Switched at Birth Entirely in Sign Language

‘Switched At Birth’ Spring Finale Almost Entirely in Sign Language

Last night on ABC Family, a little revolution happened on the screen. Fans of the TV show Switched at Birth knew it was going to happen. Some people looked forward to it. Others thought they were asking too much of their audience.

What happened?

Except for a few spoken words at the beginning and end, the spring finale of Switched at Birth, titled “Uprising,” was in American Sign Language (ASL). It is the first time in history a TV show has done that.

Whenever TV shows created to entertain try to advocate a serious message, there’s a risk the effort will come off like an after school special or “A Very Special Episode of Blossom.”

Switched at Birth has taken a different approach right from the start. The show is about two families who learn that their teenage daughters had been switched as babies in the hospital. Daphne (Katie Leclerc), was raised by a single Mexican-American mom (Constance Marie) struggling to get by. Bay (Vanessa Marano) was raised by a wealthy caucasian family with all the advantages a kid could want or need. Bay is an artist. Daphne is a talented cook. Daphne is also deaf.

The thing that makes Switched at Birth so unique is the deaf stuff isn’t sugar coated or simplified for the sake of its hearing audience. There are long scenes where actors communicate in sign language, and the speakers on your television go completely silent. Subtitles are in place for those of us who don’t know ASL.

It’s a compelling show that tells interesting stories in the teen soap opera genre. It’s unique in that it has a TON of heart. I’m a guy who is is totally okay with his emotional side, and I cry at least one time per episode.

When producers announced the all ASL episode, I groaned.

As a fan, I thought they were asking too much. Isn’t it enough that as a hearing person, I watch Switched at Birth and love it? I get what they’re doing, and support it. It’s one of my favorite TV shows. Isn’t subjecting a mostly hearing audience to an hour of sign language a little pushy and indulgent?

Ummm … yeah. I was being a jerk.

Good art often yanks us outside of a comfort zone.

Marlee Matlin plays the guidance counselor at Carlton, a school for deaf kids. The school board facing budget cutbacks has voted to close Carlton and to mainstream the deaf kids into schools with hearing kids. There’s a scene in the episode where Marlee is talking with the deaf students and they’re all discussing their frustration. Marlee’s character signs, “Until hearing people walk a day in our shoes, they will never get it. Never.”

Marlee Matlin in Switched at Birth ASL episode