Total Failure of the ASL-Only “Switched at Birth” Episode on ABC Family

Last night was supposed to be the premier of the penultimate “American Sign Language Only” episode of ABC Family Channel’s teenage soap opera, “Switched at Birth.”  Janna and I urged our ASL students to watch the episode because we believed the hype and the PR that this would be an episode to remember.  It was not.  The show was a tremendous disappointment and I’ll tell you why.

The one bright spot in the show was this “Deaf Power” banner that struck a long-ago memory in Janna when one of her teachers at the Iowa School for the Deaf said that action was forbidden on campus because it was was rude and disrespectful.  For Janna to see one hand covering an ear and the other hand raised in a fist filled her with both terrible regret at believing a repressive Hearing teacher, and terrific pride that, in the end, the Deaf will own their own place in the world.

Here’s the how and why of what went wrong with “Switched at Birth.”

First, the odd introduction by Katie Leclerc and Vanessa Marano as “themselves” at the start of the show — “there’s nothing wrong with your TV after the first scene when all the words are open captioned” — just felt strange and slow and confirmed that the beautiful and talented Katie is forced by the producers to use a fake “Deaf Voice” for her role as Daphne in the show.

Why can’t you have a leading actress be “Heard of Hearing” with a captivating “Hearing Voice” in a Deaf School?  Believe me, it will make for even greater drama as both the Deaf and Hearing communities think of her as a traitor and/or a faker.  As the only “oral Deaf” on the show, she already has one foot in the tar pit, so why not go all in for the most dramatic tension and let her use her real voice?

We loved Katie’s guest appearance on a recent episode of CSI when she wasn’t required to use a “Deaf Voice” and she was just as great as ever!

Second, why have all the music — WITH WORDS — in an “ASL Only” show?  All that over-wash of music immediately demonstrated to us that the producers did not have full faith in their episode.  Producers should have had the guts to either turn off all sound entirely or they needed to have “wild environment” sounds just as they did in the first scene of the show.  To artificially add a nagging music track to falsely try to affect us emotionally was a wanton act that deserves no kindness or confidence:  It ruined the show!  An “ASL Only” show should never need closed captions!

On a more general note, it’s also hard to watch a television series where every single Hearing actor cannot sign ASL structure even a little bit.  It’s discouraging that people being paid so handsomely to appear on a television show cannot learn the language of the story.  Yes, I know the awful Hearing signers reflect real life absolutely — but this is an ABC Family show were the ideal is the norm, not the outlier, so why promote the disgraceful behavior of actors too lazy to learn the vocabulary of the culture of the script?

Finally, we were led to believe this was not only going to just be an “ASL Only” episode — which it was not — but that the story would be told through the eyes of a variety of Deaf actors.  Now, that’s a neat idea — take the point-of-view of all the Deaf people in the show and tell the story of the threatened closing of the Carlton Deaf School and the eventual takeover of the campus by the Deaf students just like Gallaudet before — but that did not happen.  The episode was just a regular telling, with open captioning, and horrific Hearing signers, and the righteously angry Deaf looking for justice where there is none.

“Switched at Birth” can be an effective teenage soap opera — but please don’t take the show for the real world truth of what actually happens in the lives of Deaf people.  The show is too cute, and too convenient, to tell the hard truths of what it’s really like to be Deaf in America.