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Disability and Identity: A Conversation with Riz Ahmed

Actor, rapper, and activist, Riz Ahmed, recently released a new film, The Sound of Metal. This movie follows a rock drummer who tries to adjust to life after completely losing his hearing.

Bustle writer Myra Ali, a person with a disability, examines Ahmed’s performance, finding his approach as a non-disabled actor playing a deaf character a success relative to other films in which non-disabled actors portray characters with disabilities.

She explains that Ahmed’s view of the character as “existing in a no man's land between hearing culture and Deaf culture” makes sense to her, adding that his character’s journey is handled with an “impressive degree of skill and respect.”

The Inspiration

The film was inspired by Ahmed’s latest rap album, The Long Goodbye, released in March of 2020, that served as a “digital campaign” centered around the themes of identity, race, and the sense of belonging.

The album discusses Ali and Ahmed’s shared heritage, British Pakistani, and Ali shares with us their conversation about their community’s approach to disability. “Disability is not often spoken about. It’s almost taboo.”

Ahmed’s View

Ahmed shares what he came to understand during production as a hearing person undertaking the role of a character who becomes deaf: “Deafness is not a disability. It's a culture. It's a way of being.”

Ahmed talks about Ruben, his character in the film, who learns that deafness is an invitation to connect more to others—and to himself—“more than he ever did as a hearing person.” He describes the separation and segregation between communities of people who have a disability and those who don’t identify as such as not only “unjust” but also “kind of idiotic.”

Ahmed also believes that by excluding people who are disabled in our society “we are missing out on so much talent, so many connections, so much friendship, such a richness of perspective.” He explains that these communities are talented not despite but because of their experiences as people with disabilities. It is these experiences, in Ahmed’s view, that have given them “a specificity of perspective, and of strength” and diminishing them leads to a collective loss for society.

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