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Thoughts on the All-ASL Episode of “Switched at Birth”

March 21, 2013

A photo from the episode.

Bay and Emmett conversing.

I recently watched the All-ASL version of Switched at Birth, called “Uprising” for the second time– just a couple of hours before it expired on Hulu and ABC Family websites. I don’t normally watch the program but only because I’m not interested in teen and family relationship dramas— I’m a sci-fi and mystery fan. I don’t really know very much about the who’s who, or the background to the story— only that the two teenage girls, Daphne (deaf, played by a hard of hearing actress, Katie LeClerc) and Bay (hearing, played by Vanessa Marano) were switched in the hospital at birth and their families didn’t find out until they were teenagers.

This episode, “Uprising,” is about the decision to close Carlton School for the Deaf for financial reasons, and the student uprising refers to, and mirrors, the Deaf President Now (DPN) protest at Gallaudet University in 1988. What’s ground-breaking about the episode is it forces hearing people to “walk in our shoes” for an hour because as the two actresses explain in the beginning, after the first scene, there is no voicing, and there’s nothing wrong with the TV set. All hearing, non-signing viewers need to read the captions to understand what’s going on.

Hand-waves to the courage of the producers (seven of them!), director, actors, and all involved. I’m deaf from a hearing family, and I know that the absence of sound on a TV can be nerve-wracking for a hearing person. This was a brave experiment.

You may think that many hearing people watch subtitled foreign language movies, so this isn’t a big deal. But subtitles are very different from captions, because subtitles assume that you can hear the film. You know when the phone rings, or someone knocks on the door, or the police have arrived in siren-screaming cars. We don’t. Those sounds are included in the captions because such environmental noises help to carry the story (as the ending of this episode makes clear).

One of the things that wasn’t clear to me as a deaf viewer, though, was how far the “no vocalization” rule went. For example, Daphne enters the Kennish house to meet with Bay, and without knowing it sets off an alarm. The entire family (all hearing) rushes in upset, looking for what’s wrong, and turns off the alarm. Bay’s brother explains, and the family signs to Daphne, but before that there’s no sound? They are upset and running around and their mouths are moving, and there’s no sound, no voicing? That’s very unnatural. Especially because environmental sounds are included in the production. I know because they are captioned— closed captioned separately from the main captions of the episode. But there were no captions during this scene.

Inconsistencies like this let me know that the production, for all it’s focus on ASL-only, was really for hearing people. If there was no sound, and the scene was shot as a deaf person would experience it, seeing the mouths moving silently, then there wouldn’t be closed-captions for the background sounds. Because there would be no background sound, just silence.

Another thing, one I mentioned in an earlier post, is that in order to follow the story, deaf people also need to be reading the captions, not just watching the signs. The reason we have to read the captions, is that in several scenes the signs would move off-camera, or the focus would be on a reaction shot where we couldn’t see the signs at all. This made it obvious that the episode had a hearing director, and hearing people behind the camera. I read that Marlee Matlin, who has a prominent role as a teacher, was also the director but that was a mistake. The director was Steve Miner, whose credits include many shows I’ve enjoyed. A deaf director wouldn’t have filmed signs off camera, though, because to deaf people communication is the first priority.

One time I watched it, I mostly read it; the other time, I mostly watched the signs. I do read quickly, but it was really hard to take everything in at once, so I’m glad I was able to watch it twice online on Hulu.

One of the things I really liked was that the signs and the English words didn’t always match up exactly— this is how it should be because ASL isn’t the same as English.

I couldn’t find a credit for signmaster for this episode. Mistakes popped up. The signmaster (also known at times as sign language coach or ASL master) functions in part like a editor for a book, to make sure that the best signs and sign phrases are used appropriately for the thought being expressed.

Source: Nancy on Pinterest

Being a writer and editor myself, I know from experience that you often see what you know or expect, rather than what’s there in front of your eyes, like this Pinterest post at right shows. At one point, Principal Rose, played by Carlease Burke, tells someone to call the fire department. I didn’t see the sign for that. Perhaps it was a local sign for “fire department” and one I don’t know. In a different scene, Noah tells Daphne that he’s nervous about kissing her onstage (they are performing Romeo and Juliet) for different reasons including, “our braces could lock up.” Daphne responds that neither of them has braces. Trouble is, I know that from the captions— what I saw Daphne sign was pretty much “we both have braces.” I didn’t see any negation in her sentence. These are the kinds of things, like “clams” that someone closely involved with the show can overlook. Signmasters are vitally important.

One of the issues brought up in the opening scene wasn’t addressed, and I hope they discuss this next season. Bay (hearing) is attending the deaf school, and she signs. She’s dating a hard of hearing signer who also goes to that school. This is part of a pilot program (and sorry, I can’t explain more because I don’t watch the show regularly). She finds out that she’s on what I would call the dean’s list, but it seems to have a different name here. She’s shocked, she never did well in school before. Well, her success is because she’s hearing in a deaf school. It doesn’t mean the deaf students are stupid, but they have had less access to information around them because they don’t overhear things, among many other reasons.

The following episode, called “Introducing the Miracle” did, however, address a different issue. After the protest, a reporter is calling out questions to the students and Bay says something to this effect— you know they are deaf, don’t you? Reporter says, “But you’re not…” and asks a question that Bay answers. Of course, that’s what’s written up in the papers, and Daphne gives Bay a hard time about speaking for them. Bay’s mad, she doesn’t understand, but others tell her Daphne’s right, that deaf people have a long history of hearing people speaking for them.

This episode, the season finale that aired on March 11th (and is on Hulu until 3/25/13), also brings up the idea of hearing students being admitted– up to 50%! When I was researching this post, I saw that on their website, they had (I can’t find it again) a poll asking if Carlton should allow hearing students into the school. I saw the poll before I saw the spring finale and I was thinking it over. I’ve known a lot of Codas— Children of Deaf Adults— and some of them really function better visually. Because their first language is ASL, they learn better visually than aurally, and would be better educated in a deaf environment. But then I saw the finale, and saw that they were talking about up to 50%, non-signing hearing students. Bodies, really, because the school can’t afford to stay open without them. While the deaf students would stay together and not be shipped to different schools, they’d be back in a deaf ghetto, and the hearing students would have the power, their needs would be met first. So I voted, via Twitter, to Keep Carlton Deaf. The last time I saw the poll, though, there were more votes for allowing hearing students into the school than not.

I’m very glad that the decision makers for this show didn’t wrap up the protest story in one episode. These are really deep issues and people need time to wrap their heads around these ideas. Overall, I’m really impressed with the show and think they’ve done a terrific job.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. May 17, 2014 11:54 am

    I couldn’t refrain from commenting. Very well written!

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