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What ‘Sound Of Metal’ Got Right And Wrong About Hearing Loss And Deafness

A man with short hair wearing headphones
Sound of Metal Motion Picture
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A scene from the film "Sound of Metal" starring Riz Ahmed as Ruben, who experiences hearing loss.

The Oscar-nominated film “Sound of Metal” features experiences of members of the deaf and hard of hearing community. It has sparked discussion about deaf character representation in Hollywood and accessibility in the larger community.

Stories of deafness and hearing loss are rarely taken on by the Hollywood film industry. Even when they are, deaf characters often act as jokes, plot devices or oddities. This is why the film “Sound of Metal,” nominated for Best Picture in the 2021 Oscars, has stood out. It tells the story of Ruben, a heavy metal drummer who loses his hearing and goes through the process of learning ASL and getting cochlear implants.

The film has received both praise and critique from deaf and hard of hearing community members for its representation of hearing loss and deaf culture. Host Anita Rao talks with Yat Li, creator of the YouTube channel “Let There Be Ears”; Destiny Lopez, a multimedia storyteller, creative strategist and educator; and Amanda Murray, filmmaker and creator of RetroMurray Productions.

Read the transcript

Interview Highlights

Destiny Lopez on a scene in “Sound of Metal” that reminded her of learning about her own hearing loss:

I was in first grade, and I didn't really know what it meant that I couldn't hear. ... Because you're born this way, it's like: Well, that's how you're supposed to hear the world. You don't realize the difference. But one part [of “Sound of Metal”] in particular, it reminded me of when my mother came with me to the audiologist. And the audiologist had played, she’s like — this is for my mother but it also impacted me —This is the level you hear at. And then she lowered it tremendously, and she's like: This is what Destiny hears. And I just remember my mother's face kind of dropping. And then that was when it clicked for me like: Oh, I am listening to a completely different world from everybody else. … I just remember being a kid and being like: Oh, I'm gonna have to figure out how to deal with this. And I think that's a lot to take on when you're only like 7 or 8 years old.

Amanda Murray on hiring deaf and hard of hearing actors:

There are specific agencies for actors who have disabilities. And if you want an actor with a certain disability, all you have to do is contact these agencies, and say: Hey, I need someone with certain disabilities. And they have hundreds or even thousands of actors that they can refer to you. And so when filmmakers are arguing that: Oh, we couldn't find anyone who fits the bill exactly — I don't think they're trying hard enough. Because I haven't made a whole lot of movies, but even I know how easy it is to find exactly the kind of person that I need.

Yat Li on the importance of captioning:

I think captioning should be on all films and hard coded for every single movie. The chances of me watching a movie without captioning is zero. So I rely heavily on them. And there's been a study that shows that those who read captions can retain more information about film, so why not include them? That goes to show also for children who are learning in virtual webinars right now during the pandemic, to our webinar today. It's important to include closed captioning for accessibility. Communication access is important, not only for those who are deaf or hard of hearing, but for everyone as well. And I think that needs to be the main point, is that it benefits everyone — not just for a group or two groups or three, but everyone.

Kaia Findlay is a producer for Embodied, WUNC's weekly, live talk show on health, sex and relationships. Kaia first joined the WUNC team in 2020 as a producer for The State of Things.
Anita Rao is an award-winning journalist and the host and creator of "Embodied," a live, weekly radio show and seasonal podcast about sex, relationships & health. She's also the managing editor of WUNC's on-demand content.