Warning: this article contains spoilers for Echo season one.
Marvel’s latest superhero series, Echo, is now streaming on Disney+. Deaf actress Alaqua Cox plays the eponymous superhero, a character she already portrayed in the Hawkeye series in 2021. Echo, real name Maya Lopez, who is Deaf, is a vengeful and bitter Native American hero with a distinctive fighting ability that allows her to copy her opponent’s moves.
The uppercase “Deaf” refers to deaf people who share a language, identity and culture. It therefore describes Maya Lopez, as she uses ASL (American Sign Language) all the time and hardly speaks.
Historically, Deaf roles in TV have been given to hearing actors and actresses. This is a typical example of ableism – discrimination in favour of able-bodied people. It is important that Deaf actors play Deaf characters in TV and film so that audiences engage with authentic depictions of disability.
In the first episode of Echo, Maya and her hearing cousin Bonnie (Devery Jacobs) are shown to have been raised by their loving parents, William and Taloa Lopez (Zahn McClarnon and Katarina Ziervogel) in Tamaha, Oklahoma. Maya uses ASL to communicate with Bonnie as they argue with each other to decide whether they are cousins or sisters. A beautiful closeup scene shows the silhouettes of young Echo and Bonnie using lively ASL inside a glowing tent.
Maya’s parents speak in ASL, spoken English and their Native American Choctaw language, as do her grandparents, on her mother’s side, Chula (Tantoo Cardinal) and Skully (Graham Greene). Most Deaf people are born to hearing parents. They learn ASL at school or college or through Deaf friends, because visual communication is important for Deaf people’s cognitive and social development.
At one point, Maya asks her mother for hot chocolate. Her mother tells her that it is finished, but if Maya comes to the shops with her, she will buy her more. Maya agrees. As Taloa drives toward a junction, she hits the brakes, but one of her husband’s enemies has tampered with them.
A car crashes into them, killing Taloa instantly. Fortunately, Maya survives, although, as a result of the accident, she has damage to her right leg.
When Maya is taken to the hospital to get her leg amputated, her grandmother blames her father’s criminal background for Taloa’s death. Ashamed, her father takes a job in New York and leaves Oklahoma and Maya’s family, taking Maya with him.
The sequence that follows shows that Maya no longer needs her wheelchair and has become proficient with her prosthetic leg. She has been through a lot of rehabilitation to practice her walking pace. This is a positive example of her fiery independence and determination. Losing her leg in the accident upsets Maya greatly, but it doesn’t damage her strong self-belief.
Once she arrives in New York, Maya is sent to a special school for Deaf pupils. There, she enrols in martial arts classes and begins developing some of the skills that will define her as a superhero.
Moving to New York is a significant turning point in Maya’s story, as here she will become embroiled in the city’s criminal underworld. She joins a gang as an enforcer working for Marvel super villain, Kingpin (Vincent D’Onofrio).
The character of Echo first appeared in the 1998 Marvel comic Daredevil. Daredevil (who has a Marvel television series of his own) is a blind lawyer and superhero with super-human senses due to an accident involving radioactive chemicals.
In the series, Maya is at one point called on to fight against a rival gang. Unexpectedly, Daredevil (Charlie Cox) intervenes and gets into a fight with Maya. The two are on opposing sides thanks to her connection with Kingpin. The battle is a formidable challenge between two opponents who are equally matched. Deaf hero versus blind hero. Superheroes with a disability are rarely portrayed in comic books and this scene in the series marks a positive step towards inclusive representation.
There are other interesting choices in the show. Although Kingpin is the main antagonist of the show, he has also been Maya’s benefactor and once employed a mysterious and cryptic ASL interpreter to help him communicate with Maya. Quite an unusual niche – an interpreter who works for a crime boss.
Deaf and disabled people are often treated like charity cases because they are patronised, mocked and pitied by an ableist and ignorant society. Echo is important because it positions a Deaf character as a positive and versatile role model. She is an inspiration to the Deaf and disabled community.
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