When Marlee Matlin walked away with an Academy Award for her heart-wrenching turn as a deaf custodian in 1986’s romantic drama Children of a Lesser God, it seemed as though film had finally encountered a definitive depiction of a deaf individual and the often tenuous relationship between the hearing and the deaf worlds. Television has lagged behind; nearly 30 years later, most TV shows still typically shove deaf characters into the background or use them as props as part of a hearing person’s story.
Switched at Birth reverses that course. On the surface, the teen soap, which launched on ABC Family last summer, appears to revolve around two teenage girls (Vanessa Marano, Katie Leclerc) who discover that they were switched at birth as their families—a wealthy white couple (D.W. Moffett, Lea Thompson) and a Latina recovering-alcoholic hairdresser (Constance Marie)—attempt to untangle the emotional Gordian knot in which they’ve found themselves.
Unexpectedly, the show delves deep. Created by Lizzy Weiss (Blue Crush), Switched at Birth—which airs Tuesday evenings at 8 p.m.—offers a deft and intelligent take on the way in which we form our identities through self-expression, whether that be street art, spoken/signed communication, texting, or open dialogue among family members and individuals, as well as the communication gulf between the hearing and deaf/hard-of-hearing communities. It’s also a show that doesn’t pander to its presumed audience. Semantics—“deaf” and “hard-of-hearing” are OK; “hearing-impaired” is not—and ethical implications, as well as morality and choice, are discussed frankly and without preaching.
“I heard a This American Life episode about two women who were switched at birth and found out in their 50s,” said Weiss, over breakfast at a West Hollywood café. “I was pregnant and it was just such an emotional time. I thought it would be so universally compelling … ABC Family suggested making one of [the girls] disabled in some way. I didn’t know what they meant exactly. I don’t think they did either. But then I said, ‘What if one is deaf?’” (ABC Family does like to home in on issues for their dramas; The Secret Life of the American Teenager, for example, tackles teen sex and pregnancy.)
Over the course of its first season, Leclerc’s Daphne—who lost her hearing at age 3 after a bout of meningitis (Leclerc herself is hard of hearing, suffering from an inner-ear disorder called Ménière’s disease, the symptoms of which include fluctuating hearing loss, vertigo, pressure, and tinnitus)—found herself enmeshed in a love triangle with her best friend, Emmett (Sean Berdy, who like the character he portrays, is deaf), and the girl living the life that was meant for her, rebellious and privileged street-artist Bay (Marano), who has since become Emmett’s girlfriend.
Berdy’s Emmett is described on-screen as a “deaf James Dean,” a motorcycle-riding drummer and avid photographer who quickly became the show’s breakout character. Emmett’s mother, Melody, is played by Academy Award-winning deaf actress Marlee Matlin; their interactions—and frequent arguments—form the basis of one of the most compelling and unique dynamics on television today, one that kicks up some of the ethical questions facing the deaf community: cochlear implants, speech therapy, romantic relationships with hearing individuals.
“We have developed a great bond together and that makes the characters real,” said Berdy of Matlin, via his interpreter, James Foster. “This is a real mother-son relationship in the deaf community.”
Matlin concurred. “No one puts deaf kids in their homes and closes the doors,” she said, through Jack Jason, her interpreter. “It’s a new perspective and it’s interesting and different. Sean and I have a very good rapport because we’re both deaf and we both identify … It’s so comforting to use my language without thinking who is interpreting for me, and it’s so natural as an actor for me now.”
Throughout her career, Matlin has had her signed dialogue reiterated by co-stars on screen, whether it’s Jennifer Beals paraphrasing her on The L Word, or William Hurt in Children of a Lesser God, or her character, Joey Lucas, having an interpreter on The West Wing. The ability to have her own words, to retain her own sense of agency and language is a revelation for Matlin, and Jason, who has worked as Matlin’s interpreter for nearly 27 years, said it’s been a transformative moment for her as an actor. “I’ve never seen Marlee so comfortable, because now she doesn’t have to worry about anybody saying anything for her,” he said. “Marlee says, ‘I don’t have to speak?’ ‘Nope.’ ‘Nobody’s translating me?’ ‘Nope.’” Or as Matlin put it: “It’s my world, it’s my language.” (Matlin, meanwhile, has an ASL iPad app, Marlee Signs, coming out this spring.)
That’s also what makes it bracingly authentic: Melody and Emmett’s conversations are enacted entirely in ASL, their words subtitled onscreen. “It’s such a noisy world,” said Weiss, who studied American Sign Language in college. “People are watching TV [while] on their iPads. You have to look up and concentrate on those scenes.”
The success of shows like Lost and Heroes—which featured characters speaking in their native tongues with subtitles—paved the way for Switched at Birth’s ASL scenes, and the network was only too willing to turn off the sound, as it were. While there is still some ambient noise in the background (a gurgling fountain, birdsong, a car passing), it puts the attention squarely on what’s being said and the emotion embedded within such exchanges, as well as the subtle differences between the characters: between those who have signed their whole lives, those who are learning, and those who don’t sign at all.
Switched at Birth is the first American television show to feature multiple deaf characters and deaf actors front and center, not relegating them to the sidelines or to procedural subplots. Most important, the deaf characters aren’t portrayed as saints, and are just as realistically flawed as their hearing counterparts, landing in trouble with parents, teachers, or even the law.
“My favorite thing about Daphne is that she’s a normal teenager,” said Leclerc in an interview on the show’s Santa Clarita, Calif., set. “She struggles with boys and teachers, and the affection and love of both sets of parents, and the multitude of different small nuances that make her who she is ... No deaf person sits there and says, ‘I am only deaf.’ I think a lot of shows would have pigeonholed Daphne into that corner.”
In fact, it was essential that the show didn’t do that. “It’s very much about self-expression and different ways to express yourself, whether it’s ASL, whether it’s dialogue, whether it’s street art,” said ABC Family president Michael Riley. “What you see is millennials and adults alike expressing themselves on a spectrum of communication opportunities.”
Leclerc agreed. “Most Americans do not realize that American Sign Language is the third most common language in the United States,” she said. “Most hearing people have never met a deaf person or had a conversation with a deaf person.”
“It really starts to show the broad spectrum of the deaf community,” she continued. “That’s one of the things that I’m very proud of: that we can come into a hearing audience members’ home on a weekly basis.”
The last time a deaf person was in the television spotlight (other than on reality TV, such as with The Amazing Race’s deaf contestant, Luke Adams) was 20 years ago, when Matlin starred in Reasonable Doubts, a short-lived NBC procedural drama that pitted her deaf district attorney with an ASL-speaking cop (Mark Harmon). But Matlin was quick to point out the differences between the two shows, not least of which was the fact that Harmon’s character often spoke aloud for her.
“No offense to NBC, the producers, or the writers of Reasonable Doubts, but there is a new generation, a new understanding of diversity out there,” said Matlin. “Lizzy [Weiss] and the network have a better understanding of what is authentic, and it shows that a lot has changed in 20 years … This show allows people like myself to be portrayed in a variety of ways that we’ve not seen before.”
In the United States alone, it is estimated that there are 35 million deaf or hard-of-hearing individuals (along with roughly 2 million users of ASL, though because the U.S. Bureau of Census does not recognize ASL, an accurate count is not available), a vibrant and thriving community with its own distinct culture, history, and language. (Even within the English-speaking world, there are linguistic barriers within the deaf community: in the U.K., British Sign Language is spoken, while in Australia, there’s Auslan. And within the U.S., there are lexical variations among region, race, and age.) Switched at Birth gives deaf viewers something to hold on to, said Berdy.
“Deaf people are struggling to find their favorite show or something that represents them,” he said. “It’s hard. There are some examples of shows that have a deaf storyline in one episode, like Cold Case, or another show where they are focusing on the cochlear implant or the medical aspect. But nothing that shows a deaf individual as part of a community or a culture, except for this show … I have deaf friends and family and they love the show, they worship the show, and say, ‘It’s about time … Finally, a show about us, for us.’”
Of course, it’s not just members of the deaf community who have been watching—it’s averaging 2.6 million viewers per episode. Switched at Birth was the highest-rated new cable series last summer in adults 18–34, women 18–34, and females 12–34, and ABC Family gave the show a huge vote of confidence, picking up a back order of 22 episodes that brings its first season total to 32 installments, proving this is a show that goes behind a niche audience.
“There are two worlds, the deaf world and the hearing world,” said Berdy. “There are some people in the deaf community that feel that hearing people look down on us. I hope this show builds a bridge between the two communities.”
Leclerc expanded on that idea. “I think that Switched at Birth explodes those expectations and really takes it upon itself to show the truth. People’s expectations of a deaf person could be less … but my expectations of a deaf person are higher, because—and we say this in the show, too—one represents all, to most. You need to be aware of your actions and how that reflects upon the group.”
“There’s a very famous saying in the deaf community,” said Leclerc. “The only thing deaf people can’t do is hear.”