'Switched at Birth' goes silent to make a point
LOS ANGELES -- "Until hearing people walk a day in our shoes, they will never understand," says a guidance counselor at a high school for deaf students in "Switched at Birth."
Such insights are a staple of the ABC Family drama, a TV rarity that puts deaf characters, played by deaf or hard-of-hearing actors, at the center of the action.
But Monday's episode takes it a bold step further: Save for a few spoken words at the beginning and the end, it is silent. The actors' hands do the talking with American Sign Language, even rapping together in one gleeful sequence.
Subtitles, which are typically sprinkled throughout "Switched at Birth" episodes, keep the viewer clued in. But when a deaf character is confused because she can't hear something vital, the audience is too. It's powerfully disconcerting.
The cast, including Oscar-winner Marlee Matlin as the school counselor, are excited about what they see as a grand experiment and eager for viewer reaction.
"This is an opportunity for the hearing person to watch at home and try to experience it," said Katie Leclerc, who stars as deaf teenager Daphne Vasquez. "It's not exactly the same, but maybe you can try to imagine what your everyday life would be like."
"It's a risk," added Leclerc, who has an inner ear disorder, Meniere's disease, that can cause hearing loss and vertigo.
"A big risk," Matlin said through a sign language-interpreter. "But it's going to be an eye-opener. I'm very proud to be part of this risk-taking, history-making episode."
Matlin knows about making history. She was the first -- and remains the only -- deaf person to receive an Academy Award acting trophy, honored as best actress for 1986's "Children of a Lesser God."
The "Switched at Birth" episode pivots on another key moment for the deaf community: A 1988 student protest at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., that ended the unbroken succession of hearing presidents at the school for the deaf.
For fictional Carlton High School (inspired by real-life L.A. school, Marlton), more is at stake: The school faces closure because of funding cuts, which means its students will be "mainstreamed" with hearing teens.
(It mirrors a real-life trend caused by budget constraints, Leclerc said. There's also an increasing number of children being given cochlear implants to counter hearing loss, itself a controversial issue, according to series creator and executive producer Lizzy Weiss.)
The prospect is dreaded by the Carlton students, either because they've felt the sting of being an outsider or because they treasure being part of a deaf-oriented school.
"Deaf people feel that moving into the mainstream chips away at their community, which is about language and culture," said Jack Jason, Matlin's longtime interpreter and the series' on-set arbiter for correct sign-language use.
With Daphne as the driving force and invoking Gallaudet, students mobilize to take over the administration building and demand Carlton's survival. The conflict's ending will wait for the March 11 season finale.
The uprising panics parents and puts relationships at risk, including that of Daphne and Bay Kennish (Vanessa Marano), the switched-at-birth characters of the title who have come together as teenagers from two very different households.
"We started in the pilot with just one scene that was pure ASL," involving Daphne and Emmett (Sean Berdy), said Weiss. As the series developed, she and her writing team began pondering the "what-if" of an all-sign language episode for the second season.
Then ABC Family approached her with the same idea, and the challenge was on to find a logical and engaging way to realize the ASL-only goal and a big enough story to make the most of it.
Last year, a "CSI: NY" episode took a stab at a nearly silent episode, using music by Green Day for most of its storytelling before reverting to dialogue in the final act.
The solution for "Switched at Birth" was to make sure every scene included a deaf character: "The truth is, when you're around people who are deaf, it's considered rude not to sign if you know how," Weiss said.
To avoid overloading viewers with subtitles, the story was designed to be highly visual, including scenes of the student protest complete with picket signs and a defiant "Take Back Carlton" banner unfurled from the occupied school building.
Although some moments depict the pitfalls of being a deaf person in a hearing world, Weiss said, that's balanced by positive aspects.
"If you have been anything that's in the minority -- gay, Jewish, a woman, anything -- you have some piece of your identity that brings with it a lot of baggage and hardship, but also a lot of pride," Weiss said. "That's what we're trying to connect with."
The episode also highlights the beauty of ASL and its "coolness," such as being able to sign across a crowded theater and have an essentially private conversation, she said.
As with a silent movie -- last year's Oscar-winning "The Artist" the latest case in point -- "Switched at Birth" includes music intended to reflect the characters' internal lives. A viewer could add to the silence by muting it, but Weiss said that misses the point.
The episode "is not about silence, or 'absence of' sound. It's about language and culture and seeing the world from the point of view of a deaf person, and our perspective is that deaf people's inner lives are not silent," she said.
Matlin, whose counselor is a recurring character on "Switched at Birth," said the episode is an emotional and professional high point for her, one she would like to see exceeded.
"I never thought in my life I would see this happen. But I want to go further in terms of using deaf actors. ... I want (Steven) Spielberg to say, 'Hey, we want to use deaf actors.' Why not? And, hey, let's have the same respect for actors who are deaf as for those who are hearing.
"I don't know if we'll ever get there, but never say never," Matlin said.