Whether you are a fan of Switched at Birth or not, this show has given the deaf community a voice on television. And although it has helped open a very heavy and hard to-keep-open door for deaf and hard of hearing actors, it certainly has not propped the door open permanently. After five seasons of shedding light on deaf culture, there is still a lot of work to be done.
These past five seasons Switched at Birth have worked tirelessly to minimize the assumptions of deaf teens. There are two halves of this show, Bay (Vanessa Marano), who is hearing, and Daphne (Katie Leclerc), who is deaf. In many ways Daphne has had, what you could say, a wider range of growth as a character. She has had various jobs throughout high school and college, from working in a political office, to a cook in a restaurant, to an assistant at a medical clinic. She has had legal trouble and relationship heartbreaks, as well as triumphs in basketball and schoolwork. Switched at Birth does not limit Daphne’s life because she is deaf and instead shows that her, and other deaf teens on the show, have a life that is more or less the same as the hearing teens.
A great accomplishment of this Freeform teen soap is its willingness to hire so many deaf teens. Emmett (Sean Berdy) and Travis (Ryan Lane), both profoundly deaf, have prominent roles, and many others have had reoccurring parts as deaf students. Although the actress who plays Daphne is not deaf herself, she does have a medical condition called Meniere’s disease, which results in a loss of hearing.
However, one thing that has bothered me about this show is its severe lack of deaf adults. Marlee Matlin is the actress that plays Emmett’s mother, as well as a teacher/administer at the deaf and hard of hearing school. She is a wonderful actress that is likely the most known and celebrated deaf actor out there today. Emmett comes from a deaf family, and along with having a deaf mother, has a deaf father. His father, played by actor Anthony Natale, is rarely seen in the show’s five seasons. Thinking back on the five seasons of Switched at Birth, it is amazing how few deaf adults have been presented.
Considering Carlton is a deaf school, and later in the deaf college program, a surprisingly low amount of deaf teachers are shown. We see Daphne, as well as Travis and other deaf teens work hard in various jobs and yet we are not shown successful deaf adults in the community. Striking down deaf stereotypes of deaf teens is great, but not seeing them follow through with deaf adults is backsliding.
As the series comes to an end, it is more evident that this show is a hearing-centric show with some deaf culture mixed in. Obviously it isn’t real life, like any of these teen soap-dramas, but this show had such an amazing opportunity to showcase deaf culture. Instead, it ignores deaf parents (though doesn’t shy away from showcasing hearing parents), as well as deaf teachers and other professionals. Yes, deaf people live in a prominently hearing world, but like all minorities, deaf individuals and families have a culture of their own. Switched at Birth relies heavily on hearing ASL signers, such as Lily (Rachel Shenton, who is fluent in ASL), which is a great addition to the show, but is there really a need for yet another hearing signer?
On the positive side, Switched at Birth does like to include American Sign Language. Hopefully, in the years the show has been on, it has influenced people to give the beautiful language a try. The show doesn’t shy away from having ‘quiet’ moments between ASL conversations when it is between two or more deaf characters. Other sign languages have been introduced, like Spanish sign language, as well as lip reading and the fact that not all deaf people learn or practice sign language. However, as much as ASL exists in the show, much of the time it exists in an incorrect way.
A common practice on Switched at Birth is the use of Simultaneous Communication, i.e. speaking with their voice while at the same time signing. While this is a polite thing to do when a non-signer is present, it is general knowledge that speaking out loud while signing is difficult to do and is, in fact, discouraged. This practice gives misinformation that ASL is a direct translation of English, which it isn’t and has its own grammar. Many hearing characters, including those who are supposedly relatively fluent, such as Daphne’s mom Regina, rarely sign in enough consistency that without the sound of them speaking or the assistance of captions could anyone understand what they were saying by looking only at their signs.
Now, this misrepresentation of ASL is very likely because of the editing of the show and the fact that many hearing actors have no previous ASL experience. But with five seasons, of all the characters, Bay realistically should not be such a horrible signer. She has had long relationships with deaf characters, has gone to a prominently deaf school with a deaf teacher, and just overall has been within a deaf community. Perhaps expecting a teen show like this to have such high expectations is unfair. It is only another example that there is still so much further to go in accurately representing our deaf and hard of hearing peers, their language and culture.
In many ways these two issues, the absence of deaf adults and the limiting of ASL, is the representation of Hollywood. Many shows have a diversity problem, and showcasing deaf actors and culture is included. All the main deaf characters primarily date hearing characters, hearing adults are the main focus, and the language of signing is often a side note thrown in.
Although it has its faults, Switched at Birth has opened the door a little wider for deaf actors and deaf culture. My hope is the show has nudged the door just wide enough that as the show ends, others are not as afraid to walk through.