For the entire world, 2020 brought new challenges. For CJ Jones, 2020 brought opportunity to live his passion. Having a decades long career as a deaf comedian, actor, entertainer, writer, director and producer, Jones is using his wealth of knowledge and experience in the entertainment industry to give back. He’s seen the need for education, accessibility and representation of deaf people and people with other disabilities in entertainment. His mission is to be a force for progressive change and support for up-and-coming talent.
As a legendary deaf comedian, Jones developed three one-man shows and toured the US, Japan, Sweden, Australia, Ecuador, and Canada. He co-wrote and directed six classic fairytales for children’s television, a series called Once Upon A Sign. Jones produced the International Sign Language Theater Festival, which hosted theater artists from all over the US, Russia, and Mexico.
On the screen, Jones played Joseph in the 2017 summer hit, Baby Driver. This role made Jones the first black deaf actor in an international blockbuster. In 2017, he played Uriah, a leading role, in the indie horror film Door in the Woods, for which he won best actor at the Nashville Film Festival. Jones played Odin Branch in Stephen King’s Castle Rock, a HULU Original series. Jones has been featured on United Shades of America with W. Kamau Bell, in 2018, and on Larry King Now in 2019.
His upcoming work will include Avatar 2 with James Cameron, but not only as a cast member. Jones was commissioned to create the Na’vi Sign Language for the Na’vi people, fictional alien characters in Avatar.
Jones’ passion goes beyond his entertainment career. He said, “I’m an actor, director, producer, writer, musician, and I love to travel the world. My biggest passion is to make the world a better place for everyone and to have their dreams come true. That’s been my passion. That’s been my vision.”
To follow his passion in 2020, Jones founded Sign World Studios to write, develop, and produce movies. He also launched, Elevate, a nonprofit organization with mission is to create post-production training program for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.
Jones explained, “The goal is to work with above-the-line and below-the-line films and production, doing professional work and working with individuals to be trained in their careers, from writers, producers, directors, actors. The whole point is to show and share the Deaf cultural stories that are being told. Those stories are very important to show the world how we survived, how we share love, how we share fun and how we work, how deaf and hearing people work together in the world, going through struggles and succeeding. It’s the same thing as what hearing people are doing, but the culture shares a lot of powerful stories from the past and to the present. And the issue of accessibility is extremely important in showing equality and diversity in the world that with everything that’s going on right now.”
Jones realized the lack of access in the entertainment during his first TV audition for the sitcom, A Different World. “There was no interpreter. And we were wondering how communication could be facilitated. That was a big impact for me. Prior to that, I was involved as an actor with the National Theatre of the Deaf, where there were actors that also interpreted, which were easy to accompany to my own events, and things of that nature with the company.”
“Being on my own in entertainment industry in Hollywood, there was a lot missing with providing interpreting services and gaps of understanding how to communicate with the deaf individual. And there’s a lack of written roles and a lack of deaf actors. And that really impacted me a long time ago.”
“But now, I’m starting to see doors opening. Opportunities are happening, and I’m recognizing there’s more diversity and inclusion right now. Accessibility is starting to get recognized. Black Lives Matter is a significant topical issue that’s happening right now. So, a lot of things are moving full steam ahead. And I’m excited and showing how important it is that because of the virus and everything that’s happening, that accessibility is the front line, visual issue in front of us.”
Jones sees a greater need to see accessibility is critical. “Because what’s important for our lives, our career, having accessibility to food, to shopping, having accessibility to television captioning, having interpreters being available–Having that accessibility creates equality and a level of comfort instead of having to struggle and go through challenges.”
“That ‘struggle’ is not the appropriate way,” Jones continued. “It shouldn’t be the term struggle, shouldn’t even be a part of our vernacular or vocabulary. Our term should be ‘ability’. Ability to grow. Ability to survive through challenges and working together hand in hand to succeed.”
In Jones’ view, ADA has made somewhat of an impact, but more awareness and exposure is needed. He explained, “There needs to be much more dialogue in every part of the industry in Hollywood and in the companies–of what the ADA really means. Bring folks with disabilities who are able. Bringing them and exposing them and establishing a forum so that people and production companies can see that, not only are they talented–but looking beyond the disability–that they can do the job. I do see that there’s been a lot of changes that have been made since, but there’s still more work to be done.” Jones further asserted, “There needs to be exposure of the ADA to all individuals everywhere around the world.”
In his work at Sign World Studios, Jones exposes the industry to these different perspectives by “…hosting panel discussions, bringing in experts and educating the industry as to how the disabled community, the deaf and hard of hearing community come together. They provide knowledge and strategize ways for actors to be successful.”
Jones said, “Having that panel discussion is one option. Having mentors working in different parts of the industry is a goal of mine that I intend to work on, to give that sense of knowledge, not only for the industry as it relates to deaf and hard of hearing, but also disabled folks as well.”
Also important to Jones is communicating this message more broadly through “… magazine publications, being visible on the news and different programs, any medium in which you can provide this information. Really, it’s about making noise.”
Performing and Sharing Deaf Culture
“All folks in the deaf community really praise those hearing individuals who want to learn sign (language), who want to become a part of the deaf community. We always appreciate and praise these individuals. It’s so important to bring both worlds and bridge them together. That is the key.
“You (can) start with exposing young children. I’ve been doing that for many, many years as a performer and a one-man act traveling from entertaining children, elementary school age to high school and K through 12 and college. And I always perform, and I provide an educational piece in my work about deaf culture, about my upbringing using humor and funny things that happened along the way. So, let people really give a thought of “Wow! If he can succeed and do this and so can I.’”
As part of Jones’ work, he helps expand the minds of children. “Children are innocent, and they may feel a sense of commonality with the exposure. And so, they grow up with an attitude of “it’s not about the disability or the barrier”, it’s what we do. And we’re looked on as humans. And I still do this to this day. I teach children of deaf parents, other children, children of their parents who want to be a part of the deaf culture. They feel comfortable. I welcome them to be involved. So, we’re growing.”
Jones related this to the entertainment industry, “And that’s an example of maybe having hearing actors, children and deaf actors working together or other disabled groups, individuals with disabilities, getting together, having workshops and having fun together.”
This interaction could cause a profound change described Jones, “Those children will be strong and powerful and will shift their hearts and minds and able to work. And that starts now. That educating and exposure starts now. Their minds and their hearts will open and there won’t be this ‘Oh, I need to learn. I need to get training.’ There’ll be none of that because it started at a young age.”
Jones, himself, evolved as a strong child. He was born in St. Louis, MO, one of seven hearing children born to Deaf parents who communicate in American Sign Language (ASL). At age 7 he contracted spinal meningitis, and consequently lost his hearing. After becoming deaf, Jones attended Missouri School for the Deaf (MSD), and was taught in his first language, ASL. After his illness, Jones’ residual hearing was too good to qualify for MSD. So, his father, Clarence, fought the Missouri school system to get Jones a place in the all deaf school. In this communication rich environment, he progressed from being a shy hearing boy into a deaf leader. As a powerful young man, Jones was class president, a cub scout, varsity football quarterback, a state pole vault record holder, and voted class valedictorian.
The “Elevate” logo hovers over Jones on screens during his online meetings. Elevate is a nonprofit through which Jones educates, advocates and facilitates communication. He commented, “(Elevate) means to bring up, to rise up for deaf, hard of hearing individuals with disabilities to be able to achieve their dreams.”
Jones described how his organization elevates. “So, what we’re doing now is we’re teaching acting. We’re training. For those who want to learn editing in the entertainment industry–imaging, 2D, 3-D imaging, all those programs that will help and enable these individuals to become employed either for our company or anywhere in the entertainment industry. We’re also teaching writing, how to do script writing, how to do productions, all of that.”
He continued, “That’s the goal of Elevate. Workshops, panel discussions, engaging in collaboration and collaborating with abilities as an example, creating stories, creating awareness and working with the industry in collaboration so that our discussions, our stories become clear and educational. And especially it brings two worlds together of all colors no matter what. That’s my passion.”
Thank you for having me and being a part of ABILITY Magazine.
In partnership with Diana Pastora Carson, M.Ed.
Author: Beyond Awareness: Bringing Disability into Diversity Work in K-12 Schools & Communities, and children’s book Ed Roberts: Champion of Disability Rights, ADA 30th Anniversary Edition https://www.dianapastoracarson.com/store
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