Movies and Communication Disorders

As a self-professed movie aficionado, I am always looking for ways to incorporate my love of cinema into therapy.  While many directors have a propensity for the theatrics, often to the point of being histrionic, some directors do a laudable job of accurately depicting characters who are afflicted with communication disorders.  Enumerated below are a few movies, with brief synopses included, that I believe do an exemplary job of accurately depicting individuals who encounter communication barriers on a regular basis.

  1. Children of a Lesser God:            The movie, “Children of a Lesser God” masterfully delineates the divide between those who inhabit a hearing world and those who are part of the Deaf community. The story follows the life of a speech teacher, James Leeds, who enters a school for the Deaf and falls for a female janitor, Sarah, who is deaf. Upon arriving at the school James is told to not come in with new fancy new ideas on how to make the world a better place for the Deaf. Instead, he was expected to just focus on helping the kids in his class to better manage their lives. This kind of mentality is sometimes common when dealing with schools; the older generation admonishes against progressive methods and advocates for strict adherence to conventional ways. However, Mr. Leeds disregards this and implements his own techniques. He emphasized the importance of music, and helped his students feel the vibrations, a practice that is still utilized to this day. When asking his students why they want to learn to speak, one expressed that it will help him to flirt with hearing girls. While this student obviously had a motive for learning to speak, many people in the Deaf community vehemently oppose the emphasis placed on learning to communicate orally. This is a controversial topic in the Deaf community, and the movie accurately depicts the divide. Sarah embraces her deafness and is opposed to using her voice, embarrassed by the irregular prosodic quality of it. She is proficient and confident in her signing abilities, and her reluctance to use her voice forced James to improve his sign language in order to communicate and connect with her. She becomes irate when people speak for her, implying that she doesn’t have a voice of her own. When James offers to help her learn to speak, he is unaware of the condescension that his suggestion implies. Helping implies a relationship between two unequal partners, where one assists the other whom they regard as less able or weak. Sarah does not feel emasculated by her condition, but rather embraces it; and the unsolicited offer of help is something she won’t stand for. The end of the movie perfectly describes their relationship, with James asking if there is a space where they could meet, not in silence, and not in sound. This line portrays how imperative compromise is in order to make a relationship between a hearing person and one who is deaf work. For if they fail to find a happy medium, they will continue living in two disparate worlds.
  2. A Fish Called Wanda:            In “A Fish Called Wanda,” a man named Ken presents with a stutter. Ken is a diffident man, shying away from human contact, much preferring the company of his fish. His preference for isolation to company could erroneously lead those to consider him misanthropic. However, his aversion to interaction is not due to a hatred of mankind, but rather to a hatred of how the majority of mankind treats him once he opens his mouth to speak. In the movie, Ken is caught up in a cumbersome jewel theft scheme and surrounded by glib con artists, the most notable being the abrasive Otto.   Upon meeting Ken, Otto opens up with the remark, “Quite a stutter you got there.” This flippant and disrespectful attitude seems harsh, but those who stutter oftentimes face this kind of scrutiny.   Throughout the film, Otto continues to make offensive remarks, saying, “You have a beautiful speaking voice, when it works.” While explicitly rude, this statement delineates how a person who stutters oftentimes feels that they are not in control of their voice. Stuttering is a fluency disorder, one in which the motoric aspect of speech production is affected. It is not that Ken struggles with finding the words or has difficulties with comprehension; it is that he struggles with articulating his thoughts. The movie was accurate with regards to which phonemes are commonly compromised by stuttering. Ken would display repetition when attempting to articulate plosives and fricatives. This is most apparent in the scene where he is trying to tell George where Otto and Wanda had escaped to. He tried to enunciate “Cathcart Hotel,” but his efforts proved futile. After failing to convey the message through spoken word, he resorted to written, using a pen and paper to spell out the location. Ken also struggled with saying airport, and instead whistled and went around with his arms outspread in a charade-like manner to visually convey what he found impossible to say. His use of visual cues is an example of a type of coping mechanism for those with communication disorders known as alternative communication. Alternative communication is utilized when spoken communication proves ineffective or unsuccessful.
  3. Rain Man:            The film, “Rain Man,” depicts the relationship between a narcissistic man and his middle-aged brother who is an autistic savant. An autistic savant is a person on the autism spectrum who showcases extreme talent in one area while being deficient in others. In the case of “Rain Man,” Ray was gifted in the mathematics domain. He could readily identify the number of toothpicks in a box, and was a promising asset at the casino, able to covertly count cards. This kind of extraordinary talent is rather rare in people with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), affecting only 1-10% of the autistic population. Similar to stuttering, males are four times more likely to have ASD than females. Those who have ASD specifically struggle with establishing relationships with others, as many are averse to touch and have a deficit in social-emotional reciprocity. In one moving scene of the film, Charlie tries to affectionately embrace his brother. Ray negatively responds by tensing up and rejecting his brother’s touch. Another factor that contributes to an inability to form secure relationships is that most people with autism are very egocentric with regards to speech. They lack theory of mind, and are incapable of viewing the world from another’s point of view. Similar to most of those with ASD, Ray did not respond well when he was reprimanded; he felt barraged with criticism and would revert to childish-like behaviors, like rocking himself back and forth in an attempt to soothe himself. The way in which those with ASD see the world is so different from the way in which a “normal” person does, so frustration is bound to arise. At one point in the movie, Charlie yells at Ray to, “Stop acting like a fucking retard.” This hostile outburst was the result of an accumulation of frustration, partially from his inability to genuinely connect with his brother, and partially from his embarrassment concerning his brother’s deviant behavior in public. While this biting remark is entirely inappropriate, it does hold some verity. While ASD has been present for quite a while, it has just recently received national attention. Before criteria were established to properly diagnose this condition, those that presented with the symptoms were generally regarded as “retarded.” Even in the film, Tom Cruise’s character claims that, “Autism is a load of shit,” and implies that it is not a real diagnosis. When Charlie brings Ray to the doctor, even the nurse expresses that she is not very familiar with the diagnosis. It is important to note that this film was released in the late 1980s. Since then much more is known about ASD.

    The aforementioned movies exposed audiences to what it is like living with a communication disorder in an accurate manner. The characters may show communication deficits, but that does not mean that they do not have a story to tell.

Brianna Fonti, M.A., CF-SLP, TSSLD

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