“The following episode of ‘Switched at Birth‘ will be presented entirely in American Sign Language. After the first scene, there will be no vocalization,” explains series star Katie LeClerc at the onset of tonight’s groundbreaking episode of “Switched at Birth.”
“There’s nothing wrong with your TV,” adds co-star Vanessa Marano.
“Switched At Birth” has been a pioneer show from the start, featuring deaf and hard-of-hearing characters just as prominently as hearing characters and exploring the Deaf culture to a never-before-seen degree. The show, though, has always catered to its hearing viewers, using subtitles when characters speak in ASL but leaving deaf viewers to rely on closed captioning for the rest of the dialogue.
Tonight’s episode changed all of that. It is the first all-ASL episode of television ever, featuring a pivotal storyline about a school for the deaf in danger of being shut down for financial reasons. The deaf students at the school discuss, in great detail, their concerns about being “mainstreamed” — moved into a school for the hearing. They share worries about being bullied, stared at, treated like freaks, and more academic concerns, like being assigned incompetent interpreters and falling behind in classes. Later, they lament the social implications — being split up from people they’ve known all their lives, people who understand them and share their struggles.
“Until hearing people walk a day in our shoes, they will never understand,” signs Marlee Matlin’s character, Melody, to her group of students. Though watching a television episode certainly doesn’t compare to going about one’s daily life — and getting the public education every American child has a right to — it’s a tiny taste, for hearing viewers, of how it feels to be on the outside of the conversation. Of course, we get subtitles here. That doesn’t happen in real life.
With the focus of the episode turned on the deaf students’ fight to keep their school, the hearing characters’ storylines took a back seat — which aligned, interestingly enough, with the deaf students’ reluctance to include hearing student Bay in their revolution.
There are some interesting directorial choices made in the episode. In some shots, particularly classic over-the-shoulder conversation angles, characters’ hands are not entirely visible as they sign, so even viewers fluent in ASL have to rely on subtitles. Music cues are still employed, which is particularly ironic during scenes that emphasize the privileges enjoyed by hearing people that aren’t available to deaf people. In some scenes, the audience can hear background noise — footsteps, or the vocal sounds that some deaf people make while they sign. In other scenes, there is complete silence; even the alarm that Daphne sets off when she sneaks into the Kennish home late at night to talk to Bay isn’t audible.
The episode is definitely a completely new viewing experience for hearing viewers. Looking away from the television for a moment meant missing important plot points and story cues. Still, it was fascinating to see how easy it was to understand tone and intention even when there were no vocal cues to rely on.
What did you think of the “Switched at Birth” episode? Would you ever watch a show produced entirely in ASL? What were the challenges for you as a viewer? What did you notice that you might not have understood before?
Weigh in below in our comments section and let us know how the episode affected you.