Episodes
Robert Tarango smiling to the camera. He's wearing a navy blazer over a light blue shirt with a black tie.
The Be My Eyes Podcast
April 20, 2021

The First Deafblind Actor to Attend the Oscars

When Robert Tarango was cast to star in Doug Roland's short film Feeling Through, he was a kitchen assistant at the Helen Keller National Center. On Sunday, he'll walk down the red carpet at the 93rd Academy Awards. Here's his story – and why it's so important for the future of inclusion in film and TV.

Episode Transcript

Speaker 1:

Never seen a blind and deaf guy before?

Will Butler:

This is the Be My Eyes podcast, and I'm Will Butler. What you're hearing is Feeling Through, a short film written and directed by Doug Roland.

Speaker 1:

Wait, wait, come on. Why do I got to get stuck with this?

Will Butler:

The film begins with a young man without housing, played by Steven Prescott, meeting a deaf blind man, played by Robert Tarango, at a New York City bus stop. The film was nominated for an Academy Award this year, and next Sunday, Robert Tarango will be the first deaf blind person to even attend the Oscars since Helen Keller did, back in 1955.

Will Butler:

And this week on the podcast, we're talking with Robert Tarango about how he went from working in the kitchen at the Helen Keller National Center to being on his way to the 93rd Oscars.

Speaker 1:

Young man.

Will Butler:

Super exciting episode today, but first we've got a reminder about our latest giveaway from OrCam. That's right, if you go to bemyeyes.com/orcam, you can read all about it, but I've got a little message from the good folks at OrCam, "Do you know anyone who struggles to read print or recognize faces?" I feel like we might know a few of those people. If so, the OrCam MyEye is a solution for them, it instantaneously reads texts from any printed or digital texts, recognizes familiar and not familiar faces, and identifies products, money, notes, colors, and much more. Take it from this guy.

Speaker 3:

Once I got the OrCam device, I was able to read a book. I felt liberated.

Will Butler:

The Orcam MyEye delivers increased independence to people who are blind or visually impaired. It weighs, get this, less than an ounce, and it's the size of a finger basically. And it clips, magnetically, onto virtually any pair of glasses. So for more information, visit orcam.com, and to enter to win it, go to bemyeyes.com/orcam, put your information in there. This is a US only giveaway, but you can always learn more at OrCam's website or on their Facebook page. Thanks everybody.

Will Butler:

Now, let's check out this interview with the first deaf blind actor to go to the Academy Awards. This is a huge deal. The Oscars are coming up just next Sunday night, and we all kick back and cross our fingers and root for Robert, and Director/Writer, Doug Roland, to walk up on stage and accept that Oscar. Here's deaf blind actor, Robert Tarango.

Robert Tarango:

Oh, thank you very much. You're very welcome.

Will Butler:

That's the voice of Angela, his interpreter, that you're hearing. Robert is joining us remotely from Arizona, where he has been during the pandemic. Robert, how is life out there in Arizona these days?

Robert Tarango:

Well, like everybody else, we have our ups and our downs. COVID-19 has really impacted us, although we are able to keep our family together, we are avoiding people, so we want to make sure that we don't get sick, and we want to remain COVID negative. So I think that with everybody else, there've been some rough days, some really kind of off depressing days, but you get through it, and you feel better. And it hasn't been easy, not being around people. I don't really like the masks. We did all get sick and you'd give it to one another, so we are all now vaccinated. So we're just praying that we stay safe and that COVID is behind us.

Will Butler:

Yeah, absolutely. And you've had this film to occupy so much of your attention for pretty much the duration of the pandemic, which has certainly made your life interesting. We're going to talk all about that, but before we get into your acting career, I just wanted to kind of get a sense of who you are. Who is Robert and where are you from? Where did you grow up? Tell us a little bit about your childhood.

Robert Tarango:

I was born deaf, and I had 20/20 vision. It wasn't until later in life, when I was at the Arizona School for the Deaf and Blind, that's where I went to school for 11 years. I did play football, as well as basketball and track. Again, I had no issues with my vision at that time. I went on to college in Phoenix for a couple of years, that did not work out. I then went on to a technical college, that again, didn't really fit my needs. And so I went to work. I worked for a production company for six years, and then when I was 23, I found out that I had some vision issues. I went to the doctor, I was diagnosed with Usher Syndrome Type One, and really after that, there was a period of depression.

Will Butler:

Yeah. I remember that period of depression when I was 23. Well, what about your family? Were they very supportive or how did they engage with your disabilities?

Robert Tarango:

I have a very small family. So I think what they noticed more than anything was my balance issues, and that's what actually prompted me to go for testing. And there was a lot of sadness, a lot of tears, but they got behind me 100%. I have a sister named Agnes, she also is deaf and legally blind. So, we're a very tight knit family, we are bonded, and we are really there for one another.

Will Butler:

I imagine there's a special relationship between the two of you. How do you support one another?

Robert Tarango:

What it is, is being in constant communication. I think that helps. But again, we both go through these hills and valleys, especially with COVID. So I think, what it is, is to really lean on each other, to not stay in that low, and to continue to think positively.

Will Butler:

I think when people think about deaf-blindness, obviously pretty much the only thing they know is Helen Keller. What in your mind is correct about the perception of Helen Keller? And how would you encourage people to think differently?

Robert Tarango:

I think what people should recognize is that there's a variety of ages, that we lose our vision at different times, that we do get frustrated. And there are places named after Helen Keller, like the Helen Keller National Center, where people can get the assistance that they need, where they can get proper diagnoses, and then get access to things that will allow them to live independently. So it might be technology, it might be learning new skills for independence, like cooking or cleaning.

Robert Tarango:

So what I would really encourage anybody that's going through something like this, like I did, is to get training and to really alleviate that frustration. And for myself, I had a state counselor in vocational rehabilitation who really was an asset to me, and really helped me, and agreed to send me ultimately to the Helen Keller National Center. So I believe that having access in your community, having somebody to send you to a place like that, is really amazing. I got to go there in 1995, and I remember visiting there going, "Wow, just, wow, I can do things." And I think that really helped. So I encourage anybody who is out there to reach out to your state vocational rehabilitation agency and find out where you can go, even if it's not for in-person training, but maybe there's equipment you can use. There are a wealth of tools out there to help us live independently.

Will Butler:

You were told you were losing your vision when you were 23, but when did you start calling yourself deaf blind?

Robert Tarango:

Again, the onset, as I said, was in my early twenties, but I absolutely did not accept the diagnosis. I want to say it took three, four years. Yeah, I would say it took several years for me to really start to come to terms with it. And as I said, getting this vocational training really helped, going to Helen Keller National Center and meeting other deaf blind people, and meeting other people like me with Usher One, with retinitis pigmentosa, that's when I started identifying as deaf blind, because I started really learning about all of the possibilities of things that could be. And I think that's when I really accepted it and really embraced it. When I think about the one thing that I miss most though, and I don't know that I'll ever get over it, it's driving. I think that the hardest thing that I had to surrender is not driving, but beyond that, I think I'm pretty good.

Will Butler:

Yeah. I couldn't agree more. I sometimes wonder if we had that great self-driving car, we'd all just fit in like everyone else, because driving is really the big thing that makes us different, right? So tell me a little bit more about your career trajectory because you get this diagnosis, you're very resistant, but you start gradually meeting people in the community. What did you do for work throughout this time of your twenties and thirties?

Robert Tarango:

So, in Arizona, I did have some work, again, doing a work as a production worker for six or seven years. And then I did ultimately resign with the diagnoses of my Usher Syndrome. So when I went to HKNC, I really did fall in love with it there, and I knew I wanted to stay. I had made friends there, and initially I had two jobs, that I secured myself. I went out on interviews on my own. One was in a supermarket called Pathmark, and then there was another one in a gourmet meat shop. And so, at the time, again, it was part time, and I did that for over a year, and I was waiting for actually somebody at Helen Keller to retire in a particular position. And as soon as that person retired, I jumped on their job, and then I worked in the kitchen from 1998 until just last year where we were laid off unfortunately, due to the pandemic. I loved my job. I loved what I did. I did it independently, but again, life happens, COVID happens, and this is where I'm at.

Will Butler:

So, you'll have to forgive me, but how does a deaf blind person work in a meat shop or a grocery store or a food service setting? I imagine you're using some residual vision, but there's got to be a lot of skills involved with not having any hearing and not having very much vision in a work environment like that.

Robert Tarango:

At that time, I say it was significantly better than it is now, and I was able to see well, even in the evenings I was able to see well enough to do what I needed to do. I saw well enough to get to and from work. I was able to walk independently. For me, I walked everywhere because I wanted to save money, so I didn't want to spend money on public transportation.

Robert Tarango:

So I ultimately acquiesced and decided to use a cane for protection when my vision started to change. And what I did slowly notice is that my vision became tunneled. I actually have to wear three sets of glasses when I go outside right now, I have cataracts, and I just wished that I could have surgery that would help improve my vision. I did ultimately get cataract surgery, but what I'm doing right now is looking for sort of one set of glasses, as opposed to having three sets of glasses. I do have to go to the eye doctor and try and figure out if there's something I can use. I do absolutely have to use sunglasses when I'm outside. And once I had my cataract surgery, I did need to get a new prescription. So that's pretty much where I'm at right now.

Will Butler:

I can relate, as someone with just a small amount of vision. I'm actually headed the eye doctor after our conversation right now, and I'm kind of dreading it because it's just so hard to find a pair of glasses that meets all of my needs.

Robert Tarango:

And again, I wish I could do one set. It just, because again, my eyes are different. I mean they don't function well together, so it's really challenging not having something that I can use. Again, sunglasses to prevent glare, great, that is better than nothing. But I'm hoping that I'll be able to do something, at some point, that will make it better. And again, cataract surgery may help, but this is where I'm at for right now. And again, I think that the most important thing is to remain positive, and not freak out, and just recognize that, in time, things will get better, and I'm just going to be able to do what I need to do.

Will Butler:

There's definitely a real shortage of optometric solutions for people with low vision, and that's something I can't emphasize enough. There need to be better, low vision solutions for people out there because there are so many people like you and me. I'm wondering though, Robert, so tell me a little bit about the work environment at HKNC. Why did you like it so much? What makes it different? What sets it apart? Why stay there instead of going and getting a, quote unquote, mainstream job?

Robert Tarango:

Well, I think first and foremost, when I was a student, my goal was to work for the post office. But unfortunately, because of my balance issues, I could never meet the production requirements for it in terms of speed. So while I was training at HKNC, I realized that it was going to be challenging. Again, as I said, I wanted to stay in New York, I did have two jobs, I did find those two part-time jobs that I mentioned, and they hired me right away. And in my eyes I was like, well, it's better than nothing. I would try my best. I think communication was probably the most challenging in mainstream environment. And again, when I went back to HKNC, there wasn't a job for me to be had. But once there was, I wanted to make sure that I had a good job, that I could make enough money to live my life and that I was able to communicate at work.

Robert Tarango:

And I think that's a key point, is the communication at work, and also your transportation to and from work. You have to make sure that you need to be able to get to and from work. And I love working, let's start with that, is that I do love working. But I want to be independent, and when I started to lose my vision, I had to think about things that I wanted to do. One thing that I actually did have aspirations to do was to be a movie star, but when I thought about losing my vision, I was like, well, that's never going to happen. So, that's where I'm at.

Will Butler:

And so you're cooking, right? Or you're working in the kitchen. What are you doing at HKNC during this time?

Robert Tarango:

So, I was a kitchen helper at HKNC, so I was responsible for maintaining the cleanliness, initially. Initially, I was just a porter, cleaning mopping. And then as I gained more experience, I became a dishwasher, then I actually did some of the food prep, and set up the food in the cafeteria that the students could access when they came through for their meals. I think what I really liked most though, is that deaf blind students could see a deaf blind adult working independently, being their role model.

Will Butler:

So now that you are starring in a film that's been nominated for an Academy Award, tell me, what's your hope in terms of your next job?

Robert Tarango:

For me, I'm not sure, honestly, what my next steps are. Whether we win or lose on April 25th, and of course I have my fingers crossed for that Oscar, but what I really want is for the whole world to see someone like me. I want Hollywood, I want these famous movie stars, these high level executives, to just sit back and go, "Oh my goodness, a deaf blind actor. Never thought it possible." And now open your eyes to what is possible and welcome us, whether you're blind, whether you're deaf, whether you're deaf blind. I want them to recognize that we can do it, and to not be afraid of embracing us and bringing us into the fold.

Robert Tarango:

If I can do it, anyone can do it. And look at this film, a short film, first deaf blind actor ever in a leading role, and we're nominated for an Oscar. And all that took, honestly, for this to start was for Doug Roland to go to Helen Keller and learn about our community and not be fearful of it, and to go and to rehearse with us, to make things accessible for us, but just naturally. Naturally, as you would do with any other actor, regardless of the fact that I'm deaf blind, actors rehearse, we rehearsed. That's why this was seamless, that rehearsal built our relationship and the foundation of our chemistry, and that's why we were successful.

Will Butler:

So there's a great documentary that Doug did about the making of the film. People can watch that, but tell us from your perspective about the day that Doug showed up at HKNC.

Robert Tarango:

Well, I was at work, and I knew literally nothing about what was going on in that other building. I was at work, doing my job, was working in the kitchen. My boss, Dan, kind of frumped on over to me and came over and got my attention. And I was like, "Hey, what's up?" And he had this expression and he pointed to the telephone and said, "You need to go over to the other building." And I didn't understand what his expression was about, and he's like, "You, go over there, you got to go over there." And I'm thinking, am I in trouble, did I do something? Like, why do I need to go to the other building? So okay, got my cane, and made my way over to the other building, went into the training building, up to the second floor meeting room, and again, just sort of scanning the room, just looking like, what is going on here?

Robert Tarango:

There were lights set up, there were cameras. I had no idea what was going on. So I sat back down into a chair, kind of hesitantly, and Doug explained who he was and what he was doing, and that they were looking for the first deaf blind actor in a film. And I was like, "Seriously?" I was like, "Really? You want to cast a deaf blind person? Come on. You are not kidding." I was ecstatic. So yeah, I met with them, and then I went back to work. Fast forward, Dan says, "Hey, it's Doug on the phone." And again, this was a time later, and he was talking on the phone and giving me, the wait one minute, sort of hand signal.

Robert Tarango:

And I'm like, "What's taking so long? Why are you on the phone?" And so then he said, "Doug picked you." And then we both cheered, and I was like, "What? I am the first deaf blind actor in a film." I mean, just grateful. I'm grateful and appreciative to every one of the people who auditioned, I commend them for having the guts to do that. And what I really hope is that in the future, there were more of us given this opportunity. But for me, yeah, I think what is most important is that I, as a deaf blind person and playing a deaf blind person, I have the life experiences, I have everything that is nuanced in being deaf blind, I can bring to this film, and that's why we need more actors like us.

Will Butler:

Well, I think many have probably tried to make a film successful with a deaf blind person starring in it. But at least as far as we know, none have succeeded at a high level. What do you think it is that sets apart Feeling Through, as a film, and Doug as its Director and Writer?

Robert Tarango:

I'm going to try my best to answer this. I think that Feeling Through, it's based on Doug's own experience, working, or meeting rather, with a deaf blind man, his name is Artemio. And I think that whole journey for Doug is what made this successful, trying to figure out communicating with Artemio back then, trying to figure out how this could work. Then I think that that experience really inspired him to begin this journey. And I think what Doug really wants people to know, and I think what really shows in this film, is that we didn't take somebody who was not deaf blind and put them in this role, but rather, a real person who has had these experiences, that's what makes this special. Honestly, I think that the relationship that we've had, and really meeting all of the deaf blind people that he did, ultimately culminating with me, is what makes this special.

Will Butler:

You mentioned Artemio, who's sort of the inspiration for the film, have you met Artemio and spoken with him much? If so, what have those conversations been like?

Robert Tarango:

Yes, I actually did meet him in New York City. Oh, actually there was a screening at the Port Washington Library, and his mom was present for that screening of Feeling Through, Artemio himself was unable to attend. But I did meet his mom in Port Washington on Long Island and got to meet her. And then there was a subsequent screening in New York City where I did meet Artemio for the first time and we got to chat for awhile. And I just really wanted to congratulate him for inspiring Doug to do this. We embraced and he was really happy to see this. And again, he also, like me, wants to see this open doors for deaf blind people in the future.

Will Butler:

And so, do you have other deaf blind friends who have watched the film or experienced it? And if so, what has their reaction been?

Robert Tarango:

You know, it's pretty interesting, so these screenings are done with everybody in a room. So regardless of hearing or sight abilities, so deaf, deaf blind, hearing, blind, everybody's in the same theater watching the same film, experiencing it at the same time. And I think the overall message is like independence, and welcoming, and look at these two people, strangers, look at what they can do. And you just walk out of there just feeling joyful and just inspired. And I think that it's an uplifting film and it really supports our community. And just as an aside, all of my friends, all of the people from the Arizona School for the Deaf and Blind, everybody is cheering me on. And everybody's like, "Look at Robert, that's Robert." And so for me, I mean, when I saw my mom, the pride that's in my mom's face, and when she hugged me after seeing it, that meant everything.

Will Butler:

Yeah. I mean, it's unbelievable. I want to point out that a lot of the people in the disability community have a problem with that word, inspiring, and being inspirational. Obviously, people who aren't disabled call each other inspirational all the time and no one has a problem with it. What would you say to folks who say like, "Oh, this film is such an inspiration," or "I'm not comfortable with using that word." Do you know anything about why people might be hesitant with the idea of being inspirational to others?

Robert Tarango:

I want to say, just talking about this journey, and I don't know about the word inspiration being an issue. But when I think about Marlee Matlin, when she saw this for the first time, and how it affected her, I think I'm not really focusing on the word inspired, but what this really shows is how few of us are out there, on the big screen, and how many more of us that need to be out there. So maybe it's about being more welcoming, maybe it's about the industry welcoming us, and growing, and really seeing our independence. And so I think that might be the takeaway. When people talk about, and I put this in quotes, handicapped people, well, look, I'm not handicapped because I'm out in the middle of the night traveling. So that's what I hope this film shows people, is that they're opening the door for more of us to be just seen in mainstream society.

Robert Tarango:

And again, I'm going to go back to Hollywood because this is in that mindset and in the realm of Hollywood, now that they've seen it, they're like, "Huh, people can do it. So why not open the doors?"

Will Butler:

So tell me a little bit about being on set. For those who want to bring in disabled actors, deaf blind actors, how do you run lines? How do you take direction? Can you give me a little bit of, walk me through how that all works?

Robert Tarango:

So I think the first thing is that Doug, the director, did a lot of prep. He went to Helen Keller prior, learned about deaf blind people, learned about how we communicate, learned about how we travel, met with the interpretation team, talked about what those needs would be. Met with Steven, my co-lead, talked to him, invited him out to Helen Keller so that we could get to know each other. Had the interpretation team, or the communications team, on set in that rehearsal, the same people that were going to be on set, to make it seamless. So I think all of his prep, and then our rehearsal, that all helped.

Robert Tarango:

And then once we were on set, making sure that there were opportunities for me with good lighting to see the interpreters so that if there were directions that needed to be made in the moment, they could happen. And there was not a struggle for communication, it was seamless, because we had the interpreters at the ready. We had practiced, we had run through lines. So again, and I keep circling back to this, this is what I want people to take away, that if you prepare, if you practice, if you have things in place, it's seamless. So it doesn't talk about my being deaf blind, it's just me being an actor, doing my job.

Will Butler:

There's another film about deafness up for an Academy Award this year, The Sound of Metal, have you gotten a chance to see the film?

Robert Tarango:

I haven't. I haven't, as I said, I'm here in Phoenix and I wasn't able to get to where it was. I like going to traditional movie theaters if I was going to see a film, but I haven't been out. And because of my vision, again, being at home with my family, I haven't had access to transportation. And again, with COVID, I haven't been able to get out. So it's really tough for me to do things like that. If this was a year ago, I probably would have, but in light of COVID, I just don't have the access that I once did, or the ability to access things as I once did. There's no transportation, and it's really been terrible. I mean, now things are starting to open up, but I still don't have a way of getting anywhere. I don't have access to transportation here, akin to what I did in New York. So I think I would love to, but I haven't yet.

Will Butler:

Yeah. Well, that's really a testament to where we need to improve access. Since the nomination, first of all, that must've come as a bit of a shock.

Robert Tarango:

Of course I was shocked, I mean, again, only five films. It was 5:35 AM, barely had my eyes open, and I'm like, okay, I know that I had missed one of the announcements. And again, I was here, by myself, with my sister who was filming my reaction. So I was waiting and then it came into the top five, but yeah, I think there's a video clip of my reaction, but I was definitely sleepy-head, until I heard that, and then I got very excited. I'm thrilled. I'm really thrilled for Doug. I'm just so excited that he gets to go to the Oscars, that I get to go to the Oscars. And again, to make the top five, it's such an accomplishment, and to be able to go to the Oscars, it's a huge blessing.

Will Butler:

What's your life been like since the nomination? Have things changed? You went from not being an actor at all, to being an Academy Award nominated film star, have you been talking to industry people? Have there been new opportunities put on your plate? Or is there anything you'd like to share about how life has changed?

Robert Tarango:

I don't want to say that anything's changed dramatically now. I think let's see what happens after April 25th. I think that there will be more opportunities at that time. I think that we'll see, we'll have to see when I get to meet people, who I get to meet, once people get to see the film, maybe they'll have an idea of something that might be appropriate for me. So I'm hoping that there are executives there that will see this, and see me, and again, highlight myself or others like me.

Robert Tarango:

And again, that's what I really pray for. I want this to open the door for others. So for me, sure, I absolutely would love if our film won the Oscar. But what I really want is for Hollywood to say, "Oh my God, Feeling Through won an Oscar. Huh. What can I do so that I can attain that? Maybe we can open the doors for more opportunities for people who are deaf blind." So that's what I'm really keeping my fingers crossed for, is that more opportunities are available, and that children who are born like me, as they grow up, that they'll be able to have equal opportunity, that's what I really want.

Will Butler:

Yeah. And it's early days, so we'll see what happens on the 25th. My final question is, you'll be the first deaf blind person to attend the Oscars since Helen Keller, and so probably the second deaf blind person to ever attend the Oscars. What are you going to do when you walk down the red carpet next week? What's your hope for the event?

Robert Tarango:

So when my SSP and I get there, well, first let me say that my SSP and I are driving, a week early. We're getting out there on April 19th. And I know that the week leading up to the Oscars is going to be a lot of preparation. Of course, that day it's going to be getting all glammed up into my tux and get ready for that. And I think I want to just meet people. I want to be able to shake people's hands. I want to meet famous actors, want to meet people who have seen our film. And I just want to meet people. Now, I don't know how much interaction we're going to be able to have because of COVID, so I don't know if we're actually going to be able to do a lot of face-to-face stuff. But yeah, I think it's going to be great walking the red carpet with the cameras flashing. I think it's going to be an amazing experience, but at the end of the day, my fingers are still crossed for that Oscar.

Will Butler:

Well, I can't emphasize enough how important it is that this is happening, and how wonderful it is. And I just want to wish you the best of luck, Robert, in your career, and the film, and just for everything going forward. It'll be interesting to see where we're at once the pandemic is over and Hollywood starts shooting again.

Robert Tarango:

Yeah, absolutely. We will see where the road takes us. And again, keep plugging away, keep moving forward, keep hiring more and more actors. And I think that the future will be bright. Again, not taking into account whether you can see or not, or hear, or not, that everybody working together can make a beautiful film, and that's what makes the world go around.

Will Butler:

Thanks so much, Robert, and I hope to talk to you again soon.

Robert Tarango:

Thank you very much. It's been an honor. I appreciate your time. Thank you so much for the interview. Much love.

Will Butler:

Much love. That was our interview. Go watch the whole film for free at feelingthrough.com. Side note for anyone who's interested from a technical perspective, we had two interpreters for this interview on Zoom. One was signing what I was saying to Robert, and the other was speaking what Robert was signing back to me. Full transcript, of course, is available at bemyeyes.com/podcasts, and you'll hear from us again next week.