I will eventually get back to how wonderful and amazing it is that Charlie Cox will be back as Matt in Daredevil: Born Again. However, there’s a more pressing matter that’s come up that pertains to Charlie’s (as good as confirmed) appearance in Echo, which is currently filming. You see, there is a discussion happening across social media platforms that centers around how Matt and Maya would communicate, and the takes so far have been… Well, suffice it to say that I felt the urgent need to address this topic. 😉
Let’s start where it all began, about two decades ago when Maya “Echo” Lopez was first introduced in the pages of Daredevil #9 (1998), by David Mack and Joe Quesada. Maya’s introductory arc would cover six issues and introduce several plot points that were addressed in last fall’s Hawkeye series on Disney+. Not included in the live-action version of Maya’s story was her relationship with Matt, but we do find important elements of her backstory, as well as her connection to Wilson Fisk.
One important difference between the comics and live action is that Maya is able to speak in the comics. In fact, we are told that her speech doesn’t even give away her deafness and that this follows from her powers of perfect mimicry. In Daredevil #9, Maya herself tells us that: “They say I can recreate any complex physical action that my eyes record. That’s why my speech is not slurred.”
While I’m quite fond of both Maya and the “Parts of a Hole” story arc in general, there are some obvious issues with how this is supposed to work. Far from all speech sounds are visible, and those that are may be difficult to reliably distinguish from one another. People highly skilled at lip-reading (though the term speechreading is more appropriate) are few and far in between, and they rely heavily on contextual cues. Maya’s mimicry abilities would not remove any of the expected complications, nor is simply watching someone speak a reliable way to replicate the sounds they are making. (This is an example of what I refer to in my book as a “stimulus problem.”) We may also wonder why it’s important to the story or our view of the character that Maya not “sound deaf,” but that’s a discussion for another day.
In the live action MCU, Maya Lopez is played by deaf actress Alaqua Cox, and her character does not speak. This is what has caused many people to be concerned about Matt and Maya might be able to communicate, and it’s prompted some rather surprising responses, such as…
“Matt knows sign language”
I have no idea what would give anyone this idea, but I’ve seen several people mention it. Matt has not done anything of the sort in the comics, nor has it never been suggested that is part of his skillset. The show’s version of Matt does speak Spanish (see season one), and we know the comic book version studied French at some point (see his trip to Paris and beyond during the run by Ed Brubaker and Michael Lark), but that’s about it on the language front. Because yes, we are talking about a language here, specifically ASL (American Sign Language).
Signed languages (of which there are many spread across the planet) are full human languages with complex grammars and need to be learned. I should know this since I’ve actually studied two of them myself. I’m still terrible at Swedish Sign Language (despite four semesters of evening classes), but can actually carry on a conversation in ASL, provided that my conversation partner is sufficiently patient. Trust me when I say this: Signed languages are not easier to learn than spoken languages. And this is coming from someone who takes to language learning relatively easily (I’m writing this in my second language).
“Matt can read/sense/feel sign language with his radar sense”
We should start by reiterating that signed languages need to be learned. Signs are not mere gestures, and signed conversations are not charades. In fact, much of the information isn’t carried by the hands or arms at all, but things like facial expression, changes in posture, and even glances. Such elements are also not just for emphasis, but often carry grammatical meaning. Furthermore, the features that distinguish different signs can be quite minor. What I’m getting at is that even if Matt had learned to sign at some point (certainly not impossible), it would be a huge ask to expect of him to be able to understand ASL in the form that is presented to sighted people.
I know a lot of people have this idea in their heads that Matt can basically see, but this would necessarily be a no-contrast and low-acuity form “sight” that is ill-suited to picking up any of the finer details necessary, especially at the kind of speed we’re talking about. There is, however, a tactile form of ASL (and similar versions of other signed languages) that is adapted for people who are deaf-blind, and that could certainly be used by blind people who can hear as well. Below is a short video that illustrates what this might look like (note that this video also contains an example of the type of situation where the deaf-blind person has some useful vision).
So what actually works then?
The video I linked to above contains an example of how to communicate with someone who’s deaf-blind when you don’t know how to sign, and if the other person has little to no residual vision. What you can do is write out the shape of letters on the palm of the deaf-blind person. If all else fails, I can see this as one way to communicate for Matt and Maya as well.
However, the much easier option would be to simply have Matt hand Maya his phone, and for her to type things that he can then have read back to him. The smart phone made several appearances in the Daredevil show, and would seem like the most obvious way to facilitate a quick and painless conversation between the two. This would also not be all that different from how Maya might communicate with a (sighted) hearing person.
There are certainly ways to solve this that are not too far-fetched, and I’m hopeful that the deaf writers in the Echo writers’ room (or Alaqua Cox herself) would be quick to shoot down any of the more outlandish ideas that might be put forth.