Sundance TV’s “This Close” Strengthened My Marriage

The author and her husband, two smiling white individuals, hug each other in front of a lake. Sarah, who has straight, medium-length brown hair and is wearing a black and white floral dress, speaks into his ear. Her husband, who has wavy, close-cropped dark blonde hair, and is wearing a gray shirt and black suit jacket, bends his head, as if to listen.

“You have to learn to cue,” I gruffly tell my husband after backing our car into a spot outside my nephew’s birthday party at a noisy, monster-themed sports facility.

I am referring to Cued Speech, a visual communication mode made up of handshapes, hand placements, and movements that convey spoken language. It’s one of several modalities that I, as a deaf woman, use to communicate with hearing and deaf people; I also use my residual hearing, my hearing aids, and speech, as I was in this moment.

“I did!” my husband, who is hearing, says. “You have to help me practice by reminding me.”

Taken aback by his demand that I help him become better at supporting me in hearing environments, I unclick my seatbelt, open the door, and shut it a bit harder than I mean to, stomping off.

A few minutes later, still miffed, but sobered, I send my husband a text: “Hey. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings. I love you.”

“It’s okay,” he responds. “I love you too. And I can understand your feelings.”

Why, five years into our marriage, were we arguing about my communication needs? After watching “This Close,” the only existing television series created by and starring deaf actors and writers Shoshannah Stern and Josh Feldman, I had a come-to-Jesus realization that much of my day-to-day anxiety comes from choosing to navigate mostly hearing environments, which pose a range of communication barriers for a deaf person like me.

At the heart of this show, whose second season is now streaming on Sundance TV, is the central question of how to be deaf in a world where hearing culture threatens to alienate Kate, a public relations professional played by Stern, and Michael, a graphic novelist played by Feldman. I’m most like Kate, so I’ll focus on her: she is a straight white woman who communicates through a combination of speaking verbally, lipreading, wearing hearing aids, and signing, depending on the person she’s with.

The first season focuses on Kate’s relationship to a hearing man, her boyfriend Danny, which mirrors my own relationship to some extent. Like me and my husband, Kate and Danny mainly communicate verbally with each other, which works for them in quiet, one-on-one situations, such as at home. However, in noisier situations where Kate and Danny are with a group of hearing people, Kate faces communication barriers that isolate her from the people around her—including her boyfriend.

“Danny’s signing hasn’t really improved,” signs Michael’s culturally Deaf mother (played by Marlee Matlin) privately to Kate during a Thanksgiving dinner at Kate’s and Danny’s home.

“I know,” Kate responds. “I feel like it’s my fault. Growing up in a hearing family, no one signed except my dad. Maybe I’m used to that.”

“Things can change. But the fit doesn’t. The fit has to be there from the start. It’s important.”

I relate well to what Kate feels here, having grown up in a hearing family where most people speak verbally, and where I still struggle to speak up for myself, despite my family being more inclusive than most. (In addition to cued speech, my family also uses sign language to communicate with me.)

But there’s another, equally important aspect of hearing-deaf relationships illuminated by this episode: Kate isn’t the only one at risk of alienation. Throughout the episode, we see Danny alienated by the same Deaf cultural norms and language that meaningfully connects Kate to Michael and his family.

As Michael’s mother says: the fit must be there.

The lesson within the aforementioned scene and the show as a whole is that barriers to connection can be overcome where love is a driving force. When my husband and I were arguing, we were about to enter an environment full of hearing adults and children in a noisy, dark environment rife with anxiety-inducing communication barriers. My husband, who is hypersensitive to noises, wasn’t that comfortable with the situation we were about to enter, either. Entering an environment where neither of us would feel at home in our bodies threatened to alienate us both. Yet, out of a sense of duty and love toward our family, we chose to enter it together anyway—which proves that we “fit,” despite the systemic barriers everyday life puts in our way.

This Close’s sharp commentary on relationships also demonstrates the necessity of disability representation in film and the arts in general. It’s not just entertaining; shows like these have the potential to bring people who are experientially unlike each other closer together. For my husband and I, it has sparked an ongoing conversation about how to better serve each other—a conversation that intensifies the love that we feel for each other. Instead of accepting that we are “this close” to alienation from each other in certain situations, such as family gatherings, we are now working on minding that gap—and actively closing it. This type of conversation is, I believe, the kind that This Close encourages.

For his part, my husband has promised to practice, on his own time, cued speech and sign language—and to continue to pay attention to me and my needs when we’re in hearing environments. For my part, I have promised to work on teaching him cued speech and sign language whenever the time is right, advocating for myself unabashedly when we’re with hearing family and friends, and opting out when I need to. It isn’t always an easy negotiation between each other and our relationship vis-à-vis the environments we find ourselves in—but he’s worth it, I’m worth it, and our marriage is worth it.


Rooted in Rights exists to amplify the perspectives of the disability community. Blog posts and storyteller videos that we publish and content we re-share on social media do not necessarily reflect the opinions or values of Rooted in Rights nor indicate an endorsement of a program or service by Rooted in Rights. We respect and aim to reflect the diversity of opinions and experiences of the disability community. Rooted in Rights seeks to highlight discussions, not direct them. Learn more about Rooted In Rights

Click here to pitch a blog post to Rooted in Rights.

It’s Time to Stop Desexualizing Disabled People

A white woman with a brown ponytail covering her bare chest stares into a mirror.

When I told my hearing ex-boyfriend that I was considering cochlear implant surgery, we were in bed in his college dorm room: an unwashed clearing in a muddle of strewn clothes, textbooks, and papers.

As a deaf 19-year-old undergraduate woman who wore hearing aids, I struggled to assimilate into hearing college culture. Young adults with no experience interacting with D/deaf people surrounded me 24/7, often in the frenzied settings that typify college life: frat parties rife with cloyingly sweet “jungle juice” in red Dixie cups; bustling bars cluttered by a commotion of strobe lights, thundering music, and underage students; hazily lit streets. Except for my ex-boyfriend, most of them seemed too caught up in playing beer pong and savoring their new freedom to learn to communicate with me. I thought a cochlear implant could help me fit in better.

But he was more concerned about how I would look.

“You’ll have a bump on your head,” he whined, grimacing, touching the skin behind my ear, as if to shield it from surgery. “Don’t get it. I’d be afraid to touch your head.”

Almost as soon as I had brought it up, I abandoned the subject. At the time, I couldn’t properly articulate the shame his words triggered, but now, from over a decade’s distance, I see clearly that, instead of encouraging me to consider the implications of modifying my body to assimilate into hearing culture, he had desexualized my deaf body. A cochlear implant—which consists of an electronic device surgically inserted beneath the skin and an external part that sits behind the ear—did not fit into his concept of beauty. In his mind, I could not have a cochlear implant and be sexually attractive at the same time.

It’s time to put a stop to damaging stereotypes about D/deaf and disabled people, who are widely regarded as asexual or sexually undesirable. As long as they’re perpetuated, D/deaf and disabled people will continue to be deprived of healthy sex lives, which, beyond reproducing, include opportunities for intimacy and pleasure. Losing out on a sex life can mean losing out on the numerous health benefits of sex, including reduced risk of heart disease, enhanced self-esteem, powerful bonding experiences, among others. (Of course, asexual disabled people exist, as Alaina Leary explains in her Rooted in Rights post here, and this legitimate, non-distressing, and non-pathological sexual orientation is not the same as being desexualized by nondisabled people.)

The pendulum can also swing too far into the other direction, into “devoteeism,” or the fetish for disabled bodies, which can deprive D/deaf and disabled people from meaningful and healthy sex lives and relationships, too. Jillian Weise, a disability activist, performance artist, and poet who has a bionic leg, is no stranger to fetishists. As she explained in an interview with Electric Literature, her first book, a poetry collection titled The Amputee’s Guide to Sex, “elicited amputee devotees, fetishists, and stalkers,” which forced her to “reconsider poetry” and “go to fiction for protection.” (In a piece for Granta, she describes being nervous about taking off her leg at night. “I wait until the last moment before sleep to un-tech because I am a woman who lives alone and has been stalked, so I don’t feel safe in my home on crutches. How would I run? How would I fight back?”) As a result, Jillian’s latest work aims to re-center the experiences of disabled people and either silence or satirize marginalizing rhetoric. These include her performative work as “Tipsy Tullivan,” her novel The Colony, her second poetry book The Book of Goodbyes, and most recently, her third poetry book, Cyborg Detective, published earlier this month.

Weise’s identification as a cyborg—as opposed to as a “tryborg who writes about or with machines while stuck in the ontological position of pure human,” as she explained in a recent Poets & Writers interview—strike me as a particularly powerful contribution to the argument against desexualizing and hypersexualizing disabled people. In a manifesto of sorts for Granta, she argues that there is nothing uncommon about cyborgs, or disabled people using assistive technology to navigate their everyday lives—whether they use a bionic limb, a cochlear implant, or an electric wheelchair, etc.—yet nondisabled people have erased their existence from the conversation about posthuman life. Weise implies that being a cyborg, although it is “common,” is a cause for celebration and reassertion of disabled identity: you’re the vision that the nondisabled dreamed up but refuse to see is already here. “Our lives are not metaphors,” she writes. In this way, disabled people express sexuality and beauty in a way that nondisabled people cannot access as mere tryborgs, or “pure humans.”

Through Weise’s lens, I see the scene with my ex-boyfriend anew: he was writing a false narrative about my sexuality, because he could not access my beauty and strengths as a deaf woman, which outsize his own. I use hearing aids and with the touch of a lever on my purple and pink Phonak Naida Vs, adjust my hearing to be louder or softer; he cannot. With a tap of a button, I home in on one voice in a sea of voices; he cannot. With a microphone wirelessly connected to my hearing aids, my hearing travels walls. Tryborgs like my ex-boyfriend can have their Apple AirPods—I’ve been streaming music directly and cordlessly into my ears since I got my first MP3 player in the early 2000s. For that matter, why confine technology to that which is purely mechanical? I communicate with other deaf people from a great distance through lip reading, signing, and Cued Speech. From Stephen Hawking’s discoveries about the universe, to the inventions of electric light, typewriters, audiobooks, speech-to-text technology, and texting technology on mobile phones, D/deaf and disabled people like us are the true life-hackers—and dare I say it, sexy, when truly, fully looked at.

With disabled people experiencing sexual assault at three times the rate of nondisabled people, it’s a mystery that, in the national conversation about sexual harassment and assault, nondisabled people aren’t talking more about the sexual health of D/deaf and disabled people. But by pointing out the conceptual frameworks that desexualize or hypersexualize us and recontextualizing them, D/deaf and disabled artists, writers, and activists like Weise are redirecting the conversation about the sexual health of D/deaf and disabled people in productive ways.

Rooted in Rights exists to amplify the perspectives of the disability community. Blog posts and storyteller videos that we publish and content we re-share on social media do not necessarily reflect the opinions or values of Rooted in Rights nor indicate an endorsement of a program or service by Rooted in Rights. We respect and aim to reflect the diversity of opinions and experiences of the disability community. Rooted in Rights seeks to highlight discussions, not direct them. Learn more about Rooted In Rights

Click here to pitch a blog post to Rooted in Rights.