My Experiences & the CODA Movie

By: Cristina Duarte

I cannot tell you how many times in my thirty-two years people have asked me – “what is it like to have deaf parents?” My answer has always been the same, regardless of who is asking or how old I am – “what is it like to have hearing parents?”

My parents were both born with profound hearing loss to hearing families – the reason I mention this is twofold: (1) for my entire life my parents have been deaf, and (2) being born into hearing families they were not raised signing – in fact they both learned to sign in their 20’s when they joined (and met through) Self Help for the Hard of Hearing (SHHH) which has since become Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA). As a result of their experiences and upbringing, my parents are both strong lip readers, communicate orally, and sign in exact English (SEE). My mom tells us that neither me nor my siblings really went through the “terrible twos” because we could sign before we could speak – because of this, we were able to communicate our needs from a young age. From what I hear, I was a pretty good signer up until the time I went to kindergarten and saw that none of the other kids signed. Apparently, I came home and confidently informed my parents I would not be signing anymore – what a terrible kid, I know. As an adult who works in the deaf and hard of hearing community, I now sign again, but still harshly judge my five-year-old self for my poor decisions.

I was beyond excited when I saw the CODA trailer for the first time – even just from watching the trailer, I could tell it was going to be good, and probably a little emotional. Once I finally got to watch it, I can confidently say that it did not disappoint. I thought the entire cast did a wonderful job, and there were so many points in the movie where I found myself reminiscing on my childhood.

With all that being said, I am incredibly excited to have this opportunity to share my experience as a CODA and answer some questions submitted to me by team members at InnoCaption!

Q: Did you feel like you had the same experience as Ruby, the main character in the CODA movie, growing up?

A:  Yes and no – typical lawyer response, I know.

There were many parts of the movie I found myself smiling because I felt like I could relate, and I will go into more detail about that in some of the following questions. However, the primary mode of communication in my house growing up was spoken English. We had communication rules in the house like: always be facing mom and dad when speaking to them; don’t cover your mouth while talking; enunciate your words; speak clearly – among other things. I remember my dad used to get frustrated with me all the time because as a teenager I would speak “like a machine gun on fire”. I would get constant reminders that I needed to speak up and slow down. In contrast, in the CODA movie, Ruby’s family relies on American Sign Language (ASL) which is a very different experience.

Q: What would you say your most vivid memory growing up as a CODA is?

A: In my house growing up, my parents had flashers – we called the assistive device a “baby crier” – the way it worked was when the phone rang, doorbell went off, one of us started screaming, the lights would flash. My parents used this technology at night to wake them up when the baby was crying. When I was probably about six, I went through this phase where I would wake up in the middle of the night and want to go sleep with my parents. I am sure a lot of kids go through that – but I was also scared of getting out of bed because the monsters could get me and needed my dad to come get me. Every night – for probably too long – I would wake up and just scream in my bed to cause the lights in my parent’s room to start flashing. Like clockwork, I would see my dad come out of his room and go to the nursery where my baby brother was. Once my dad realized it was not the baby crying, he would come to my room and see me gesturing to be picked up and carried back to my parents’ room.

One night, and I remember it like it was yesterday, I started screaming per usual and I saw my dad go to the baby’s room. However, this time when he came out, instead of picking me up, he looked at me and unplugged the baby crier and went back to his room. To say I was distraught is an understatement. In hindsight I laugh because I could have easily got out of bed and walked myself to their room, but I didn’t AND ultimately it worked – I didn’t wake them up anymore and slept through the night. At the time, I couldn’t believe my father would leave me to the monsters. I would have to say that is my most vivid memory associated with being a CODA.

Q: Did you grow up with music in your household?

A: It’s funny, even before the CODA movie I got that question a lot.

My parents always encouraged us to pursue music – my dad, like the dad in the CODA movie, loved music with heavy bass. Now, he didn’t listen to rap, but there was a lot of classic rock and especially in the car, it was always VERY loud. My mom would get mad at him all the time because we would borrow his car, turn it on, and immediately jump out of our seats because he left the music all the way up where he could feel it. I would always laugh, and I loved riding with my dad with the music blasting and windows down.

I was obsessed with the Sound of Music when I was a kid, I can’t even count the number of times we watched it as a family and my parents would put it on the loudspeaker as my siblings and I danced around singing. We have multiple home videos of us belting the songs during at home “performances”. I remember when we were singing for our dad back when he had hearing aids, he would place his hand lightly on the side of our throats to feel the vibrations of us singing – also like the father in the movie. I was actually surprised when I saw the father in the movie do that because I had thought it was just something my dad did!

Q: Were there any skills you feel you developed because of your experience as a CODA?

A: Yes, I attribute my communication skills and empathy to my experiences growing up. I think observing my parents struggles with lack of accessibility and specifically seeing so many hearing individuals make it clear communication with them was burdensome shaped me a I became the person I am today. I watched my parents gracefully advocate not only for themselves but for others – and I feel like I followed their example.

Q: What did you think about some of the moments shown in the movie that portrayed a lack of accessibility to the deaf and hard of hearing? Did you experience any of them in real life?

The lack of accessibility portrayed in the movie was very real and hit close to home even though my parents accessibility needs weren’t the same as I previously mentioned. While there were many things I noticed, the primary one was the issues with telecommunications accessibility.

For as long as I can remember, I would answer the landline phone in the family home. I had everything very well-rehearsed, “Duarte Residence, Cristina speaking, how can I help you?” I LOVED getting to answer the phone and relaying the messages for my parents. Some other CODA’s have shared with me that they always felt burdened by the responsibility, but I can’t relate to that because it is something I always enjoyed. I would either take messages down for my parents or listen on the phone and mouth to them what the caller was saying. This was back before captioned telephones and other relay services were available. As I got older, telecommunications relay services (TRS) started becoming available, but due to delays with the technologies I got to keep my job as the answerer of the phones.

When I was at school and had to call my parents from the nurses office – which admittedly was frequently because I loved staying home from school – it was a struggle to communicate what was going on. Luckily, I was such a frequent visitor of the nurses office that she developed a “yes/no” system with my mom. My mom would ask questions and the school nurse would answer yes or no very clearly – this resulted in me being sent back to class probably 75% of the time.

When my parents got the InnoCaption app on their cellphones was the first time I was ever able to reach my parents like my hearing peers – it was incredibly special and to this day I don’t take having that ability to connect with them for granted. The InnoCaption technology and the doors it opened for my parents is actually why I specialized in Communications law – specifically Telecommunication Relay Services.

 Q: What was your favorite part about growing up as a CODA?

I don’t know if I had a favorite part of growing up as a CODA – I can tell you I love my family and how close we are. I know a lot of people say this, but I feel like I have the best parents in the world and I am incredibly grateful to have been born to them. I love being able to sign and where my connection to the community has led me in life. I am grateful for the values my parents instilled in me which were probably largely due to their experiences growing up hard of hearing. Occasionally I get asked whether I would have preferred to have hearing parents – and while I can say I have no idea what that would have been like, I can also honestly say that I am happy with my family and have never wished that it was different.