WEST HARTFORD — The deaf community has always been a part of Cooper Megown’s life.
And so he knew exactly what his topic would be when he learned this year’s Connecticut History Day contest theme would be “Communication: the key to understanding.”
Megown, a sixth-grader at Watkinson School and a West Hartford resident, created his project “Signs of the Times: Deaf Actors on Stage and Screen,” which recently earned him the first-place spot in the competition’s junior educational exhibit category. This is the first time a Watkinson student has won the competition.
“I had the idea for this presentation board to be about deaf actors because one of our good friends is Lauren Ridloff,” Megown said.
Ridloff is a deaf actress known for her role as Connie on “The Walking Dead.” She will be appearing as a new Marvel character in the upcoming “The Eternals” movie.
“We have been friends with Lauren and Doug and their two sons for many years,” Megown said. “Everyone is deaf in that family. So that is why I picked this idea.”
Connecticut History Day is one of 58 affiliate programs of National History Day and generally draws about 4,000 middle and high school student participants. The goal is to bring students, teachers, museums and scholars together to support young people as they engage in history through project-based learning. It’s led by the Connecticut Democracy Center and is presented with major funding and partnership support from CT Humanities.
Megown’s project documents deaf actors’ progress over the years and includes perspectives from current performers. It argues that deaf roles were traditionally included to create pity for a character or to be the center of a joke. It goes on to say deaf actors are still facing barriers in the entertainment industry that prevent them from “showing up as their authentic selves.” The project also explores the difference between casting hearing actors in deaf roles.
“Misappropriation, tokenism and stigma will continue to be obstacles for many marginalized communities until we all take responsibility of looking back at history, accept our mistakes and commit to be active in ensuring equity for all members of society,” Megown argues in his project.
Megown drew upon his fluency in American Sign Language and that the American School for the Deaf is also in Hartford as more connections for his topic.
“I am fluent in ASL because my mom is a sign language interpreter, and I always had a deaf nanny and deaf babysitter,” he said. “I also went to a preschool for deaf and hearing, and I went every summer to a science camp for deaf and hearing at Gallaudet University. We are friends with many families who are deaf. It is part of my life.”
He did most of his research through emails and video chats due to COVID. He said he’s fortunate he’s from New York City and that he and his mother already knew a lot of deaf actors.
“I could email them directly and they’ve known me my whole life so they responded,” he said. “I also know the hearing actor BD Wong and he agreed to answer interview questions, too. I did not have to talk to anyone that I did not already know. This made a big difference.”
Megown had previously won first place for the Hartford Regional History Day Contest, securing him a spot to compete at the statewide level.
“This is a wonderful, spectacular accomplishment,” Watkinson Middle School Head Jenny Esposito said. “Cooper showed extraordinary motivation in the midst of the pandemic and did exceptional work. We are both happy for and proud of him.”