Call it a sign of the times.
In its 16th season, ABC TV’s “Grey’s Anatomy” has broken new ground by introducing primetime television’s first recurring deaf physician role.
Dr. Lauren Riley, who speaks both English and American Sign Language, is an expert diagnostician who arrives at Seattle’s Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital from University of California San Francisco (UCSF) to help crack the team’s most difficult cases. She is played by deaf Jewish actress Shoshannah Stern, who always dreamed of being on the show.
Stern, 39, who hails from a multigenerational deaf family with Ashkenazi roots, comes to the medical drama after roles in such shows as “Threat Matrix,” “Weeds,” “Jericho,” and “Supernatural.” She co-wrote and co-starred in the Sundance Now original dramedy series “This Close” about two deaf friends trying to make their way in Los Angeles, which recently ran for two seasons.
Stern’s first appearance on “Grey’s Anatomy” was in an episode that aired on Feb. 13. She told The Times of Israel in an email interview that she thought the addition of Dr. Riley to the show could have wide-ranging positive consequences.
“Someone educated me that while the number of women in STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Math curriculum] is already low, the number of deaf women is atrocious. I hope that people will see Riley and realize that it can be a reality for them too. So hopefully ‘Grey’s’ can also change lives in that particular sense,” she said.
Stern has already heard from deaf doctors and other deaf individuals in the medial field about the encouraging impact of seeing her on “Grey’s Anatomy.”
“One mentioned that they dropped out of medical school because stuff like face masks prevented them from being able to read lips,” she said.
Stern, who grew up outside San Francisco, herself has had negative interactions with the medical community. She recounted “freaking out” during an emergency cesarean section because she could not understand what the medical staff were saying behind their surgical masks. Consequently, she is not surprised that deaf people will drive hundreds of miles to see a deaf doctor.
She is critical of the medical profession for “pathologizing rather than humanizing” people with disabilities.
For Stern, navigating speaking and signing can be tricky.
“Signing is my native language. It’s actually always a very vulnerable experience for me to speak on television. … I do it anyway,” she said, “because I am a deaf person and this is what a deaf voice sounds like, and so I hope there’s value in that exposure.”
Times of Israel