The American Broadcasting Company (ABC) Family Network show Switched at Birth tells two stories—one which follows the unique plot of the show, and one about the new openness of television executives toward integrating more people with a variety of visible and invisible physical embodiments, such as hearing loss, into television content. It first aired in 2011 and in 2017 aired its fifth and final season.
The show focuses on two teen girls in Kansas City who find out they were switched due to a hospital error on the day of their birth and who grew up with parents who were not biologically related to them. One, Bay Kennish (Vanessa Marano), lives with her wealthy parents—a stay-at-home mom Kathryn (Lea Thompson) and a former professional baseball player, now businessman, father John (D.W. Moffett). She has an older brother Toby (Lucas Grabeel) who is into music. In her high school science class, Bay learns about blood types and discovers her parents’ blood types could not have produced her. The family has professional genetic tests done and discovers the switch (ABC Family, “This Is Not a Pipe”).
In the pilot episode, Bay’s parents find out that deaf teen, Daphne Vasquez (Katie Leclerc), is actually their daughter. She lives in a working class Hispanic neighbourhood with her hairdresser single mother Regina (Constance Marie) and grandmother Adrianna (Ivonne Coll), both of whom are of Puerto Rican ancestry. Daphne is deaf due to a case of meningitis when she was three, which the rich Kennishes feel happened because of inadequate healthcare provided by working class Regina. Daphne attends an all-deaf school, Carlton.
The man who was thought to be her biological father, Angelo Sorrento (Gilles Marini), doesn’t appear in the show until episode 10 but becomes a series regular in season 2. It becomes apparent that Daphne believes her father left because of her deafness; however, as the first season progresses, the real reasons begin to emerge. From the pilot onwards, the show dives into clashes of language, culture, ethnicity, class, and even physical appearance—in one scene in the pilot, the waspy Kennishes ask Regina if she is “Mexican.” As later episodes reveal, many of these physical appearance issues are revealed to have fractured the Vasquez family early on—Daphne is a freckled, strawberry blonde, and her father (who is French and Italian) suspected infidelity.
The two families merge when the Kennishes ask Daphne and her mother to move into their guest house in order get to know their daughter better. That forces the Kennishes into the world of deafness, and throughout the show this hearing family therefore becomes a surrogate for a hearing audience’s immersion into Deaf culture.
Cultural Inclusivity: The Way Forward
Show creator Lizzy Weiss explained that it was actually the ABC Family network that “suggested making one of the kids disabled” (Academy of Television Arts & Sciences). Weiss was familiar with American Sign Language (ASL) because she had a “classical theatre of the Deaf” course in college. She said, “I had in the back of my head a little bit of background at least about how beautiful the language was. So I said, ‘What if one of the girls is deaf?’” The network thought it was wonderful idea, so she began researching the Deaf community, including spending time at a deaf high school in Los Angeles called Marlton, on which she modelled the Switched at Birth school, Carlton. Weiss (Academy of Television Arts & Sciences) says of the school visit experience:
I learned so much that day and spoke to dozens of deaf teenagers about their lives and their experiences. And so, this is, of course, in the middle of writing the pilot, and I said to the network, you know, deaf kids wouldn’t voice orally. We would have to have those scenes only in ASL, and no sound and they said, ‘Great. Let’s do it.’ And frankly, we just kind of grew and grew from there.
To accommodate the narrative structure of a television drama, Weiss said it became clear from the beginning that the show would need to use SimCom (simultaneous communication or sign supported speech) for the hearing or deaf characters who were signing so they could speak and sign at the same time. She knew this wasn’t the norm for two actual people communicating in ASL, but the production team worried about having a show that was heavily captioned as this might distance its key—overwhelmingly hearing—teen audience who would have to pay attention to the screen during captioned scenes. However, this did not appear to be the case—instead, viewers were drawn to the show because of its unique sign language-influenced television narrative structure. The show became popular very quickly and, with 3.3 million viewers, became the highest-rated premiere ever on the ABC Family network (Barney).
Switched at Birth also received much praise from the media for allowing its deaf actors to communicate using sign language. The Huffington Post television critic Maureen Ryan said, “Allowing deaf characters to talk to each other directly—without a hearing person or a translator present—is a savvy strategy that allows the show to dig deeper into deaf culture and also to treat deaf characters as it would anyone else”. Importantly, it allowed the show to be unique in a way that was found nowhere else on television. “It’s practically avant-garde for television, despite the conventional teen-soap look of the show,” said Ryan.
Usually a show’s success is garnered by audience numbers and media critique—by this measure Switched at Birth was a hit. However, programs that portray a disability—in any form—are often the target of criticism, particularly from the communities they attempting to represent. It should be noted that, while actress Katie Leclerc, who plays Daphne, has a condition, Meniere’s disease, which causes hearing loss and vertigo on an intermittent basis, she does not identify as a deaf actress and must use a deaf accent to portray Daphne. However, she is ASL fluent, learning it in high school (Orangejack). This meant her qualifications met the original casting call which said “actress must be deaf or hard of hearing and must speak English well, American Sign Language preferred” (Paz, 2010) Leclerc likens her role to that of any actor to who has to affect body and vocal changes for a role—she gives the example of Hugh Laurie in House, who is British with no limp, but was an American who uses a cane in that show (Bibel).
As such, initially, some in the Deaf community complained about her casting though an online petition with 140 signatures (Nielson). Yet many in the Deaf community softened any criticism of the show when they saw the production’s ongoing attention to Deaf cultural details (Grushkin). Finally, any lingering criticisms from the Deaf community were quieted by the many deaf actors hired for the show who perform using ASL. This includes Sean Berdy, who plays Daphne’s best friend Emmett, his onscreen mother, played by actress Marlee Matlin, and Anthony Natale who plays his father; their characters both sign and vocalize in the show. The Emmett character only communicates in ASL and does not vocalise until he falls in love with the hearing character Bay—even then he rarely uses his voice.
This seemingly all-round “acceptance” of the show gave the production team more freedom to be innovative—by season 3 the audience was deemed to be so comfortable with captions that the shows began to feature less SimCom and more all-captioned scenes. This lead to the full episode in ASL, a first on American mainstream television.
For an Hour, Welcome to Our World
Switched at Birth writer Chad Fiveash explained that when the production team came up with the idea for a captioned all-ASL episode, they “didn’t want to do the ASL episode as a gimmick. It needed to be thematically resonant”. As a result, they decided to link the episode to the most significant event in American Deaf history, an event that solidified its status as a cultural community—the 1988 Deaf President Now (DPN) protest at Gallaudet University in Washington. This protest inspired the March 2013 episode for Switched at Birth and aired 25 years to the week that the actual DPN protest happened. This episode makes it clear the show is trying to completely embrace Deaf culture and wants its audience to better understand Deaf identity.
DPN was a pivotal moment for Deaf people—it truly solidified members of a global Deaf community who felt more empowered to fight for their rights. Students demanded that Gallaudet—as the premier university for deaf and hard-of-hearing students—no longer have a hearing person as its president. The Gallaudet board of trustees, the majority of whom were hearing, tried to force students and faculty to accept a hearing president; their attitude was that they knew what was best for the deaf persons there. For eight days, deaf people across America and the world rallied around the student protestors, refusing to give in until a deaf president was appointed. Their success came in the form of I. King Jordan, a deaf man who had served as dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at the time of the protest.
The event was covered by media around the world, giving the American Deaf community international attention. Indeed, Gallaudet University says the DPN protest symbolized more than just the hiring of a Deaf president; it brought Deaf issues before the public and “raised the nation’s consciousness of the rights and abilities of deaf and hard of hearing people” (Gallaudet University).
The activities of the students and their supporters showed dramatically that in the 1980s deaf people could be galvanized to unite around a common issue, particularly one of great symbolic meaning, such as the Gallaudet presidency. Gallaudet University represents the pinnacle of education for deaf people, not only in the United States but throughout the world. The assumption of its presidency by a person himself deaf announced to the world that deaf Americans were now a mature minority (Van Cleve and Crouch, 172).
Deaf people were throwing off the oppression of the hearing world by demanding that their university have someone from their community at its helm. Jankowski (Deaf Empowerment; A Metaphorical Analysis of Conflict) studied the Gallaudet protest within the framework of a metaphor. She found a recurring theme during the DPN protest to be Gallaudet as “plantation”—which metaphorically refers to deaf persons as slaves trying to break free from the grip of the dominant mastery of the hearing world—and she parallels the civil rights movement of African Americans in the 1960s. As an example, Gallaudet was referred to as the “Selma of the Deaf” during the protest, and protest signs used the language of Martin Luther King such as “we still have a dream.” For deaf Americans, the presidency of Gallaudet became a symbol of hope for the future. As Jankowski attests:
deaf people perceived themselves as possessing the ability to manage their own kind, pointing to black-managed organization, women-managed organizations, etc., struggling for that same right. They argued that it was a fight for their basic human rights, a struggle to free themselves, to release the hold their ‘masters’ held on them. (“A Metaphorical Analysis”)
The creators of the Switched at Birth episode wanted to ensure of these emotions, as well as historical and cultural references, were prevalent in the modern-day, all-ASL episode, titled Uprising. That show therefore wanted to represent both the 1988 DPN protest as well as a current issue in the US—the closing of deaf schools (Anderson). The storyline focuses on the deaf students at the fictitious Carlton School for the Deaf seizing one of the school buildings to stage a protest because the school board has decided to shut down the school and mainstream the deaf students into hearing schools. When the deaf students try to come up with a list of demands, conflicts arise about what the demands should be and whether a pilot program—allowing hearing kids who sign to attend the deaf school—should remain.
This show accomplished multiple things with its reach into Deaf history and identity, but it also did something technologically unique for the modern world—it made people pay attention. Because captioning translated the sign language for viewers, Lizzy Weiss, the creator of the series, said, “Every single viewer—deaf or hearing—was forced to put away their phones and iPads and anything else distracting … and focus … you had to read … you couldn’t do anything else. And that made you get into it more. It drew you in” (Stelter). The point, Weiss said, “was about revealing something new to the viewer—what does it feel like to be an outsider? What does it feel like to have to read and focus for an entire episode, like deaf viewers do all the time?” (Stelter). As one deaf reviewer of the Uprising episode said, “For an hour, welcome to our world! A world that’s inconvenient, but one most of us wouldn’t leave if offered a magic pill” (DR_Staff).
This episode, more than any other, afforded hearing television viewers an experience perhaps similar to deaf viewers. The New York Times reported that “Deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers commented by the thousands after the show, with many saying in effect, “Yes! That’s what it feels like” (Stelter).
What is also unique about the episode is that in teaching the hearing viewers more about the Deaf community, it also reinforced Deaf community pride and even taught young deaf people a bit of their own history. The Deaf community and Gallaudet were very pleased with their history showing up on a television show—the university produced a 30-second commercial which aired within the episode, and held viewing parties. Gallaudet also forwarded the 35 pages of Facebook comments they’d received about the episode to ABC Family and Gallaudet President T. Alan Hurwitz said of the episode (Yahr), “Over the past 25 years, [DPN] has symbolised self-determination and empowerment for deaf and hard of hearing people around the world”. The National Association of the Deaf (NAD) also lauded the episode, describing it as “phenomenal and groundbreaking, saying the situation is very real to us” (Stelter)—NAD had been vocally against budget cuts and closings of US deaf schools.
Deaf individuals all over the Internet and social media also spoke out about the episode, with overwhelmingly favourable opinions. Deaf blogger Amy Cohen Efron, who participated in 1988′s DPN movement, said that DPN was “a turning point of my life, forcing me to re-examine my own personal identity, and develop self-determinism as a Deaf person” and led to her becoming an activist.When she watched the Uprising episode, she said the symbolic and historical representations in the show resonated with her. In the episode, a huge sign is unfurled on the side of the Carlton School for the Deaf with a girl with a fist in the air under the slogan “Take Back Carlton.” During the DPN protest, the deaf student protesters unfurled a sign that said “Deaf President Now” with the US Capitol in the background; this image has become an iconic symbol of modern Deaf culture. Efron says the image in the television episode was much more militant than the actual DPN sign. However, it could be argued that society now sees the Deaf community as much more militant because of the DPN protest, and that the imagery in the Uprising episode played into that connection. Efron also acknowledged the episode’s strong nod to the Gallaudet student protestors who defied the hearing community’s expectations by practising civil disobedience. As Efron explained, “Society expected that the Deaf people are submissive and accept to whatever decision done by the majority without any of our input and/or participation in the process.”
She also argues that the episode educated more than just the hearing community. In addition to DPN, Uprising was filled with other references to Deaf history. For example a glass door to the room at Carlton was covered with posters about people like Helen Keller and Jean-Ferdinand Berthier, a deaf educator in 19th century France who promoted the concept of deaf identity and culture—Efron says most people in the Deaf community have never heard of him. She also claims that the younger Deaf community may also not be aware of the 1988 DPN protest—“It was not in high school textbooks available for students. Many deaf and hard of hearing students are mainstreamed and they have not the slightest idea about the DPN movement, even about the Deaf Community’s ongoing fight against discrimination, prejudice and oppression, along with our victories”.
Long before the Uprising episode aired, the Deaf community had been watching Switched at Birth carefully to make sure Deaf culture was accurately represented. Throughout season 3 David Martin created weekly videos in sign language that were an ASL/Deaf cultural analysis of Switched at Birth. He highlighted content he liked and signs that were incorrect, a kind of a Deaf culture/ASL fact checker. From the Uprising episode, he said he thought this quote from Marlee Matlin’s character said it all, “Until hearing people walk a day in our shoes they will never understand” (Martin). That succinctly states what the all-ASL episode was trying to capture—creating an awareness of Deaf people’s cultural experience and their oppression in hearing society.
Even a deaf person who was an early critic of Switched at Birth because of the hiring of Katie Leclerc and the use of SimCom admitted he was impressed with the all-ASL episode (Grushkin):
all too often, we see media accounts of Deaf people which play into our society’s perceptions of Deaf people: as helpless, handicapped individuals who are in need of fixes such as cochlear implants in order to “restore” us to society. Almost never do we see accounts of Deaf people as healthy, capable individuals who live ordinary, successful lives without necessarily conforming to the Hearing ‘script’ for how we should be. And important issues such as language rights or school closings are too often virtually ignored by the general media.
In addition to the episode being widely discussed within the Deaf community, the mainstream news media also covered Uprising intensely, seeing it as a meaningful cultural moment, not just for the Deaf community but for popular culture in general. Lacob wrote that he realises that hearing viewers probably won’t understand what it means to be a deaf person in modern America, but he believes that the episode
posits that there are moments of understanding, commonalities, and potential bridge-building between these two communities. And the desire for understanding is the first step toward a more inclusive and broad-minded future.
the significance of this moment can’t be undervalued, nor can the show’s rich embrace of deaf history, manifested here in the form of Gallaudet and the historical figures whose photographs and stories are papered on the windows of Carlton during the student protest. What we’re seeing on screen—within the confines of a teen drama, no less—is an engaged exploration of a culture and a civil rights movement brought to life with all of the color and passion it deserves. It may be 25 years since Gallaudet, but the dreams of those protesters haven’t faded. And they—and the ideals of identity and equality that they express—are most definitely being heard.
Lacob’s analysis was praised by several Deaf people—by a Deaf graduate student who teaches a Disability in Popular Culture course and by a Gallaudet student who said, “From someone who is deaf, and not ashamed of it either, let me say right here and now: that was the most eloquent piece of writing by someone hearing I have ever seen” (Emma72). The power of the Uprising episode illustrated a political space where “groups actively fuse and blend their culture with the mainstream culture” (Foley 119, as cited in Chang 3). Switched at Birth—specifically the Uprising episode—has indeed fused Deaf culture and ASL into a place in mainstream television culture.
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———. “This Is Not a Pipe.” Switched at Birth. Pilot episode. 6 June 2011. <http://freeform.go.com/shows/switched-at-birth>.
———. “Not Hearing Loss, Deaf Gain.” Switched at Birth. YouTube video, 11 Feb. 2013. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F5W604uSkrk>.
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DR_Staff. “Switched at Birth: How #TakeBackCarlton Made History.” deafReview (6 Mar. 2013). <http://deafreview.com/deafreview-news/switched-at-birth-how-takebackcarlton-made-history/>.
Efron, Amy Cohen. “Switched At Birth: Uprising – Deaf Adult’s Commentary.” Deaf World as I See It (Mar. 2013). <http://www.deafeyeseeit.com/2013/03/05/sabcommentary/>.
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Fiveash, Chad. Personal interview. 17 Jan. 2014.
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———. “A Metaphorical Analysis of Conflict at the Gallaudet Protest.” Unpublished seminar paper presented at the University of Maryland, 1990.
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Martin, D. “Switched at Birth Season 2 Episode 9 ‘Uprising’ ASL/Deaf Cultural Analysis.” David Martin YouTube channel (6 Mar. 2013). <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JA0vqCysoVU>.
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Yahr, E. “Gallaudet University Uses All-Sign Language Episode of ‘Switched at Birth’ to Air New Commercial.” The Washington Post 3 Mar. 2013 <http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/tv-column/post/gallaudet-university-uses-all-sign-language-episode-of-switched-at-birth-to-air-new-commercial/2013/03/04/0017a45a-8508-11e2-9d71-f0feafdd1394_blog.html>.