Feeling Through

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.

When I shared with friends that I was planning a visit to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum, reactions were mixed.

Some said there was no way they could make such a solemn trip, while others were intrigued and said the sites were on their to-do list as well.

Confronting accounts of our country’s brutal, horrific history of slavery, lynching, its crushing effects of segregation on black Americans is indeed painful. Connecting that history to how justice today is meted out on Black men and women is equally hard. But it is a necessary confrontation.

Located in Montgomery, Ala., on the very site where slaves were warehoused before being sold locally or transported to other states, The Legacy Museum is the work of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), headed by acclaimed public interest lawyer and author, Bryan Stevenson. Part of EJI’s mission is to ensure that all of America’s history is told, including its viscous history of slavery.

As a visually impaired African-American, I wondered if the collection was accessible. So prior to my visit, I contacted the staff and inquired about accommodations. The staff was receptive and seamlessly arranged for a guided tour. I learned they also had about 50 braille guidebooks on site. It seemed accessibility had carefully been considered.

“I’ve always cared deeply about exclusion and what it’s like to be marginalized,” said Stevenson, adding that accessibility was incorporated at inception. “We believe everyone needs to confront the legacy of racial injustice that undermines fair treatment for people in this society, and we want our spaces to be as accessible as possible.”

The first exhibit shows the incredible albeit dishonorable role Alabama, and Montgomery in particular, played in the domestic slave trade. Through my guide, Ariel, I learned that in 1860, the state had more slave trading spaces than either churches or hotels, and that in that same year, two-thirds of Montgomery’s population were slaves. Further, Montgomery led the state in the domestic slave trade, while Alabama ranked second in the nation as having the most slaveowners.

Following the main entrance exhibits, visitors are then led to a hallway featuring holograms of slaves recounting their traumatic stories. I listened to a young woman painstakingly detail her experience of her family being warehoused, then separated from her sister, never to see her again. The ramp leading to the holograms is dark, so low-vision guests should exercise caution. Hearing these re-enactments is a powerful audio experience.

Visitors then enter the main gallery, which displays the extensive research EJI has compiled on slavery, lynching, and segregation. As expected, there are plenty of photos; but the exhibit is dense with text and in various forms such as strips that run down the walls and on the floor. Also on display are replicas of posters advertising slaves for sale (with great details to entice a potential buyer), and ransom notices for runaway slaves. Ariel was quite thorough in reading and describing. I also found the Seeing AI app helpful.

In the center of the main gallery is the Racial Terror Lynching Map, an interactive touch-screen kiosk. The map is a visual representation of EJI’s five-plus years of researching lynchings in the United States.1 The research found there were more than 4,000 lynchings in a dozen states. This figure represents what they were able to document — the toll could be much higher.

Using the touch screen, you can select a state and see not only the number of lynchings in that state but also the names of the victims. The touch screen is accessible for those with partial or low vision, but there is no audio, braille, or tactile component to this exhibit.

In the same kiosk are videos from current, direct descendants of lynched victims. The stories are graphic and difficult to take in. While the audio is good quality, there is no braille or tactile accessibility.

Just beyond the interactive kiosk sit over 300 jars of soil gathered through the Community Soil Collection Project. EJI began the project in 2015 with volunteers collecting the soil from documented lynching sites across the country. This is a moving display, with each jar bearing the names of murdered men and women along with the county and date of their lynching. My guide read a selection of these names for me. I did not test it, but I believe Seeing AI would have read the text.

As you move to the exhibits of segregation, there are mounted quotes, facts, and videos, some recognizable, such as interviews of Martin Luther King Jr. There are also videos of staunch segregationists. One I found particularly disturbing was a white preacher using Bible verses to support segregation. This section is a bit challenging; many of the videos are playing simultaneously, and it is difficult to tune out the background noise. Plus, some videos are louder than others. There are audio jacks for only some of the videos.

Although the last major exhibit is of our contemporary era, it eerily connects incarceration today of black men to slavery, lynching and segregation. Through a simulated prison visit, actual inmates tell their stories. Visitors enter a booth, pick up the phone and hear the individual’s account. One of the more tragic stories is that of Anthony Ray Hinton, who spent 30 years on death row in Alabama. Stevenson personally defended Hinton, and it took over 12 years before forensic evidence finally proved Hinton’s innocence.

What makes Hinton’s case a haunting reminder of slavery and lynching is the blatant disregard for truth and the deliberate attacks on the rights of Black people. Hinton recalls being told by an arresting white officer that it did not matter if he was innocent; he was going to be convicted. Similarly, lynching victims were often murdered for the slightest offenses, some hardly rising to the level of a crime. On display are records of victims lynched for failing to respectfully address a white person.

As you exit the museum, you enter the Reflection Space with scores of photos of abolitionists, freedom fighters – some known and quite a few that never made the headlines but were just as noteworthy. My guide provided descriptions, but narrator apps will also help you independently experience this gallery.

The museum offers daily shuttle buses to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. The memorial site is a serene yet solemn space, and is the nation’s first memorial dedicated to the history of slavery and lynching.

Just as you enter the space, you are met with a harrowingly realistic and life-sized sculpture of six chained and shackled slaves. One is a woman clutching a baby – also in chains. There appear to be streaks of blood running down the bodies of each piece.

There are sculptures throughout, but the main exhibit is the 800 six-foot-high slabs of steel bearing the names of lynched victims and the counties where they were lynched. The pillars are suspended, evoking the act of lynching. However, this is not designed to be a touch exhibit; in fact, many are not within reach. There is ample room surrounding the pillars for white cane users, but the heights of suspension vary, so taller visitors need to proceed carefully.

Stevenson said that the EJI team continues to explore ways to keep the memorial and the museum accessible. He noted that feedback from white cane users led them to change the surfaces of paths at both sites for smoother navigation.

According to Stevenson, there are a half-dozen guides trained, with an emphasis on assisting blind and visually impaired guests with the content of both spaces. He also added that as COVID-19 restrictions lift and attendance increases, they will train more guides. The staff has also prepared more audio guides and braille materials. The goal is to eventually have all content available in braille.

A special thanks to Ariel and the staff who helped me fully experience this dark history. As for the memorial space, Stevenson said guided tours were suspended due to pandemic restrictions, but they are committed to restoring that accommodation.

1 The Legacy Museum Book, EJI staff

https://nfb.org/images/nfb/publications/bm/bm21/bm2107/bm210715.htm

Lisa Bryant
Lisa Bryant

Freelance Journalist

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