After School Theater Program Inspires Deaf Children

Located in Culver City, No Limits is a Theater group aimed at improving deaf children’s confidence in their speaking skills.

When he was in middle school, David Hawkins was told he would never be able to fulfill his dream of becoming a pilot.

Hawkins was born deaf, but was given cochlear implants as a newborn. He went to an elementary school that had a speech therapy program where he was taught how to speak; and throughout his early childhood, Hawkins didn’t see his deafness as a disability that would hold him back.

Once he joined public middle school, though, he started getting bullied for being deaf and realized that he was different than the rest of his peers. A classmate once told him that his hearing loss would prevent him from hearing the air traffic controller and would therefore hinder his chances of becoming a pilot like his father.

“Deaf children don’t have high expectations for themselves. They are very limited and it’s because people keep telling them to not dream too much,” said Hawkins. “If a deaf kid says he wants to be president, someone will eventually tell him ‘there’s no such thing as a deaf president.”

Instead of giving up, however, Hawkins joined No Limits, a theater group founded by Michelle Christie that aims to improve deaf children’s confidence in their communication skills. Whether kids speak, sign or do both, they are given equal time on stage so that they can practice their communication. Usually, the audience is half hearing and half deaf.

Founded in 1996, Christie started out with a cast of eight kids and has now produced close to 100 plays in various states. She said the main goal of No Limits is to teach deaf children that they are capable of achieving anything.

“Theater is a wonderful platform to develop public speaking skills and confidence, so the theater group was a great way to pull that out of [my] students,” said Christie. “I think building confidence in a child begins by believing in them and believing in their potential.”

Christie was working as a resource teacher for kids with hearing loss when she first thought of the idea of creating a theater group for her students. In one of her classes, she had a young a boy who always had tears in his eyes because he couldn’t communicate with the rest of his classmates.

It wasn’t until she introduced him to music and props that he started to break out of his shell and Christie realized that she could help him even more if she stimulated the child’s interest for the arts. She chose to focus on theater because when she was younger, she was shy and found comfort in acting vicariously through someone else on stage.

For her productions at No Limits, Christie rents theaters and hires playwrights so that the plays can look professional. At the end of every play, she has every kids say what they want to do when they grow up to build their confidence and encourage them to follow their dreams.

About 20 years ago, Hawkins was a cast member in the first play No Limits produced. Christie always made sure there would be a part in the play specifically for him so he would always be entertained and excited.

At the end of that play, Hawkins said he wanted to become a pilot and eight years later, he finally did.

To get his license, he needed to prove he was able to hear just enough to communicate through radio without an interpreter and his headsets were loud enough to suffice with his hearing aids. Hawkins said it was Christie who inspired him to pursue his dreams and taught him that there are no limits to what he could achieve.

“Instead of pitying [deaf children], she encourages to keep moving and be stronger and that’s the only way that kids actually thrive,” he said. “It kept me excited and fun and entertained while I was learning how to speak and how to effectively express my ideas out to a large group of people.”

As a grown man, Hawkins still participates in No Limits’ shows as a director and mentor for the children. His leadership role now allows him to inspire younger generations to step out of their comfort zones. When he asks the children what they want to be when they grow up, Hawkins loves hearing their dreams and helping them believe in themselves because according to him, there are no small dreams for kids.

“Well, expect maybe those that want to become Spiderman,” he said jokingly. “That might be a bit unrealistic.”

Additionally, Hawkins hopes to bridge the gap between the speaking community, the deaf community and the children who fall in between. One of the main plays they perform at No Limits is called “Silent No More,” a show that is half signed and half spoken that Christie created for this exact reason. For her, giving these children the opportunity to interact with both the deaf and hearing communities is important for them as an organization.

“The Deaf community feels proud of being deaf, it’s who they are, and so teaching a deaf child to speak is not only teaching them another language, but taking away who they essentially are, because in their minds, that makes the child no longer deaf,” Christie said.

The kids at No Limits speak like everyone else thanks to cutting edge technological advancements; but if they remove their hearing aids, they are completely deaf. Kids with these hearing devices later grow up wondering which group they belong to, if any at all.

Kathy Buckley, a No Limits board member said that it’s important for these kids to create a separate community for themselves so that they don’t have to choose between the two.

“There’s still a lot of education to be done about the next generation of people that can’t hear. Every prescription is different for each individual and everyone should have the right to choose how he or she wants to connect with this world,” she said.

According to Toby Mintz, a language acquisition expert and Associate Professor of linguistics at USC, education about deafness and cochlear implants has in fact improved in the last couple of years.

Back when cochlear implants were first introduced, it wasn’t clear how children were going to develop as adults and since the success rates were unknown, the deaf community was hesitant to accept the new development.

However, with success rates now increasing, cochlear implantation has become an option that is not so questionable anymore.

“Given the success of earlier implantation of cochlear implants, it sounds like it would be an advisable thing to do,” Mintz said, “but there’s also no reason not to learn sign language as well if that’s something that the parents want.”

Christie said this debate sometimes makes her feel insecure about teaching deaf children to speak because she feels like instead of uniting both communities, she’s feels she’s separating them.

“Deaf is who they are, it’s in their blood,” she said, “They are so proud of being deaf, because they have their confidence built and they have no limits. When I asked whether they would take a pill that would give them their hearing back, all of them said they wouldn’t take it.”

Proud of being a deaf pilot, Hawkins said he wouldn’t either.