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Camryn Manheim on importance of using sign language on ‘Law & Order’: ‘Art is supposed to imitate life’

“People have deaf children. People are deaf. There’s deaf families. So I’m really grateful that they were able to incorporate it.”
Law & Order - Season 22
Camryn Manheim plays Lt. Kate Dixon on "Law & Order" and had previously played three other characters on the show in the early '90s.Michael Greenberg / NBC
/ Source: TODAY

Camryn Manheim had a bit of a full-circle moment on the Oct. 6 episode of "Law & Order" when her character, Lt. Kate Dixon, used American Sign Language to communicate during a case. Manheim had previously used ASL on the show when she played a lawyer who had a deaf client during the Season Three episode "Benevolence" in 1993.

In fact, "Law & Order" was the first TV show Manheim did after finishing graduate school. She ended up playing three different characters on the early seasons of the show before landing a full-time role on the mothership series when it returned after nearly 12 years off the air in early 2022.

Manheim studied sign language in community college, and it ended up coming in handy years later when she saw a man get hit by a car. She realized he wasn't responding to questions because he was deaf. The actor recalled the story in an interview with Ability magazine and explained she used her sign language skills from college to essentially act as an intermediary between the injured man and the police.

Law & Order - Season 22
Camryn Manheim as Lt. Kate Dixon uses sign language to communicate with a girl who is deaf during a recent episode of "Law & Order."Zach Dilgard / NBC

At the Sept. 19 “Law & Order” premiere red carpet event, Manheim told TODAY why incorporating people who are deaf into the show's storylines is so important to her.

She explained she had called one of the show's writers to remind them she's fluent in sign language and pointed out "CODA," which is a film about a deaf family and stars actors who are deaf, won the 2022 Academy Award for best picture.

If art is supposed to imitate life, let's imitate life.

Camryn Manheim

"I think it'd be great if we could have not just deaf people, but more disabled actors — people in wheelchairs or people who are blind," she said. "Where's our judges who are in wheelchairs? Let's do it! If art is supposed to imitate life, let's imitate life."

Law & Order - Season 22
Savannah Dahan is a deaf performing artist who played Lacy Farrell in the third episode of Season 22 of "Law & Order."Zach Dilgard / NBC

Manheim said the show's writers thought it was "a fantastic idea."

She then mentioned one of the show's episodes (“Camouflage”) which aired Oct. 6 and included 12-year-old deaf performance artist Savannah Dahan portraying a young girl who is deaf and needed for questioning during the episode.

"We didn't make a big deal about it," Manheim explained. "It wasn't about them being deaf. They just happened to be someone we were questioning."

When one of Dixon's detectives asks her how she knows sign language, she responds, "My son is deaf."

"And then we just move right back on because no big whoop like it is in real life," Manheim said.

"People have deaf children. People are deaf. There's deaf families," she added. "So I'm really grateful that they were able to incorporate it."

Manheim shared some photos with Dahan ahead of last week's episode on her Instagram page and wrote: "Tonight! Hands are going to fly!!!🤟Don’t miss this beautiful young actress on Law & Order tonight. 8/7c on NBC."

At a "Law & Order" press junket in February, Manheim reflected on the significance of her 1993 guest appearance on the series — a role she said was "really important" to her — as a lawyer who knew sign language.

"That was like all of my loves coming together," she explained. "I'm fluent in sign language and I was an interpreter for many years and I love to act. So to bring those all together was very special."