Millicent Simmonds was cast in a movie as Helen Keller, a famous DeafBlind individual, known all over the world. Hundreds of people, including a large number of Deaf people, have been praising Simmonds on her verified Instagram account, sharing their excitement that she has been given the opportunity to portray someone that is very well known. However, the intersectionality of the role is being ignored. The DeafBlind community is upset, and they have been calling her in on social media.
As soon as DeafBlind community members post a comment under Simmonds’ Instagram announcement, it disappears. Some DeafBlind folx took screenshots of their comments as proof that they have been commenting. Loni Friedmann, a DeafBlind queer woman, has shown screenshots of her own comments, and also evidence of Simmonds’ mother clarifying that she is the one deleting the comments. After providing a quick run down of the image descriptions for each featured screenshot on her feed, Friedmann then says, “It’s time. I’m fed up y’all.”
Emily’s confirmation reads as follows: “Hi. I’m Millicent’s mom. She didn’t delete any comments. I did. For once I wanted Millie to be excited about taking on such an iconic role (someone she is related to) that initially they cast a hearing-sighted actress for, without any negative backlash from her own community. Apparently, that was too much to ask for. Just wanted to set the record straight. I deleted them. It’s not her responsibility to make everyone happy and being in this business has definitely opened both of our eyes to that.” (Emily Simmonds, by the Instagram username of emilysimm)
Venesse Guy, a Black DeafBlind person, replied to Emily’s confession that she deleted the comments with the following comment: “Thank you for admitting that you were the one who removed all those comments. Isn’t that how you educate your kids by sweeping under the rug like that as Millie isn’t aware of what’s going on in this community without being educated and acknowledged with her privileges as a Deaf person in this community? How can she learn from this? How can she acknowledge her privileges as a Deaf person? She’s grown up and she’s a smart person. And you swept all of this under the rug. It isn’t the solution to this situation. The way you deal with this situation makes things worse for this community.”
Emily’s response to Venesse was: “Millie is very aware and has done more for this community than most. She’s been dealing with the backlash from this community starting at age 13. I don’t need your parenting advice, but thank you.”
Haben Girma, a well-known Black DeafBlind woman, and lawyer, had this to say when she shared Liam O’Dell’s article on Limping Chicken about the controversy on Facebook: “I know many Deafblind people with powerful stories to share. I’m sad Hollywood keeps reducing us to a single story. Once again they cast a sighted actor to pretend to be blind. When will Hollywood show the stories of Deafblind people of color? #HelenKeller” (Haben)
Friedmann also posted a prior video (before sharing the screenshots) on Instagram, where she talks about how important it is to have a DeafBlind person be hired for DeafBlind roles, such as Helen Keller: “Deaf people do not understand what it is like being DeafBlind. How can a Deaf sighted person understand this? That doesn’t show authenticity in Hollywood movies.”
The general response to Friedmann’s posts has been one of strong support. Some people are commenting about Simmonds’ age (a few clarified that she’s 18 now), and how her mother is still controlling the narratives around her. Emily stated that they can’t make everybody happy, and her comment really upset some people. DeafBlind community members are banding together to say–No, enough is enough, Simmonds was given the opportunity to represent the Deaf community through Deaf roles and is now robbing the DeafBlind community of DeafBlind roles, merely because she now has the clout to be put in these roles.
On Instagram, Karina Monique replied to Emily’s statement: “responding to your mothers’ comment ‘we can’t make everyone happy’ – I understand you both have a living to make but you are profiting off the struggles of a community that has been overlooked since the beginning of time 🥺” (Monique)
The importance of elevating others through your work, on your own platform, is often talked about, and folks are saying that Simmonds failed to do that when she accepted a DeafBlind role. Some questions still remain. Did Simmonds do this without encouraging producers to consider a DeafBlind person first? One Instagram user inquired whether there are any DeafBlind actresses, and another user named Ashlea Hayes as one such DeafBlind actress. It has also been brought to our attention that the movie that Simmonds was cast for may have a second DeafBlind role and the person who was cast in that role is hearing.
On Limping Chicken, O’Dell wrote: “Still Alice director Wash Westmoreland will direct the film, which is based on a screenplay which he wrote with Laetitia Mikles in consultation with the Helen Keller National Center for Youth and Adults.” April Antonio, who goes by the screen name of “bluepearlmama” on Instagram and identifies herself as DeafBlind, alleges under one of Friedmann’s Instagram that the Helen Keller National Center has a role in the film’s production, which is slated to begin Summer 2022.