Why Rachel Shenton Signed Her Oscars Acceptance Speech For 'The Silent Child'

“Deafness is a silent disability. You can’t see it and it’s not life-threatening."

The Silent Child took home the Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film during the 2018 Oscars on Sunday. The short film is about a deaf 4-year-old girl named Libby who lives in a world of silence until she learns to communicate using sign language with the help of a kind social worker. 

Thirty-year-old English actress Rachel Shenton was inspired to write the film because of her late father's experiences as a deaf man, according to IndieWire. When Shenton was 12 years old, her father suddenly went deaf after undergoing chemotherapy. She learned British Sign Language (BSL) as a result of her father's disability. He sadly died two years later, but Shenton continued to fight for the deaf community. She's spent her adult life as an advocate and is an ambassador for the National Deaf Children's Society. In addition to writing The Silent Child, Shenton starts stars in the short as the social worker alongside 6-year-old first-time actress Maisie Sly as Libby. 

Sly is deaf in real-life and Shenton promised her she'd sign her acceptance speech at the Oscars if they won. Shenton made good on her commitment — and reminded everyone why representation is so important. 

"Our movie is about a deaf child being born into a world of silence. It's not exaggerated or sensationalized for the movie. This is happening," Shenton said and signed in BSL. "Millions of children all over the world live in silence and face communication barriers and particularly access to education."

Shenton accepted the Oscar along with the short's director and her fiancé, Chris Overton. "Deafness is a silent disability. You can't see it and it's not life-threatening," she continued. "So I want to say the biggest of thank yous to the Academy for allowing us to put this in front of a mainstream audience."

Shenton isn't the first Oscars award-winner to use sign language during an acceptance speech, but she is one of the very few. Louise Fletcher signed to her deaf parents when she won best actress for One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest during her 1976 speech, Jane Fonda signed while accepting the same award for Coming Home in 1979, and Marlee Matlin, who is deaf, also signed when she won best actress for Children Of A Lesser God in 1987. 

Sly didn't go up with Shenton and Overton to accept the award, but Overton shared her reaction with BBC 5. "When we won I could see her up there jumping up and down and that was surreal," he told the outlet. "But I think she's taken it all in her stride. She always said we'd win."

However, the win doesn't mean Shenton and Overton's work is done. The couple are currently working on adapting it into a feature film. They hope it will continue to raise awareness about the deaf community. 

"We've had people leave the cinema that are in their seventies saying, 'God, you know, I've never thought about that before,'" Shenton told IndieWire. "And I think, 'Wow, well, if we can just educate a cinema full of people that have never considered that before, then it's job done.'"