When Jon Urquhart joined TikTok in January 2020, he wasn’t sure it was for him.
“Back then, TikTok was seen more as a kid’s dance app,” said Urquhart. “I didn’t see any representation of deaf people. I didn’t see any of my own representation of being a child of deaf adults.”
Urquhart, now 28, chose the handle @drunkcrier and posted a video about being a CODA.
Every time #fyp #deaf #coda #asl♬ yes or no - whorehey
“I went from zero followers to like 25,000 followers after my first post,” he said. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, there’s actually a market for this.’”
Today, Urquhart has more than 380,000 followers, is working full time as a content creator and runs his own company, Drunk Hands ASL, which offers online American Sign Language classes taught by deaf teachers. His videos highlight issues within the deaf/hard of hearing, CODA, and LGBTQ+ communities through a mix of sign language and humor.
Growing up in Foxborough, Urquhart lived with his deaf dad and hearing mom. To communicate, they used a mix of speaking and home signs, gestures specific to one’s family rather than formalized ASL. Those experiences inspire many of his TikTok videos.
“People think that a deaf household is quiet, but it’s not,” Urquhart said in an interview at his Boston apartment. “My bedroom was right above the kitchen, and my dad was an early riser, so he would be doing the dishes at six o’clock in the morning. I’d hear the clanging of plates, I’d hear the microwave going off, I’d be hearing everything happening in the kitchen.”
Urquhart learned ASL in high school and college, and he primarily signs in his videos, which cater to his deaf and signing audience. He includes captions for people who don’t understand signing and voice-overs for the blind and vision-impaired. And over the past couple of years, he’s helped push TikTok itself to evolve.
With the situation that happened in Texas, I’ve been asked this question a lot. #asl #americansignlanguage #signlanguage #learnasl #lockdown♬ Pieces (Solo Piano Version) - Danilo Stankovic
In 2020, he started a petition asking the social media platform to add an automatic-captioning feature. Last year, eight months and almost 10,000 signatures later, TikTok did. Since then, Urquhart has posted videos for other creators explaining how to add captions and the difference between open captions, which can’t be turned off, and closed ones, which a user can control.
“Just because these [accessibility features] exist, doesn’t mean that they get taken up,” said Timothy Loh, a Ph.D candidate in the anthropology of science and technology at MIT who studies the politics of deafness and disability. " Unless you’re on social media, I don’t imagine that anyone else would be telling you that you need to caption your videos. Social media is the primary way that such educational work is happening.”
Films like 2021′s “CODA,” which was filmed mostly in Gloucester and went on to win the Oscar for best picture, are also helping to raise awareness of deaf culture.
“Especially now after ‘CODA’ has won these awards — after Troy [Kotsur] won his award [for best supporting actor] and after ‘CODA’ won best picture — there’s definitely been more focus on children of deaf adults,” Urquhart said. “A lot of people are actually coming to me about it.”
In addition to CODA/ASL-related content, Urquhart makes videos related to his queer identity. In early June, he married his fiancé, Scott Urquhart-Lewis.
“Hi, I’m Scott,” Urquhart-Lewis signed nervously in Urquhart’s husband-reveal video. “Nice to meet you.”
Urquhart-Lewis had no familiarity with deaf culture before the pair met. He joined TikTok mostly to watch Jon’s videos.
He’s so nervous 🥺💕 @skeetbangels♬ original sound - Jon Urquhart🤟🏻
“I almost feel like I have a celebrity husband,” Urquhart-Lewis said over the phone. “There’s kind of always a chance of people bumping into people that know who he is now, which I love.”
Urquhart posted photos and stories from their wedding online. But he said he hasn’t always been as open about that part of his life.
“I had this conditioned sense like ‘I should have this certain way I portray myself on social media, and that’s what will get people to like me,’” he said.
When he made an Instagram post about being queer last June for Pride Month, he lost around 1,500 followers. It was also a turning point for him.
“You know what? I’m just gonna start wearing my fun shirts. I’m gonna get nails. I’m gonna start talking about my gay fiancé. And just be more open,” he said he decided. “A lot of people have been more accepting.”
Urquhart also gets comments when he addresses issues that are controversial in the deaf/signing community.
According to Loh, social media is a place where these issues are being actively debated. For example, while many people value the automatic-captioning features, others have dubbed them “craptions,” saying that they are so inaccurate people might as well not have them. The role CODAs should have in advocacy or educating people about deaf culture, Loh said, is also complicated and controversial.
“I can’t be the voice of deaf people,” Urquhart said. “It’s not my position to speak for them.”
Instead, he said he uses his platform to share his own experiences and amplify deaf creators, such as Sheena Lyles (@queenbish) and Renca Dunn (@reallyrenca), and interact with their content so it will find a larger audience.
“I would like to see more visibility of people with disabilities,” said Urquhart. “Social media is a powerful thing and there is room for everybody. I just wish that more people were open to talking about their life, what they go through and their experiences because they’re important, and they need to be shared.”
Serena Puang was a Globe intern in 2022. Follow her on Twitter @SerenaPuang.