The Real Deaf Individuals Behind Apple TV's El Deafo

It isn’t every day that a TV show features a Deaf character. But as of this January, Apple TV+ broke new ground with its latest series. Called El Deafo, it is adapted from the graphic novel illustrated and written by Cece Bell. The book, which is recommended for ages nine to 12, became a New York Times best-seller. The story is loosely based on Bell’s own experience developing profound hearing loss after an illness and then wearing hearing aids for the first time. One key difference exists between real life and the show – Bell is a human, and the characters in El Deafo are bunnies. This makes it especially appealing for younger viewers.

El Deafo Cece Bell

The real Cece Bell (left) as a child, and the animated Cece from El Deafo.

The three-part animated series has authentic casting in terms of the voice actors. Lexi Finigan, a 12-year-old who has cochlear implants, plays Cece. Bell told HearingTracker that she felt it was crucial that a Deaf or hard-of-hearing actor who has cochlear implants or wears hearing aids (or both) play the character of Cece.

Sharing the Deaf experience

“It is a story about deafness and using hearing aids and what that experience is like,” Bell said. “I was afraid that if I wasn't involved, then it wouldn't be in the hands of people who had that same experience. It wouldn't be able to include the same nuances.”

Cece Bell

Author Cece Bell

In both the show and in Bell’s own life, she initially had a complicated relationship with hearing aids, as they made her feel different. Bell coped with this by viewing her hearing aids as her “superpower” and became more confident in wearing them.

Bell told HearingTracker that it is important for parents of children who are Deaf or hard of hearing to pay attention to their kids’ relationships with hearing devices, as they can be complex.

“I think every Deaf person, every hard-of-hearing person is going to respond differently to the equipment,” Bell said.

Another shifting relationship is the one Bell had with American Sign Language (ASL). Bell told her mother she did not want to learn ASL as a child, but this has recently changed.

“My mom wanted me to try sign language because she thought, ‘Maybe this is a path.’ But at that point in my life, I was not ready,” Bell said. “I've been learning [ASL] lately, and that's been so much fun.”

Learning to embrace and appreciate hearing aids

Finigan makes her acting debut in El Deafo and found both the experience and the story powerful – and resonant. Finigan appreciated how the character Cece gains confidence in wearing hearing aids.

“I love how she's not afraid to show who she is. That was really cool,” Finigan said. This storyline also mirrored her own experience. When Finigan changed schools and started middle school with a new group of students, she was first nervous about how other people would react to her cochlear implants. Fortunately, her mother gave her helpful advice.

“My mom told me that the way you feel, that's how other people feel,” Finigan said.  “So I always tried to act very confident.”

Bonding on set and exploring inclusivity

Finigan practiced saying her lines with Bell before recording, and the two have struck up a friendship. Finigan says she enjoyed spending time and emailing with Bell since she also understands what it is like to be Deaf.


The voice of Cece Bell, Lexi Finigan.

“It's kind of difficult to explain how it feels to be deaf and how you have to lip-read so much and always ask people to repeat themselves,” Finigan said. Connecting with another person – even one who’s a few decades older – who knows how this all goes was a bonus to Finigan being cast in the series.

Both Finigan and Bell have not seen many hard-of-hearing and Deaf characters in kids’ books, movies, and television shows. Disability inclusion in media and books is important for both disabled and non-disabled children. For example, a July 2019 report found that disability representation in kids’ shows can lead to more disability inclusion in real life.

“Positive representation is so important because, unfortunately, there's a lot of shame that gets tied up in disability,” Bell said. Speaking of the Deaf and hard-of-hearing community, she adds, “When we see somebody that is just like us, and they're [shown as] a regular kid, a regular person, then that's very empowering.”

Stream El Deafo on Apple TV+ now with a subscription or a free trial.