In Season 12 of Grey’s Anatomy (two seasons ago now), Denzel Washington directed and Stacy McKee wrote an episode centered around Meredith Grey. The episode – Sound of Silence – has been praised in the years since as a tour de force of television, a fantastic acting job, and an amazing directorial debut from Washington.
However, Sound of Silence draws its terror from places it doesn’t even seem to recognize exist. The opening monologue references the way sexism silences womens’ voices, and then goes on to incapacitate Grey in a brutal attack that shatters her eardrums and breaks her jaw. A ten full minutes of the episode are shot in total silence, reflecting the isolation that Grey is trapped in. The episode is fully aware of how it references sexism; it shows a shocking lack of awareness of the fact that Grey’s temporary condition is a real one for many, many people.
I am hard of hearing. For me, the silence that is meant to demonstrate Meredith Grey’s trauma is a constant. That doesn’t make the episode bad; it’s a wonderful exploration of healing. But where it falls down is in those ten minutes, when not a single doctor makes the effort to communicate with Grey in any way other than talking louder at her. She’s left out of her own medical decisions by people who know that she can’t hear, and don’t seem to consider picking up a pencil, a marker, even doing basic charades in lieu of actual ASL knowledge.
This is a dangerous thing to put into a mainstream show. Dangerous because, without addressing this fundamental failure of care by the doctors in question, it perpetuates the idea that this should be normal. If you can’t hear, forget having any input. It doesn’t matter how you communicate; if you can’t communicate the way that is expected of you, you will be put through hell. Once again, Grey has no input on any of her medical decisions for those ten minutes of the show, which includes a trip to the OR. What was she undergoing surgery for? We aren’t told, and neither is Grey.
This is reality, for far too many people. The d/Deaf community is continually underserved by doctors, especially those who speak ASL in areas with very few accessible translators. In Canada, it’s taken almost ten years to finally institute email communication with doctor’s offices, and when d/Deaf folks ask what alternatives there are to phone calls, the response has been ‘get somebody else to do it for you’. Medical privacy, informed consent, access to medical care – all of these are immensely challenging for those of us who simply can’t hear. And that’s without getting into the complications of communication for neurodivergent folks – autism, ADHD, brain damage, PTSD, selective mutism, and more.
‘Sound of Silence’ is an excellent Grey’s Anatomy episode. It’s beautifully shot, beautifully directed, and beautifully acted. But the terror that it depicts as part of trauma and an allegory for sexism is medical neglect, first and foremost. Next time a character’s rendered deaf – temporarily or otherwise – have their costars pick up a pen.