part, isolated, silenced and ignored. I realised, not without discomfort and guilt, that we live blithely, even complacently, in a non-signing world: one in which, without access to a CODA, the deaf can only communicate successfully with each other.

Think about it: have you ever stopped to chat with a deaf person? Would you even feel nervous just being around a deaf person? If you answered no and yes to the above, that is perfectly understandable. We are reluctant to be around deaf people because we feel inadequate and out of our depth. I don’t have any deaf friends and, although I do know a couple of people who are deaf, I have only ever waved at them from a safe distance. If a deaf person were to need my help in an emergency, I wouldn’t know what to do.

Malta prides itself on being at the forefront in its promotion of minority rights, so perhaps now is as good a time as any for Malta’s schools to teach basic sign language. Most hearing people don’t know how to sign, which, in turn, creates huge barriers between them and the deaf community.

Forgetting for one moment the isolation and loneliness experienced by deaf people, lack of communication can also be dangerous for them. There is indeed a strong practical argument. And, just as we were once required to study physics, maths, Maltese and English at school (or forfeit our stipends), so young people today should be taught sign language.

Even if they were exposed to just one sign a day during assembly, barriers would still come down and life would be more inclusive for deaf people.

I am perfectly aware (though, admittedly, only after having watched the film) that there is no one universal sign language, although the International Sign Language is used by deaf people when travelling.

But, within nations and language groups, the situation is very different. In the English-speaking world, for example, there’s British Sign Language and American Sign Language, just for starters.

There are, in fact, no less than 300 sign languages worldwide, which is more than the total number of countries, 41 of which recognise sign language fully and accord it equal status with the spoken. Malta is on that list. Which should make it easier for our education system to confirm its importance and grant it the same curricular standing as other languages

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