We spoke with seven individuals as part of our Power of Representation series about what it means to see deaf and hard of hearing experiences in popular culture. In addition to reading the series in Clarke Speaks, join the conversation on social media with #LSLRepresentationMatters.
Alexandra Dean Grossi, writer, designer and disability activist, uses cochlear implants and is working on a new television series, Oral.
To Educate through Pop Culture
Alexandra Dean Grossi, writer, designer, disability activist and cochlear implant user, started her career in Hollywood as an unpaid intern on the HBO series Deadwood, where she cemented her love for writing and learned the power of pop culture.
“Pop culture is such a great educator,” she says. “And there is so much confusion around the deaf experience… I want to show there’s no right way to be deaf. We have way more in common than we have differences.”
Alexandra did not feel as positive about her identity and opportunities growing up, as she struggled to identify role models like her—deaf and communicating via LSL (listening and spoken language).
“If all you see are barriers and not success stories, you don’t know what you can do.” This lack of representation inspired her to tell her story.
Since 2018, Alexandra has been developing and co-writing a dramedy series called Oral with her writing partner Adrienne Marquand.
The show focuses on a Los Angeles millennial in 2007 who uses cochlear implants and struggles to juggle a messy love life and all the accompanying challenges of becoming an adult. In their live reading of the pilot in summer of 2021, Oral’s cast included Juliet Perrell, who uses cochlear implants and plays the lead, Izzy, as well as Emmy winner Andrea Martin (SCTV), Will Forte (SNL, The Last Man on Earth) and Abbi Jacobson (Broad City).
“We linchpin our success on what we see,” Alexandra Dean Grossi says about representation. “If you have no one to identify with or look up to, you feel lost.”
Where Are the Role Models?
“I’m part of the deaf and hard of hearing community but not in the ‘capital D’ Deaf world*,” Alexandra explains. “We work so hard to assimilate and… minimize disability that we don’t embrace it… It took a long time to accept my identity as deaf—lowercase deaf.”
“When I was younger, I didn’t want to make a mistake or say wrong things or be assumed to be dumb,” she remembers. “So, I learned to not speak up, tried to blend in, but it didn’t help. It just made my whole life experience ‘less than’ and not as fun.”
Alexandra found support and learned tools for self-advocacy when she worked with Jane Driscoll, a teacher of the deaf—who earned her advanced degree through Clarke’s Master of Arts in Deaf Education program—in the mainstream school system in Beverly, Massachusetts.
“[Jane] was amazing,” she says. “I learned to explain my tech and she taught me to just say I was deaf. I didn’t want to stand out for having a disability, but I’ve found that it’s so much easier to own up to it. I might be awkward at first, but it pays off in a big way.”
Even with the strong support she received from her family, teachers of the deaf, speech-language pathologists and mainstream educators, Alexandra lacked role models to whom she could relate.
“We linchpin our success on what we see,” she says. “If you have no one to identify with or look up to, you feel lost. Sometimes you just think you’re the only one, and it’s so lonely. Even the American Girl doll, I never grew up with that, but it would have made me feel a lot less alone.”
So in addition to writing narratives representative of the experiences of people who are deaf, Alexandra is working to improve accessibility for users of hearing technology.
Empowering Users with Disability—like Clarke Students—through Inclusive Design
Alexandra works on IBM’s accessibility team, where she’s an inclusive designer.
“I’m trying to put the onus more on other people,” she says. “Because it’s usually on the person with a disability to adapt… But it shouldn’t be. We have to make people more aware. Not because people are mean, it’s that [accessibility] just hasn’t occurred to them.”
Her IBM team created and maintains an Equal Access Toolkit, designed to educate and guide tech teams in best practices to build accessible technology.
“Often, a tech team builds a product and at the very end, they try to tack on accessibility,” she explains. “We try to teach teams how to make sure it’s there at the beginning. We also have a tool that we created for developers to make sure that a product is accessible—it checks code against a standard.” (Their accessibility checker extension is available free for Chrome and Firefox, and she notes that you can learn more about their work at ibm.com/able.)
Alexandra Dean Grossi is also an inclusive designer at IBM.
Alexandra’s passion for inclusive design began when she was 30 and had just received her second cochlear implant. Along with the device, she received a remote control which she found clunky.
“My indignation started there,” she recalls. “Now I want to break down the walls between designers, developers and users—especially users, who are a disenfranchised group. We don’t have much consumer power, so I want to build that connection between the user and the company making the tech… I’m the user; I should have the power.”
Speaking Up and Looking Ahead
Alexandra is committed to bringing more underrepresented voices to the table in Hollywood—to tell their own stories. She wants children with disabilities to see themselves in pop culture, as heroes, lead characters, love interests… as the full, complex, multidimensional individuals they are in real life.
Considering how she might advise the next generation of children who are deaf or hard of hearing, Alexandra says, “Don’t be afraid to speak up. I had to get over the fear of speaking up for myself. People want to help, but they don’t know how to unless you tell them.”
*According to the AG Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, the adjective Deaf, with a capital D, is used to describe “a group that views itself as having a separate culture and identity from mainstream hearing society.” This group often uses sign language or American Sign Language (ASL) and may not use technology that provides auditory access to the environment. Lowercase d deaf refers to the physical condition of deafness and can also describe individuals who use hearing technology to access sound and Listening and Spoken Language (LSL) to communicate. (For more information about the Deaf community, contact the National Association of the Deaf or the American Society for Deaf Children.
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