Actor and writer, Kadia Saraf has graced our screens with her acting talents for many years in various TV and film roles. Her most recent appearance was in an episode of the EMMY-winning TV show “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” where she has a recurring role as US Attorney Anya Avital.
In Episode 10 of season 24 called “Jumped In”, which aired on January 5th this year, Kadia, and her husband, Terry Serpico got involved from the story’s conception. They suggested a story idea about Deaf survivors of sexual assault. The story was incorporated into the season and eventually became part of the episode “Jumped In.”
Kadia began learning American Sign Language (ASL) in 2021. In the process of studying, she came to understand that learning about Deaf culture is inseparable from learning the language. “As hearing people, we are privileged beyond comprehension. Things we take for granted, easy access to resources and the presumption that we can communicate with anyone at any stage, those things simply aren’t available to the Deaf community.”
Things changed when she found out that the percentage of sexual assaults in the Deaf community far exceeds that of the hearing community and only about 5% of those are actually reported. The reason being that they are met with hurdle upon hurdle in their attempt to report an assault and to ultimately seek justice. The availability of interpreters is scarce. Often Deaf survivors wait for hours in the precinct for interpreters or advocates which creates yet another barrier in a predominantly audist and ableist system. A system that is often unprepared to provide culturally responsive services in such critical situations. In fact, every step in the attempt to achieve justice is an obstacle in itself, forcing the Deaf person to re-experience their trauma.
Kadia had an idea. Law & Order: SVU would be the ultimate vehicle to tell those stories. The process wasn’t easy though. When contacting Deaf organizations while developing the story, she was met with resistance. “I was explicitly told to stay away. I wasn’t trusted. I was shocked but I also knew it was because of my privilege and lack of understanding of the struggles they are constantly enduring. Cop shows don’t typically depict their stories accurately, everything is romanticized, and the cops always come out as heroes. No wonder they didn’t want any part of that.”
Eventually Kadia found the Vera Institute of Justice and met Liam Esposito, a Deaf autistic trans man who is currently the Project Director of Deaf-Led Advocacy at Activating Change and an adjunct senior lecturer at Gallaudet University teaching Injustices in the Criminal Legal System. Liam then introduced Kadia to Dr. Julie Rems-Smario, an adjunct faculty at CSUN and one of CNN’s Heroes 2007 for her work with Deaf survivors of domestic and sexual violence and the founding director of DeafHope.
“Liam and Julie were so open and patient with me in the process. We spent a lot of time on zoom calls with ASL interpreters and I have learned so much in a short time. I couldn’t believe some of the things I heard. I was even more determined to make this episode happen. Not only did we discuss the importance of framing, but also the fact that most Deaf actors who are involved in shows like these tend to be white. And that we must center Black, Brown, and Indigenous Deaf folx for roles on the show. Once we had a shoot date, everyone involved was excited to get to work. Writers and producers, casting, and crew and all the cast members, everyone knew this was a groundbreaking episode. Four Deaf actresses were cast in the Deaf roles, there was an ASL interpreter on set and the episode successfully depicted some of the struggles that the Deaf community face.”
Kadia continues to advocate for the Deaf community in the entertainment industry and hopes to see more Deaf actors in recurring and leading roles. “I want to make clear that I am not a hearing hero. I simply had access to a big room, kept the door open and introduced the two communities to each other.”
You can stream “Law & Order: SVU” on NBC, Peacock, and Hulu.
To find out more about Kadia Saraf visit: kadiasaraf.com