Student pushes for authentic representation of deaf community

Chrissy Marshall records a video for her YouTube channel.
All of Chrissy Marshall's videos are captioned with transcripts and some have guest voiceovers so that the videos are as accessible as possible. (Photos by Lindsey Vande Wege)
Portrait of Chrissy Marshall

As a deaf person, Chrissy Marshall hates it when people react to hearing loss with pity.

The 19-year-old UC Santa Cruz film and digital media student wants people to know that there is a vibrant deaf community and culture, and that deaf people love their lives. She spreads the word by making educational videos on her YouTube Channel “The Essential Sign.”

The Maryland native was born severely hard of hearing and slowly lost hearing until in her junior year in high school, she identified as deaf. Though she has always used hearing aids, they don’t benefit her now and she prefers to communicate with American Sign Language.

Marshall became interested in making videos about deaf culture because as a child, she saw very little representation of deaf people in the media or on YouTube.

“There are so many misconceptions and there needs to be more authentic representation and awareness online,” she said in an email interview.

Her YouTube channel has attracted 1,217 subscribers with videos on such topics as why she likes sign language, the challenges of lipreading, getting involved with the deaf community and her favorite—the dos and don’ts of interacting with the deaf community.

“A lot of people felt educated by it and I have even been told that some teachers have used it in their ASL classrooms,” Marshall said. “Knowing that my videos are being used to spread awareness is a really special feeling.”

All her videos are captioned with transcripts and some have guest voiceovers so her videos are as accessible to everyone as possible.

She has done a few collaboration videos with deaf activist Rikki Poytner, who has 81,544 subscribers, about bias in the deaf community and “inspiration porn,” a term referring to society’s tendency to over-praise disabled people when they do something ordinary. “Like if disabled people do something simple, they’ll be like ‘Wow that’s so amazing’ but it’s just a disabled person doing something,’” Marshall says in the video.

She has also made a few music videos with sign language translation. “When I pick music covers, it’s a usually a song that I like that has good lyrical meaning, or the song is trending and I can think of a creative interpretation,” she said. But she adds that the videos are incredibly difficult to plan and pull off.

Marshall gets many of her ideas for videos from Twitter (@life_laughter_), where she identifies as a queer deaf creator. “Sometimes I’ll rant about something and then decide to make a video for it, or if a follower suggests a topic I’m interested in, I’ll do it. I try to mostly focus on topics that I’ve noticed people in my life need to be educated on.”

Her viewers are enjoying her work. She said she is so grateful for the positive comments and encouragement that come her way.

She appreciates it when hearing people reach out and try to understand and learn about deaf people. On her YouTube bio, Marshall praises UC Santa Cruz’s Disability Resource Center as “fantastic.”

The center, based in the Hahn Student Services building, serves about 2,388 disabled students including 35 who use captioning services on videos and two who use ASL translators. The disability resource center also offers note takers and alternative listening devices for those who are hard of hearing. Students can get preferential seating to better see and interpreter and can take time and a half on exams.

Rick Gubash, the center’s director, said he encourages faculty members to design their classes for the widest audiences possible by, for instance, captioning videos in advance. The center also supports students in “challenging the deficit perception of disability.”

Marshall plans to pursue a career in film, possibly as a director, cinematographer, or editor. Her dream is to advocate for the deaf in Hollywood. “

Spreading awareness and educating people about deafness and accessibility is a passion of mine that I have found truly rewarding.”