Katie Leclerc, Vanessa Marano and more stars of acclaimed ABC Family series Switched at Birth helped kick off the Television Academy Diversity Committee's new year of events.
There is a saying in the deaf community that, “The only thing deaf people can’t do is hear.”
Since last June, the ABC Family teen drama series Switched at Birth has been living up to that statement, dispelling stereotypes and clichés in its story of two teenage girls, one hard of hearing, who discover they were accidentally switched as newborns in the hospital.
Deaf characters not only encounter the same life experiences as anyone else, but interact with each other and their hearing families and friends, using either American Sign Language (ASL) or SimCom – simultaneous communication, speaking and signing; in scenes solely between deaf characters, subtitles for viewers replace spoken dialogue.
On February 15, the Television Academy’s Diversity Committee hosted its first event of 2012 with a panel of cast and creative team members from the show.
Gathered at the Academy Conference Centre were creator-executive producer Lizzy Weiss; executive producer Paul Stupin; Katie Leclerc (switched teen Daphne Vasquez, who suffered hearing loss at age three due to meningitis); Vanessa Marano (switched teen Bay Kennish); Constance Marie (mom Regina Vasquez); D.W. Moffett (dad John Kennish); Sean Berdy (Daphne’s friend Emmett Bledsoe, who, like Berdy, is deaf) and Lucas Grabeel (Bay’s brother Toby).
Jace Lacob, television columnist for The Daily Beast and Newsweek, moderated; Marlee Matlin, who plays Emmett’s mother Melody, gave a pre-recorded video message.
The show’s deaf element came secondarily, Weiss recounted, after a conversation with the network. “I felt the [initial] concept was pretty rich in itself, with a lot of stories to tell. We talked after the first outline about how to raise the stakes even more. I’d taken classical theater for the deaf – that’s how I learned how beautiful the language was.”
She suggested that one of the girls be deaf; after visiting the Marlton School, LAUSD’s school for the deaf and hard of hearing, and speaking to students and teachers, she told ABC Family there had to be scenes communicated without sound. Much to her shock, the network agreed – and also concurred that deaf actors should be cast to portray deaf characters.
Matlin said she was “amazed” when she viewed the pilot; she was asked later to join the cast. “For the first time in my career, I didn’t have to think about how I would be translated,” she signed, as subtitles rolled. “I was able to speak for myself.”
For her TV son, the show is “truly authentic, truly represents many scenarios I’ve seen in my life,” Berdy said using ASL, voiced by his interpreter. “To be able to express myself in my own language is a blessing. It’s been a treat and a challenge [to do so] with the hearing actors and deaf actors.”
For Leclerc, who is hard of hearing but voices fluently, “My favorite thing about Daphne is that she’s a normal high school girl,” she said. “She struggles with boys and teachers and loves both parents and oh, by the way, she happens to be deaf. She’s a full-rounded, dynamic character.”
The hearing actors have all learned ASL, as have many of the crew; Marie worked so hard that she ended up with tendonitis, and has even had dreams in sign language.
Marano, who talks very quickly, has had to learn to speak slower, while Grabeel has had to keep himself from using signs that his character wouldn’t have yet learned. And for scenes without signing, Marano said, she now has to consciously keep her hand movements in check, something she never had a problem with before.
The audience has been receptive beyond expectation; Switched at Birth garnered the highest ratings ever for an ABC Family series debut, and later received a first-season order for 22 more episodes beyond its original ten.
On Twitter, Marie said, “One of the great things I’ve seen from our fans is that they’re petitioning their high schools and colleges to have ASL classes. And they’re pausing their DVRs to learn [signs].”
Future storylines, Weiss said, will deal with such issues as cochlear implants and hearing children of deaf parents.
Sharon Liggins and Benito Martinez co-chair the Academy’s Diversity Committee.