Sound of Silence

ABC Family’s ‘Switched at Birth’ ASL Episode Recalls Gallaudet Protest

Almost 25 years to the day after the student protest at Gallaudet University began in 1988, ABC Family’s ‘Switched at Birth’ features a storyline about a deaf student uprising in an episode, airing March 4, that’s told almost entirely in American Sign Language.

Eric McCandless/ABC Family via Getty

A generation has passed since the weeklong act of protest known as Deaf President Now, and its influence on deaf culture is likely a distant memory for the hearing community. That may change, however, thanks to a pivotal and landmark episode of ABC Family’s Switched at Birth, which will present a television first: an installment that is enacted nearly entirely in American Sign Language (ASL).

For the deaf community, the Gallaudet University students’ uprising was a metaphorical crossing of the Rubicon, just as vital and significant as Stonewall or Rosa Parks. It was a momentous act of revolution that has remained a critical cultural and social touchstone, reaffirming deaf identity, culture, and pride.

In 1988, Gallaudet, the world’s first higher educational institution for the deaf and hard of hearing, had just announced as its seventh president yet another hearing appointee. Elizabeth Zinser, assistant chancellor at University of North Carolina at Greensboro, had been the only hearing candidate for the job. Jane Bassett Spilman—chairwoman of Gallaudet’s board of trustees, largely made up of hearing individuals—announced Zinser’s appointment and defended the board’s decision by allegedly saying, “The deaf are not yet ready to function in the hearing world.”

Furious, deaf and hard of hearing students barricaded Gallaudet’s gates, refusing to leave and denying anyone entry until a deaf person was appointed as university president. Effigies of both women were burned during Deaf President Now (DPN), which received national coverage in the media.

In the end, Zinser would resign from her position, the university’s first deaf president, I. King Jordan, would be appointed after 124 years, and more than 2,500 protesters would converge on Capitol Hill, holding banners that read, “We still have a dream!”

Today, outside the deaf community, pioneers and crusaders like I. King Jordan; Laurent Clerc, America’s first deaf teacher; and Jean-Ferdinand Berthier, a deaf intellectual and political organizer who wrote about deaf culture and history, are sadly all but unknown.

But the ASL episode of Switched at Birth—titled, fittingly, “Uprising,” and airing March 4—will bring fresh attention to the Deaf President Now movement at Gallaudet, recalling a time of deaf activism that continues to inspire a new generation of students today.

For those not familiar with Switched at Birth, the show, created by Lizzy Weiss and now in its second season, charts the collision of cultures, identities, ethnicities, and classes when two teenage girls (Vanessa Marano’s Bay Kennish and Katie Leclerc’s Daphne Vasquez) discover that they were switched at birth and their respective parents convene in a blended family to become reacquainted with their biological children.

The drama, which won the Television Critics Association award for youth programming last year, isn’t just about the drama that ensues after the switch is discovered. It is a deft and sophisticated look at the way we communicate and express ourselves; whether through ASL, street art, or music. Switched at Birth is also the most nuanced and complex depiction of deaf culture and individuals ever to air on television. It’s all the more astounding that what unfolds before us—intelligent, emotionally resonant, and even profound—is packaged in what is nominally a teen drama.

In the show, many of the show’s teenagers attend the fictional Carlton School for the Deaf in Kansas City, Mo., ranging from the hearing (Marano’s Bay) to deaf characters like Leclerc’s Daphne, heartthrob Emmett (Sean Berdy), radical Natalie (Stephanie Nogueras), and perpetually angry Travis (Ryan Lane). (This season also introduced Max Lloyd-Jones as Noah, a new hard of hearing character who had Meniere’s disease, the same degenerative inner-ear disorder that Leclerc has in real life.)

When Carlton is faced with closure, and its attendees told that they will have to be mainstreamed into public high schools, the students band together. They take over Carlton’s administrative offices and protest the closure by the school board, locking themselves inside the school and issuing a list of demands, chief of which is that Carlton stays open. (The effect that the closure of Carlton would have is palpable, as Travis talks sadly and solemnly about what the future might hold. “All those years of hell in mainstream schools,” he says. “I won’t go back. I won’t.”)

The echoes of Gallaudet and DPN are not only intentional but meta: Switched at Birth also stars Marlee Matlin, who was interviewed during the DPN standoff back in 1988. Her character, guidance counselor Melody Bledsoe, was said to be one of the Gallaudet students involved in the university takeover. For Matlin, Switched at Birth serves several purposes, not least of which is educating viewers about the deaf identity.

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“It creates a perspective that you’ve never seen before,” Matlin told The Daily Beast last year. Switched at Birth delves into the way that deafness is reframed within the culture, transferring a sense that “hearing loss” is “deaf gain,” something in which to have pride and derive a sense of cultural identity. But for those of us in the hearing community, that may be difficult to understand. As Matlin’s Melody says in this episode, “Until hearing people walk a day in our shoes, they will never understand. Never.”

Where Switched at Birth succeeds is in opening up a particular portrayal of the deaf experience, making it accessible and universal in a way that few other mainstream fictional takes have done. Episodes like this one serve to inform without being confrontational or aggressive.

“People have never seen sign language,” Matlin said. “People have never seen deaf characters this way, this many deaf characters. People have never seen these kind of stories told about people who are deaf characters on television before, and it’s a mixture of learning about the culture and the language of the deaf community in the United States, and the drama.”

The show is also undeniably powerful in both the former and the latter, and its ability to inform without becoming preachy or condescending is on full display in the March 4 episode. While “Uprising” is bookended with some verbal dialogue, the vast majority of the episode is enacted in American Sign Language. The decision to do so serves numerous purposes within the narrative, both in terms of having the show’s deaf characters—main and supporting—front and center for most of the episode, but also because of Daphne’s decision to remove her hearing aid early on in the episode after her battery dies. While she’s given a replacement quickly, Daphne’s decision is subtly played out by the lack of audible sound for the rest of the episode, and when she accidentally sets off a burglar alarm at the Kennish house, her decision against putting her hearing aid back in becomes clear.

Daphne’s struggles this season with her deaf identity—after being targeted for robbery by two hearing assailants and attacked—have been one of the show’s strongest points. Her deafness was always a source of pride, but here she is forced to see how deaf individuals can be robbed of their own agency. Rather than let it defeat her, however, the attack motivates Daphne in the face of Carlton’s potential closure. She becomes one of the organizers behind Take Back Carlton and quickly realizes the importance of a unified message.

When the issue of whether Carlton should continue to admit hearing students—like Daphne’s sister, Bay—arises, the show doesn’t shy away from confronting the awkwardness between Daphne and Bay. Should there be a place in this new Carlton for these students if the protest succeeds? But it also asks harder questions that cut to the heart of the show. Does the deaf community require hearing allies? Should they be seeking to bridge the gap between the hearing and deaf communities or maintain a stance of isolation and seclusion?

While there is non-diegetic sound present within the episode in the form of musical cues or songs—one musical cue appears when some of the Carlton students perform an ASL rap song, which is amazing to see—it seems to be here so that hearing viewers who have tuned in late are reassured there is nothing wrong with their televisions. The sound is almost a distraction from the pure silence of the episode, as well as the power of the ASL scenes, particularly those between the deaf characters.

Last year, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s ASL interpreter, Lydia Callis, became an Internet phenomenon during Hurricane Sandy, launching memes and a Saturday Night Live spoof. Left unmentioned is why Callis was so expressive: the beauty of American Sign Language. Switched at Birth always manages to depict the gorgeously expressive quality of ASL as a language, which goes beyond hand gestures to include facial expressions and other physical cues. How something is being said, just as in verbal communication, is often just as important as what’s being said.

I wish I had watched “Uprising” on mute after the opening sequences. The episode blossoms when it moves into the purely ASL scenes, themselves a groundbreaking moment for television. While we’ve seen subtitled scenes on television before, both on Switched and on other shows, like Lost, that use foreign languages, there has never been a show that has delved so deeply into ASL, creating an entire installment set entirely in sign language. And it’s about time that happened.

Hearing viewers will never fully comprehend what it means to be a deaf person in 2013, but Switched at Birth’s “Uprising” gives the average viewer a small taste. Matlin’s Melody may be correct: hearing people may never fully understand, but the show 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.