What Children of a Lesser God Tells Us About Deaf Culture


Children of a Lesser God is an American romantic drama that was adapted from a theatre play. The story revolves around a speech teacher and a woman who is deaf. The film was made in 1986, a time when there was much less awareness of the importance of including people with disabilities and creating equal opportunities. Nevertheless, watching the film continues to be a rewarding experience due to its outstanding lead actors, William Hurt and Marlee Matleen. William Hurt, who died on March 13 shortly before his 72nd birthday, was one of the 1980s most acclaimed American actors and starred in some unforgettable films. But Children of a Lesser God is also remarkable for another reason: It provides some insight into deaf people's feelings and their experiences when they are confronted with the world of hearing people. And it probably does this much better than more recent movies that deal with the topic of deafness.


William Hurt


Children of a Lesser God is about the relationship between James, a teacher at a school for deaf and hard of hearing students, who is determined to teach his students to lip read and speak, and the deaf woman Sarah, who refuses to learn to speak and expects hearing people to communicate with her by using sign language. Sarah is played by Marlee Matleen, who is not only a gifted actor (she won a Best Actress Academy Award for this role), but is also deaf herself.


Marlee Matleen


Although Sarah’s deafness is the central topic of the film, she is not defined by it. She is portrayed as an intelligent and attractive woman who stands up for her own ideas. It is the hearing that regard her as disabled because she cannot – and is not willing to - communicate with them in their language. Sarah’s attitude is reflected by many deaf people today who do not consider deafness a disability, but classify themselves as belonging to Deaf culture. Similar to a national or ethnic culture, Deaf culture is spelled with a capital D. It refers to a linguistic community that uses sign language, has its own institutions and creates its own cultural products, such as plays, books, art, magazines and movies targeted at deaf and hard of hearing audiences.


One might expect that this film would have struck a chord with deaf people, but, actually, it was not received well by all deaf viewers. This was mainly due to the fact that, at that time, film producers and cinemas catered only to their mainstream audience so that people with a sensory impairment were excluded from fully enjoying the cinematic experience. Today, films are frequently made accessible by adding subtitles or closed captions for people who are deaf or hard of hearing and audio descriptions for blind people, which was not the case when Children of a Lesser God was screened. Another problem was that, although sign language is widely used in the film, the actors’ hands are not always clearly visible and some of the signing is very fast.


But, on the other hand, Kevin Nolan, a guidance counsellor at the Clark School for the Deaf in Massachusetts, commented on the film’s positive impact in an 1986 article published by the New York Times: ''Hearing people still have so many misconceptions - like deaf people can't read or dance or cry or laugh. The movie shows that we have the same worries and feelings, abilities and aspirations as anyone else.''



A video about this topic that is worth watching is the funny and inspiring Deaf Culture 101 (19 min.) made by the Iowa School of Deaf. Some deaf people share their comments on common questions they are asked by hearing people. It is also an opportunity to see people communicate in American Sign Language.



Children of a Lesser God data




Release date




Romantic drama


Randa Haines

Screenplay written by Hesper Anderson and

Mark Medoff based on Medoff's play


A love story between a speech teacher and a deaf woman who prefers to use sign language instead of learning to speak


Culture portrayed

American and Deaf culture



English and American Sign Language


Country of production

United States


119 minutes



on DVD, Blu-ray and streaming services


Audience Suitability

From 15 years



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