Writer-director Doug Roland is Oscar-nominated for his live-action short “Feeling Through,” which features a deafblind character — played by a deafblind actor, a first for moviemaking.
The 18-minute film depicts homeless youth Tereek (Steven Prescod) encountering deafblind Artie (Robert Tarango), who holds a sign saying he needs help getting to a bus stop.
In a group discussion with his two actors and exec producer Marlee Matlin, Roland says, “It’s not a film about deafblindness, it’s about the power of human connection that happens to include characters from two very different walks of life.”
After watching the film, Matlin immediately signed on, saying, “It was a no-brainer.” She adds, “It was important for me to be part of the team … and I learned a lot about the deafblind community.”
That’s an impressive tribute from the actress who has been a tireless activist for disability rights since winning the best actress Oscar for the 1986 “Children of a Lesser God.”
Challenging the industry myth that hiring disabled people adds difficulties to a production, Matlin says, “Some people look at those issues of accessibility as an inconvenience. It’s not that, it’s about making a good film. They’re part of the crew and help make a film run more smoothly. I think we need more Doug Rolands out there.” Roland says the authenticity far outweighs any minor inconvenience.
Before COVID restrictions, Roland and his partners at the Helen Keller National Center arranged a series of screenings that included the film, a documentary on the making of it and a Q&A with the participants. A large segment of the audience were deafblind.
“There were 50 interpreters and support staff at each screening, to provide one-to-one accessibility (for disabled viewers) through tactile ASL (American Sign Language), visual ASL, audio description, open captions. It was a beautiful way to understand the various ways to experience a film.”
Asked about signs of progress in Hollywood, Matlin says, “I’m pleased to see greater participation, greater authenticity in the film business. At the same time, I don’t want this recognition to be the flavor of the month. I want it to continue, I want disabled actors to be able to work.”
Tarango says, “ ‘Feeling Through’ has shown the community at large who we are. we live independently and that we’re here. We are part of your everyday life … so why wouldn’t we be represented?”
Asked what Hollywood executives should know, Tarango says, “Simply don’t be afraid. We are here, we are ready, we are willing, and we want to be involved. We want to show people who we are. Invite us. Don’t be afraid.”
“Feeling Through,” the documentary “Connecting the Dots” and a longer version of the conversation are available on YouTube.