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.


    1. We should have written the episode! We knew precisely what it should have been, and white writing it would have been a massive challenge to get it right, it would’ve accomplished the wide array of “ASL Only” viewpoints based on the characters we know and follow on the show. What a missed opportunity… for them! SMILE!

  1. Sounds like an opportunity has been wasted and that it has gone further than wasted to the stage where it has caused anger and resentment. What a shame.

    1. We did, finally, think that the “ASL Only” show would get rid of those terrible Hearing actors who cannot sign — for just a little while — but, they were still there hanging around and annoying the Deaf people as ever!

      A lot was promised in the premise of the show and not much was delivered in the practice of the end.

      When the best part of the show was an iconic poster that was unveiled on the side of the building, you begin to wonder about the writing and producing of the overall series.

  2. I saw Anderson Cooper discussing the episode with Marlee Matlan and she made it out to be a huge thing that it was ASL only.

    1. Was that interview before or after the episode aired last night at 8pm? I’d like to know Marlee’s thoughts on an “ASL Only” show that requires closed captions for the song lyrics being played during span of the episode. TOTAL FAIL!

        1. That’s sad, but not surprising. This isn’t the only time I’ve been disappointed by Marlee. I understand she wants to play the game and stay relevant. I’m sure she wasn’t going to on Anderson’s program and tell the truth about her show!

  3. Wow, I never heard anything about this. Someone that I know really likes this show, I wonder if she heard about this. I do agree with what you are saying about how strange it is that they would have a completely ASL show and then add captions. I mean it’s like they didn’t trust the actors with their job. It sounds like it was a “just in case” kind of thing, so they could have something to fall back on in cas the episode didn’t work.

    1. Hearing people who watch the show — especially ASL students — tend to like it a lot. It’s accessible and friendly with very pretty people. Unfortunately, many of the Hearing students identify with the Hearing signers, and think that signing every one word out of five is acceptable ASL and “Deaf Way” when it is not; so from that aspect, the show is not doing much good for the propagation of proper Deaf Culture. It sets a bad example.

      The Deaf actors are excellent and their signing is advanced and precise — we need much more of them and less of the “Hearie Drama” that the show tends to dwell on in an ineffective way; and shame on Lea Thompson for her awful ASL grammar and signing, she has an important role on the show, and yet she still cannot sign after two years and 39 episodes. I don’t expect as much from the other Hearing actors, but Lea was trained as a dancer from the start where form, and exactness and being right in form matter and create context and definition. Lazy ASL is just as bad as “Not Trying” ASL.

      Deaf people aren’t necessarily silent — you could hear their beautiful “Deaf Voices” and “Deaf Pronunciation” in the first scene and it was quite effective. Why not just let the Deaf use ASL, and let all the natural sound come through from them and their environment? Why turn off all sound and fill it with elevator music and bad lyrics? That tells us the producers didn’t fully believe in the essence of their “ASL Only” show and panicked at the last moment and added the horrible, captioned, music.

      1. Oh wow, I didn’t realize you meant they completely took out sound and replaced it with background music. I thought they just put music in to add drama in general.

        1. Right, that’s what they did: Removed all sound 100% and then added cheesy music. Not all music had lyrics, but the “big moments” did and there were a couple of “music free” scenes that were effective. It would have been much better to go “ASL Only” and let the natural sound of the scene play out with the ASL. Not all Deaf people hear “nothing” — many have some residual hearing, so it would make sense to at least have the sounds in the room “available to be heard” for the audience, because they were there as the scene was being recorded on set with the actors.

  4. David,

    My mother and stepfather have gotten really into this show and I have noticed that whenever there is a scene with two people communicating exclusively in ASL, they almost entirely cut the sound — other than incidental background noise. No music or anything — I was sitting and reading something and I kept on having to look up at the screen to be sure that there was actually something going on as it was so quiet — and it was almost always a conversation. Maybe they learned from the mistake and fixed it for rebroadcast on Netflix?

    1. That’s generally true, but their special one-off “ASL Only” episode was not as advertised as explained in the article. Marlee Matlin confirmed it all in a later interview she did on TV.

      We’ve lost interest in the last couple of seasons and removed the show from our DVR carousel of recorded programming — because it’s not really about Deaf kids or Deaf culture any longer. It’s all about the adults and their silly Soap Opera problems.

      1. That’s unfortunate — my mother and stepfather are only in the first season now, and it being about Deaf culture is pretty much the reason they watch.

        1. The early shows are pretty good, but when Bay breaks up with Emmet — the Deaf storyline tanks — and the whole series starts a slow roll downhill. The height of the show was probably the failed “ASL Only” episode and the Gallaudet-like Deaf sit-in at the school. After that, the Hearing actors sign less and less, and Bay really doesn’t even sign cogently anymore. Daphne’s storylines involve her using her voice with Hearing love interests — no Deaf Culture or ASL at all now. The producers totally tanked the one charming part of the show over the last couple of seasons.

  5. I’m watching Season 3 of “Switched at Birth” as reruns on Netflix. Does anyone here know why there are no longer subtitles for the ASL dialogue during this 3rd season? If I add the subtitles from my computer, that blocks the action of the whole show,not just as a minor inconvenient during the signing portions.

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