December 2007 - February 2008: Issue 25

People

Jane Norman Teacher, Media Consultant, Producer

Interviewed by Paul Kahn
Kahn:
You're on the faculty at Gallaudet University. What do you teach there?
Norman:
This semester marks my 28th year of teaching at Gallaudet University. At the moment, I'm teaching Introduction to Mass Communication. I have taught a wide range of courses, including Producing for Television, Images of Deaf People in Media, Public Relations and special topic courses related to the media.
Kahn:
Can you tell me about the television program Deaf Mosaic? What was your role in its development?
Norman:
The 30-minute magazine program series Deaf Mosaic (1985-1995), produced by the television department at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., was an off-shoot of an earlier pilot program, Images. After the initial program was tested with Deaf focus groups, I was brought in on contract to re-design the program in a way to effectively reach Deaf people, their families and friends. I worked with the production staff to identify target groups, re-design the set, bring in and train Deaf reporters, re-design the format of the program, and look for ways to present ASL in a natural way on camera. Methods were developed to translate English into ASL for the camera, and we explored ways to write ASL gloss copy for the teleprompter. I remained with the program during the two-year start-up period.
Deaf Mosaic premiered on WETA, a PBS affiliate, in March 1985 and ended in June 1995. A total of 122 half-hour programs were produced, providing a valuable tool for research by scholars and the media. The series had effectively demonstrated in a factual manner the way of life, the language and the culture of signing Deaf people. Deaf Mosaic received 18 EMMY awards, as well as numerous CINE Golden Eagles and Telly awards. Deaf Mosaic is available online in the Gallaudet Video Library and can be viewed at http://videolibrary.gallaudet.edu.
Kahn:
One of your fields of expertise is images of deaf people in the media. How would you describe those images? How do they differ from reality? And what are the consequences of those discrepancies?
Norman:
Images of deaf people in the media are for the most part limited and misleading. According to Hollywood, you would think that Deaf people are mostly young, sexy Caucasian women who are impeccable lipreaders, even in the dark. Many of the portrayals center on our "broken ears," rather than focusing on Deaf people as people who just happen to be deaf, yet experience the same trials and tribulations, joys and sorrows as anyone else. Not surprisingly, misconceptions of deaf people include the concept that our lives center around learning to speak well and to regain our hearing. A good many of us choose not to speak, yet we live productive lives, work, raise families, participate in sports, and contribute to society. I've often said, if Hollywood had the capacity to see us as full human beings, they would be amazed at the stories we have to tell.
Stereotypical portrayals of deaf people in the media can sometimes influence our real-life opportunities. Images of deaf people in the media are often shaped by hearing people who may have little or no knowledge of the Deaf way of life and American Sign Language. This is a form of oppression that is unacceptable to most Deaf people.
Kahn:
Your biography describes you as a media consultant. What does a media consultant do?
Norman:
Depending on the need, I work with various forms of media to inform and educate them about Deaf culture, sign languages, Deaf life and the Deaf way of being. I show them how they can represent Deaf people in ways based on reality, not stereotypes. In my experience as a media consultant, I have done everything from providing translations of English scripts into ASL for theater productions, to working with television productions such as Sue Thomas, FBEye, and coordinating Deaf Arts and Deaf Film Festivals. I have also worked with various arts organizations, such as the National Endowment for the Arts and the Kennedy Center, to promote accessibility in the arts. The job of a media consultant is extremely varied and never dull!
Kahn:
You're also an expert in deaf filmmaking. Can you describe what characterizes deaf filmmaking? Who are some of the notable practitioners?
Norman:
We are a visu-centric people. We communicate visually with our language, which makes film the perfect vehicle for deaf people to communicate our stories. The same techniques that are used in films are intrinsic in American Sign Language. For example, through ASL we can show the perspective of a bird flying in the distance, and then switch to a close-up of the same bird swooping down on its prey.
The new generation of Deaf filmmakers has the opportunity to attain professional training in well-known programs, a luxury that Deaf filmmakers of the past could not pursue. This new breed of filmmakers is experimenting with how to visually tell stories. Some do it by writing and editing ASL dialog, based on their knowledge of ASL linguistic principles such as Eye-Gaze (when to shift eyes away from the signer). I believe their contribution to film language will prove over time to be significant.
On my website I include a list of both up-and-coming filmmakers, as well as established filmmakers from around the world. I also list Deaf Film Festivals where Deaf artists can showcase their talents and meet others involved in filmmaking.
Kahn:
Your web site is called Reflections Through a Deaf Lens. Can you tell me more about what it contains?
Norman:
The website (www.thedeaflens.com) contains information primarily on Deaf artists, actors, performers, writers and filmmakers. My intention is to spotlight and promote deaf artists, and to provide resources for the artists as well as those who are interested in the arts. I also include video blogs (vlogs) where I tell stories in ASL about Deaf artists and other topics. I provide a written English transcript so that the video is accessible to those who don't know ASL.
Kahn:
It seems like a big job to maintain the site. Why do you do it?
Norman:
Maintaining the website is really a labor of love. I take seriously the challenge of spotlighting Deaf artists and sharing the resources I have collected over the years. I am excited when I see works by Deaf artists I wasn't aware of before, and I enjoy learning about their work. Also, part of being a life-long teacher is sharing what I know. Maintaining a website lets me share what I've learned with "students" from around the world. I have a small circle of friends, both Deaf and hearing, who support and encourage me to do this. Without them, the site would not be possible.
Kahn:
What have been the greatest rewards of doing your work?
Norman:
My greatest satisfaction has been seeing opportunities open up for Deaf people in the arts, and seeing them being recognized for their work. I also am thrilled when I see my students become successful artists and go on to share their knowledge and skills with others.
Kahn:
How did your career evolve? Were there particular people, programs or services that helped you? If so, how?
Norman:
I have been fortunate to have had wonderful teachers throughout my life, beginning with my Deaf parents. They instilled in me the love of ASL and storytelling. My friend, Joseph Chaiken of Open Theatre, New York City, a true ally of ASL and Deaf Culture, proved to me that through theatre and the arts you can transform society. John Parks, former district administrator from the California Department of Vocational Rehabilitation, taught me that social change is possible within the media. Mildred Albronda, the sign language docent of the San Francisco M. H. de Young Memorial Museum and author of Douglas Tilden: The Man and His Legacy, reinforced my love for museums. Doris Caldwell introduced me to the world of captioning, media marketing on "Madison Avenue" and lobbying on Capitol Hill. My advisor at Howard University's School of Communication Dr. William Starosta and my colleague Dr. Samuel Tesunbi had the greatest influence on my academic work and my understanding of diversity. My long-time life partner, Ray Brown is a stable and loving influence on all that I do.
Kahn:
What societal changes would best help deaf artists thrive?
Norman:
I think it is important for arts organizations, guilds and unions to provide apprenticeships and professional opportunities to Deaf and hard of hearing artists, so that we can get our foot in the door. This would allow professionals in the various art fields to work with us in achieving our potential as fellow artists, rather than as people with a disability. Providing Deaf artists with training programs, internships, mentoring, funding and commission opportunities can allow Deaf people to surmount some of the routine attitudinal and communication barriers that we face daily. It is crucial for our hearing allies to support Deaf people as they take the lead in areas where they are the experts, such as American Sign Language translations, developing and casting deaf characters for theater and film, and advising the media on realistic rather than stereotypical portrayals of deaf people.
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