SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Sian Heder’s film CODA won big at the 94th Oscars Sunday night taking home Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and a Best Supporting Actor win for Troy Kotsur. While the film resonated with hearing audiences across the world, its impact is being felt among the deaf community beyond the awards it has won.

“It’s a perfect example of what it’s like in our world when you have deaf people and hearing people and trying to bridge the gap,” Kevin Barber, president of the South Dakota Association of the Deaf, told KELOLAND News on Monday. “It’s just a beautiful use of our language, sign language, and the culture.”

Barber, who is deaf, said he’s watched the film three times because he’s enjoyed it so much. The film centers on a deaf family in Massachusetts and their daughter who is a CODA. A CODA is a child of deaf adults, Barber explained. During our interview, Barber was joined by Rick Norris who is the executive director of InterpreCorps, an interpreter, and a CODA himself.

“I think it’s a true rendition of what it’s like to grow up in both the hearing and the deaf world,” Norris said. “We want to help protect the people that we love, and we know that sometimes the world can be a harsh place, that life isn’t always easy. So, we want to bridge any gaps and provide any accommodations and make sure that our parents are able to be included in society.”

Former South Dakota Governor Dennis Daugaard is the child of deaf parents and is believed to be the first CODA elected to the office of governor.

Troy Kotsur’s Best Supporting Actor win was historic as he is the first deaf man to win an Academy Award in the acting category. The only other deaf person to win an acting Oscar was Kotsur’s costar, Marlee Matlin, who was the first deaf actor to win nearly 30 years ago for her performance in Children of a Lesser God.

Youn Yuh-jung, right, presents Troy Kotsur with the award for best performance by an actor in a supporting role for “CODA” at the Oscars on Sunday, March 27, 2022, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)

Julie Luke with the South Dakota School for the Deaf said that films like CODA provide deaf and hard-of-hearing audiences the opportunity to see representation of their life on screen.

“Anytime you see a film that you can see yourself in, it’s inspirational,” Luke said. “Being a deaf person and using sign language, I also have the ability to use my voice, and working with children; some sign, some have cochlear implants, some have hearing aids, but it doesn’t matter. All of the actors in the film were so inspirational and you can see a relationship to yourself, regardless of how you identify.” 

Like Barber, Luke is deaf and thoroughly enjoyed the film which she watched with her daughter. For her, it was inspiring to see the struggles and successes of everyday life for people in the deaf community while also having deaf people key to the production of the film.

“One of the families that we work with, the mom called the son in – he’s about twelve or thirteen – called him into the living room to watch so that [he] could see Troy as he took his Oscar for the first time and how much that meant,” Luke said. “And he looked at his mom and he said, ‘Mom that means I can do anything I want!’”

It’s those moments of representation that Luke says shows that there are no limits in life.

Kim Wadsworth, the superintendent for the School for the Deaf, said the wins were momentous for the deaf community and is encouraged by increased accessibility on television.

“We see now many commercials where there’ll be sign language in them,” Wadsworth said. “It’s really becoming mainstream where we’re seeing it more and more, out and about.”

For both Luke and Barber, the experience of seeing CODA was in and of itself a win due to the captioning and subtitles used throughout the film’s entirety. For the deaf and hard-of-hearing community, it is not a common experience as they often have to use captioning machines that can draw attention from audiences and limit the viewing experience.

“Ideally, I’d like to go into the movie theater and sit anywhere like anyone else would and so having things opened captioned or subtitled, I think would be a very important part of making things accessible,” Barber said.

Having CODA use captions throughout was inclusive access, Barber added, which he says should be the norm for all movies and movie theaters. Luke and Barber were also grateful for the use of an interpreter on stage at the Oscars ceremony.

“[The] Oscar show was inclusive and accessible when the interpreter was standing right next to the presenter during the award of Best Adapted Screenplay,” Barber said. “That was one of the perfect examples that should have happened everywhere.”

“It doesn’t cause a lot of barriers or difficulty to work with deaf people.”

Kevin Barber

For people who saw the film and are interested in learning more about the deaf community, Barber says they can look to resources such as Communication Services for the Deaf, the South Dakota School for the Deaf, Augustana University, or private tutors to learn American Sign Language (ASL) in order to better communicate with deaf people. Washington High School in Sioux Falls also offers ASL as a language option for students. Barber adds that not only does this allow for better communication between the hearing and deaf world, it can also provide career opportunities as well.

“We need deaf educators in our school systems, we need interpreters that can work in the community, and we need video relay services,” Barber said. “It’s bridging a gap and building those bridges and opportunities for our whole community.”

CODA wasn’t the only Oscar-nominated film featuring a deaf cast at this year’s Oscars. Audible, which received an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary Short, follows the life of Amaree McKenstry-Hall and his football team at the Maryland School for the Deaf. The film is available to stream on Netflix.

CODA is available to stream on Apple TV+.