Teddy Dorsette III has always been passionate about film and about creating opportunities in the entertainment industry for individuals like himself. A fourth-generation deaf person, inherited from his maternal side, Dorsette, 32, witnessed the difficulties faced by deaf people of color in creative fields while working at Detroit Performing Arts High School. Such students were often apathetic in class because the curriculum was not tailored to their needs. Though disheartened, Dorsette channeled the experience into developing a mentorship program for deaf students and has been championing deaf rights ever since. (This summer, he interned at the National Association of the Deaf near Washington, D.C.) Hour Detroit spoke with Dorsette on how he hopes to advance black deaf artists and what he sees as vital to the needs of deaf people of color on the local and national stage.
Hour Detroit: What are some of the adversities that deaf people of color face?
Teddy Dorsette III: The lives of people of color are always affected by the color of our skin. We are identified by race first, and then recognized as deaf. I feel like our race exaggerates our abilities and differences. People assume that deaf people are less intelligent or lack the mental capacity of a hearing person, and the world relies on being able to hear. As a result, people that can’t hear are at a great deficit. People assume everyone just learns by hearing, and rarely think about how to convey the same information in a different way.
Could you speak on their experiences regarding access to care and educational programs?
A high percentage of people of color within the deaf community obtain certificates [rather than] diplomas, and most of them do not enter college. A large portion of youth struggle with lack of skills, training, and experience to obtain jobs that would provide them a stable lifestyle, without the support of disability income. There needs to be more training and workshops to provide parents with knowledge and support on how to use Individualized Education Programs to help their child meet their educational and emotional goals. There are also many complaints in medical settings due to the lack of certified professionals who can communicate and understand them. This is a problem as so many factors create risk for deaf individuals to receive incorrect diagnosis.
“The world relies on being able to hear, which provides a great deficit to those who cannot.”
— Teddy Dorsette III
How did you get involved with DBDA?
I joined to better understand what the black deaf community was going through, and to find ways to help. I also wanted to create bonds with other black deaf people since I knew they could understand my everyday struggles. [Right now], DBDA is working on a scholarship and mentorship program called the Youth Empowerment Summit. Through the program, we are hoping to send youth to the National Biennial conference, a one-week educational leadership training for black deaf and hard of hearing youth, ages 13 to 17, attending any mainstream or home school deaf institution within the country.
What do you see as important for the black, deaf community of Detroit at large?
In general, we need to create awareness, educate, and empower these communities. So many decisions are being made without our valuable input. Specifically, we need to increase accessibility in public and private spaces, and continue raising funds for the Michigan Department of Civil Rights Division on Deaf, DeafBlind, and Hard of Hearing.
Why are you working to improve conditions for deaf people in the entertainment industry specifically?
As a deaf person of color, I wanted to find a creative way of sharing my experiences, and those of others like me. I grew up watching movies and television shows that tapped into the black experience. Some of my biggest inspirations are filmmakers like Spike Lee, Mario Van Peebles, and Norman Lear because they fought against oppression and created space for black actors in the industry. I aim to do the same for the black and POC deaf communities by increasing their access to certain roles that might otherwise go to a hearing actor.
How do your ventures support the cause?
My film, Silent Life, is based on my experience as a deaf person who has the ability to speak and sign fluently. In the film, I share my struggles with communication, relationships, and the perspectives of my friends who also converse through various modes. As director, I aimed to make sure that the roles of deaf individuals were as authentic as possible. As an actor, I cast myself, as well as other deaf talent. TeddyBoy Films & Entertainment is a for-profit production company that I co-founded with my late father. We provide content for all POC deaf talent in film, television, music, and marketing. Reel Def Entertainment is a nonprofit organization providing workshops, scholarship funding, and internship opportunities in hopes of helping [deaf and hard of hearing talent] secure employment in a career they are passionate about.
Important Words to Know in American Sign Language
Dorsette offers a lesson on four wise signs to work into your non-verbal vocabulary.
Hand Illustrations by Joe Ficorelli
“My entire life work is in advocacy because I advocate on behalf of the community.”
“We can’t do everything alone. I collaborate with other organizations for the best of the community.”
“The hope is that our diverse backgrounds, cultures, and lives can come together to teach, inspire, and aid one another.”
“Detroit is an epicenter of creativity, innovation, and using our [unique] differences to create beautiful masterpieces.”