Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Learning about "Life as a CODA" with Abby Walla


Abby Walla

Abby is an actor/writer/producer from Minneapolis, MN. Recent television credits include a recurring role on ABC Family's Switched at Birth and ABC'sThe Middle. She has co-written a sitcom pilot, Detoured, which is currently being shopped around. She is also in various stages of writing a few web series and short films and she is a CODA (Child Of Deaf Adults)

CODAs are hearing Children Of Deaf Adults. Read more about the definition of CODAs and KODAs here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Child_of_deaf_adult

What can you tell us about your life as a CODA? What is most interesting thing on a daily basis?
Let’s see where to begin! My dad is deaf as are some of his siblings and my mom is a Sign Language interpreter, so ASL is my first language and the language that we use at home. Since this is the way I was raised and what is “normal” to me, I don’t necessarily notice differences in my daily life. It’s what I’m used to. I live away from home now (my parents are in Minnesota) and one thing that’s been great is that we can use apps like FaceTime and Glide to communicate now. So I suppose I get funny looks when I’m in public just signing to my phone. People have no idea what’s happening!

We've heard stories that CODAs treat their parents with no respect, since they have the “hearing super powers” that their parents don't. Is it true? What can you say about it? Why would they grow up thinking or behaving this way?

I can only speak for my own experience and that has never been the case for me. My dad is a highly educated teacher and has been an activist & leader in the Deaf community for over 30 years. He has traveled the world, was a professional swimmer, is funny, smart, and a wonderful father. I have tremendous respect for him! My dad is also the one that introduced me to theatre. He’s an avid theatre-goer and when I was only 2 years old, he started taking me with him to plays in Minneapolis. We would sit in the front row and interpreters would interpret the performance into ASL for him. It is one of my favorite memories from growing up. Sitting in the front row, I would be totally immersed in the plays and feel like I was the only one there! This was a major contributing factor to me becoming an actor.

Was there any occasion of your life that you felt embarrassed for being able to hear? Or for your parents for being deaf? Can you tell us what happen?
I don’t think I’ve ever felt embarrassed for being able to hear, but I’m sure there have been brief moments that I’ve wished my dad was hearing. Not because I needed him to be for me and not because he is lacking anything in his life (read my answer above about how amazing he is), but just because I didn’t want him to miss out on anything. As I mentioned, he loves theatre and musicals... He appreciates them in a visual way and they are interpreted into ASL, but I definitely wish he could experience them to the fullest since he gets so much joy out of theatre. Again, these are just brief moments because I love my dad just the way he is! :)

When you were old enough to understand the difference between you and your parents (Deaf and hearing) how did that change your perspective?

I think it was pretty early on in my childhood that I would see people treat my dad differently and that would really upset me. One story is that when I was four years old, my dad and I were in a car accident. It wasn’t our fault and we ended up being okay, but pretty banged up and scared. When the ambulances and police came to the scene, they didn’t bother trying to communicate with my dad, but starting interviewing me about what happened instead. They turned to a four year old to tell them what happened! My dad eventually had to put me behind him and tell them to talk to him. This was just one instance where people turned to me instead of my dad, which was really disrespectful.

For a funnier perspective on it, take a look at this:

Were you ever discriminated among your parents friends or family for being hearing? Even if not, does it happens with kodas in general?

That hasn’t been my experience. As I mentioned, I’ve been fluent in ASL since I was tiny, so in a group setting of Deaf people, I’m signing and fully involved. I think there are potentially different feelings towards CODAs that do not sign, but signing well was something that my parents really emphasized to us from the beginning. .

Here are some questions from fans:

Are both of your parents Deaf?

Nope, my dad is Deaf and my mom is a Sign Language interpreter.

Angela Demchuk: Do you prefer ASL over English or other way around? #DeafiesRock
I’m big on comedy & storytelling and I LOVE telling stories and joking around with my family in ASL. Since it’s a visual language, it really lends itself to playing with signs for humor and adding a little something extra to stories. I’m able to express things in a way that doesn’t quite come across in English. However, I also love sarcasm and some banter that comes along with English.

One of my favorite acting experiences was working with Deaf West Theatre in a children’s play called “Stories by Shel” directed by CJ Jones. We adapted Shel Silverstein poems into ASL and I had a blast working on it because the ASL added such an amazing (and hilarious) layer to the poems.

Sami Orlando: how much free time did you ever have to sacrifice in order to give your parents a voice or to interpret for them?

This is a little bit of a tricky question! My dad is a great communicator and finds ways to gesture or write on paper with hearing people all of the time. He’s also open to me interpreting for him, but he’s fine and totally independent without me. He doesn’t rely on me for communication. One of my favorite memories is when my family traveled to Italy, my dad did a better job of communicating with Italians than anyone else in our family because they gesture so much! To be clear, gesturing is not ASL, but he’s able to use gestures to figure out ways to communicate beyond English/Italian.

Sami Orlando: how has being a CODA turned you into a better person? Did it feel weird for you when your parents were deaf?

I think I grew up with a great sense that everybody is different & unique and that it’s okay, even awesome. My family was different than my friends’ families for various reasons, using ASL to communicate was one of the main ones. Since I was already “different”, I didn’t shy away from being independent and following my own path. I think it gave me a sense of confidence and pride in being my own person that has served me well in my life thus far. I don’t feel the need to assimilate or fit in and greatly appreciate uniqueness in people. This is another reason that I related to my character, Hilary, on Switched at Birth because she’s an individual who is not going to conform just to fit into her school’s archaic rules.

Was it hard for you to learn sign language to communicate with them?

I learned as a baby, so I just absorbed it, it wasn’t something I actively had to do.

Sami Orlando: Any flak from deaf community for playing a Deaf character or is it ok since you are a CODA? 

Thank you for asking! My character Hilary on Switched at Birth is actually a CODA (Child of Deaf Adult), not Deaf. I used both ASL and voiced English in my episodes on the show, I definitely wasn’t playing a Deaf character, just a signing one.

Using the example of your character on SAB, Hillary interpreted for Natalie during the prom scene, in your life, do you encounter yourself doing the same for your Deaf friends? If so, are they ok with that? 

Great question! It depends on the person, there’s not one answer that applies to everyone. For example, my dad will ask me to interpret for him from time to time, but my Aunt (who is also Deaf) never wants me to interpret for her. Same family, different opinions! :) When I’m with Deaf people, I don’t assume that they need me to interpret for them and only do so when asked. Especially since everyone has a smartphone now, there are ample ways for Deaf people to communicate with hearing people, even strangers who don’t know Sign Language. I just remember that they get along fine in their daily lives when I’m not there, so I don’t need to jump in unless I’m asked.

Talking about working with Deaf actors, can you describe a bit of the difference on working with Deaf actors and hearing actors (or Deaf production team or hearing one), if there is any difference for you? 
For me, it was an extra bonus to have deaf people on set, it felt like I was home! I had a blast working with the deaf actors on the show and they’re the ones that I hang out with the most outside of working on SAB. I’ve worked on mixed hearing/deaf sets before on other projects and I think everyone just needs to make sure that communication is at its best and everyone is being included. If that’s taken care of, then I think it adds a richness to the set because you have more diversity. 

Can we expect to see you on SAB again?

I hope so! It depends on what stories the writers come up with, but I love playing Hilary and working with the amazing cast, so I hope to be back again soon.

Since we are part of the Sean Berdy fan-page do you mind telling us how it is working with him? If you knew him from before SAB, did you work with him before on another project? What do you think of his character, Emmett?

Absolutely! I had not worked with Sean before the show, but spent time with him when we were on set. We have some mutual family friends, so we spent most of the time sharing stories about them and joking around.

As with all of us actors, we have to say the words that the writers write! I know there are passionate fans, that’s what’s so great about the show, but don’t blame Sean for Emmett’s decisions in life! :) On the bright side, Emmett will now have plenty of time to focus on his film career and become a superstar deaf director. I’m sure the writers thought carefully about the decision and knew it would break some hearts, but I’m guessing they have a plan. You’ll just have to keep watching to find out what it is!

Moving away from the CODA/Deaf subject only, do you have any future project in your pipeline? Can you share with us?

I’m always working on things! I have a couple web series premiering soon, and am auditioning for Film, TV, and Commercials regularly so I hope to have another show to share with you soon! I’m also a writer and have a couple projects that I’m writing and plan to produce & star in this year.

Do you have any final message for our readers? 
Thank you for watching SAB and for your great questions about my CODA life! Working on SAB was an incredible experience for me to combine my acting with ASL and also tell a wonderful story about a young person standing up for their beliefs. I loved that the writers of Switched at Birth continue to address important topics that we may face in our daily lives, so I was honored to be part of this storyline. There were a lot of other elements covered in the story (like LGBT teens), but that’s a topic that deserves its own interview!

Follow Abby on social media @abbywallawalla for more updates: