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Loud as a Whisper: Deafness and Disability in Star Trek

Marie Brownhill
Game Industry News is running the best blog posts from people writing about the game industry. Articles here may originally appear on Marie's blog, Fan Collective Unimatrix 47.

I’m opting to revisit “Loud as a Whisper” not because the episode itself is necessarily outstanding. It has some pacing problems, and honestly, I do not entirely understand how the chorus Riva uses is actually supposed to work. However, the episode affords me the opportunity to explore an issue that bothered me in Discovery, namely the question of how disability factors into our vision of the future.

In Star Trek, medicine functions as a rough analogue to magic, so whether disability would be present is a valid question. From canon, we get the “Menagerie,” in which we meet Captain Pike, who is confined to a wheeled chair contraption. I use the word confined deliberately because only Pike’s head and shoulders are visible, and the contraption allows him only to communicate in binary answers, yes or no. The entire point of Spock’s “mutiny” is to get Pike to Talos IV where the Talosians will use their mind magic to create a reality for Pike in which he can once again frolic as the able-bodied Jeffrey Hunter. The Pike segments serve as a framing story for the original pilot “The Cage” so that Roddenberry could reuse the footage and decrease production costs. The plot therefore required Pike to be mute. However, the episode treats Prisoner Pike as a prop onto which Spock may build a plot. The episodes aired in 1966, so some outdated thinking is to be expected, but Roddenberry’s treatment of Pike is profoundly ableist.

About two decades later, Rodenberry creates Geordi LaForge specifically to be a disabled character. LaForge is blind and wears an adaptive device, and he takes his name from George LaForge, a quadriplegic fan of Roddenberry’s acquaintance. “Encounter at Farpoint” establishes that LaForge’s VISOR causes him pain that he simply accepts, preferring the use of the device over analgesics. Furthermore, LaForge’s VISOR permits him to see far more than those with functional eyes; he sees the entirety of the electromagnetic spectrum, including sound. LeVar Burton explains that representing that functionality on a weekly TV show budget was impossible at the time, so though the idea of LaForge’s vision was ambitious, realizing it proved impossible. Generally, the show treats LaForge’s blindness as a nonissue unless it can be used to further the plot, either by having his VISOR track things no one else could see (he tells Worf he can see through the cards in “Ethics”) or conversely, by having his blindness resurface at an inopportune moment as it does in “The Enemy.” In later seasons, the show treats LaForge’s blindness as being no more remarkable Troi’s psychic abilities, which is a far cry from Prisoner Pike.

However great LaForge is at normalizing disability in the future, Worf’s adamant refusal to remain paralyzed sets the series back. In “Ethics,” Worf remains resolute in his decision to pursue either corrective surgery, no matter the risks, or Hegh’bat, Klingon ritual suicide. Picard himself seems remarkably blasé about Worf’s decision and encourages Crusher to allow Dr. Russell to use Worf as a Klingon test subject for her new treatment because otherwise, Worf will kill himself as per the traditions of his people. Fortunately, the treatment is successful, and Worf goes on to become a regular on DS9 which has its own particular disability episode: “Melora,” which itself merits a post.

Voyager and Enterprise do not, to my memory, grapple with this concept, and Discovery features not only Airiam but also Keyla Detmer, who have cybernetic implants received pursuant to grievous bodily injury. In Discovery, these implants are mostly a non-issue, until the plot necessitated making a point of their existence, and even though Discovery keeps Prisoner Pike canon (which as you, dear readers, already know, I think to be stupid), Discovery has been generally better at treating disability as a concept, though unlike in TNG, all of these characters are secondary to the major movers of the series.

All of this demonstrates that, over the course of the franchise’s history, the treatment of people with disabilities has been a mixed bag, which brings us back to “Loud as a Whisper.” I’ve asked some dear friends to comment on the episode, and their thoughts are below.

Remarks by Paul Khouri, Long-time Trekkie and Fan of Spock:

I am excited to ave the opportunity to write about this particular episode because it focuses on disability. I am a person with multiple disabilities and identify as Deaf and low vision. Additionally, I am so much of a Trekkie that I took a college course that focused on Star Trek episodes. Yes, you read that right, college! Now let’s dive into Star Trek’s log 42477.2.

When we see Riva speak with Geordi, he asks him about his VISOR. I thought this was interesting because it demonstrates how we can easily just ask people about their disability with out feeling like we will hurt their feelings. Also, he did not treat him as someone who was special or someone who was different from him.

The scene where Captain Picard explains that you should speak to the Deaf person and not the interpreter–I thought this was brilliant as this is the most common mistake that people make when they speak to a Deaf person who uses an interpreter. Even after making this mistake, Picard acknowledges this, and later he explains to everyone else what to do, allowing others to feel comfortable communicating with Riva.

After the Chorus, aka the interpreters for Riva, are killed by fighting factions, the Starfleet crew suggests that Riva use Data so they can communicate, and Riva declines the offer. Riva’s actions illustrate that Deaf people prefer having an interpreter rather than a machine. I can relate to this because technology does not convey emotions.

In the beginning of the episode, the Enterprise crew refers- v to Riva as special and the way that he used his interpreters was beautiful and elegant. Sign language was created so people could have a form of communication and it should be not an art piece or something to be inspired by. Riva sort of hints at this when he indicates that the communication through his interpreters took hundreds of years to perfect.

Before Riva conducts his mediation, he specifically tells the Enterprise crew not to get involved or provoke the fighting. We see the fighting, and the crew jumps in anyway, causing the death of the chorus. I can relate to this as able-bodied people have a habit of inserting themselves into situations by trying to save the day for people with disabilities who they assume need help, even if the person has already declined an offer of help.

The cure aspect– I felt that the episode was very geared towards to how to fix people with disabilities. Through the episode you see the characters with disabilities being proud of who they are, while the able-bodied characters are focused making Riva hearing and Geordi sighted.

Remarks by Jessica Hunt, J.D.—Trekkie by association and civil rights attorney:

I do not have specifics to add to what Paul has said, but there are a couple of points that I want to make, looking at this episode from the lens of a civil rights lawyer. I find it interesting this episode aired in 1989, during the time when people with disabilities were often in the news for our protests and demonstrations to help spur the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. I think that the episode was very timely and demonstrates the fact that society was grappling with whether to treat people with disabilities as independent or to help them at every turn.

Additionally, the demonstrations to demand the election of a Deaf president at Gallaudet University, the oldest Deaf university in the world, had just taken place in 1988. So for Star Trek to come out with an episode which focused on a Deaf character and the positive aspects of Deafness is an interesting choice.
Maybe I am reading too much into it, but this episode seems to portray the time period well and foreshadows times to come where disability is viewed as a natural occurrence and not a sad phenomenon.

It is different from the other episodes that Marie mentions above which are more heavily focused on disability as a negative and as something that other people have to make allowances for. The thing I liked about Riva was his Deaf identity was natural. In the beginning of the episode they mention that no one in his family line has ever been hearing. This is amazing, because he is also the most sought after mediator in many galaxies. Even though the episode has its flaws, from start to finish it shows that Riva could use his disability as an asset and that it would benefit others around him.

Rating: Three cups of Earl Grey Tea and a remaining Chorus member

Stray Thoughts from the Couch:

  1. The man who plays Riva is Howie Seago and is actually Deaf in real life. He actually suggested the episode’s ending, in part to demonstrate that Deaf people should not be forced to speak. The original ending called for Riva to be taught how to speak, which is clearly problematic.
  2. Moreover, Seago actually pushed for the producers to do an episode about Deaf people based on a suggestion by his wife, who happens to be a lifelong fan of Star Trek. This plays into Jessica’s historical note above rather nicely.
  3. I like how the central conflict of the episode is Riva’s rather than the alien war. In fact, beyond the killing of the Chorus, the two warring factions are more or less nonentities.
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4 thoughts on “Loud as a Whisper: Deafness and Disability in Star Trek”

  1. I did always wonder about Captain Pike in the “Menagerie.” You can see the man moving his eyes to follow people so he could very easily have “blinked once for yes and two for no”. And yet, he has a machine that does the same thing for him, only with a light and beeps. It wasn’t a very high tech concept for a Trek show, Then again the focus of the episode wasn’t the tech in the chair, but rather the tech Capt. Pike desperately wanted to return to that allowed him to be “normal.”

    Well written article…

  2. I am profoundly deaf from a degenerative condition that has left me with minimal hearing in one ear. I am facing the prospect of a cochlear implant and all that entails, risk of facial paralysis (from drilling a long and narrow tunnel through the hardest bones in my skull), the total loss of residual hearing rendering me totally and clinically deaf (I sure hope this works Bullwinkle).
    I grew up in the deaf community, my parents were deaf mutes.
    The cochlear is a hearing person’s solution to make me more like them. It would have been much easier if sign language were a universal part of early childhood education, a good idea for many reasons. I have read of the increased threat of Alzheimers in the deaf. I suspect that could be averted if sign were a universal language known by everyone.
    Instead I have to be assimilated and take those first steps to becoming a Borg.

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