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April 11, 2017

A New Language

Switched at Birth broke the mold - for the network and for TV as a whole - when it introduced main characters who are deaf, and dared to be silent with scenes done entirely in American Sign Language.

Juli Schafer
  • Freeform
  • Lizzy Weiss

  • Freeform
  • Freeform
  • Freeform

Every family has its issues.

But, for the Kennish and Vasquez families, those issues are a bit more complex. 

Switched at Birth, created and written by Lizzy Weiss, centers on two teenage girls who were raised by the others’ biological parents.

After taking a blood test during anatomy class, Bay Kennish (Vanessa Marano) learns that she has a different blood type from her parents, John and Kathryn Kennish (Lea Thompson and D. W. Moffett), who innocently dismiss it as a mistake. However, after undergoing genetic testing, it’s revealed that the actual mistake occurred at the hospital when two girls were born and sent home with the wrong parents.

The Kennishes quickly find their biological daughter, Daphne (Katie Leclerc), and Bay’s biological mother, Regina (Constance Marie).

Bay Kennish and Daphne Paloma Vasquez grew up in very different environments: Bay was raised in an affluent neighborhood with wealthy parents, while Daphne, who is completely deaf, spent her childhood with a single mom in a low-income part of town.

Switched at Birth broke the mold - for the network and for TV as a whole - when it introduced main characters who are deaf, and dared to be silent with scenes done entirely in American Sign Language. “I don’t know of any other show that is bilingual in terms of sign language,” says Weiss, who gives a lot of credit to the network.

“They said, ‘what if one of the girls was in some way disabled so that the wealthy family felt even more distant and angry and frustrated that they didn’t get to raise her in case they could do something to make her better?”

Weiss took a theater class in college that incorporated sign language during her freshman year at Duke University and developed a love for the language. “So I said what if she’s deaf? I thought it would be cool to use sign language.” The network loved it and the show had wings.

“I started really small... the pilot had just one scene that was ASL-only between Daphne and her best friend Emmett, and then we just grew and grew and grew during the first season to add more sign language and we learned that the audience could not only take it, but they loved and enjoyed it!”

Katie Leclerc plays the completely deaf Daphne. Leclerc is hard of hearing and learned ASL at age 17, before she was diagnosed at age 20 with Ménière's disease. She developed a deaf accent for her role as Daphne.

Emmett Bledsoe is another main character, played by Sean Berdy who is completely deaf, and ASL is his native language. When Bay’s brother Toby (Lucas Grabeel) meets Emmett, he fuels the ignorance of deaf perception by looking at Daphne and talking about Emmett in the third person. “He doesn’t talk?”

“Not orally,” says Daphne.  Clearly offended, Emmett fires back by in ASL, “Ask him why he doesn’t sign.”

Daphne explains that every deaf person decides to speak in the way that they are comfortable, verbally or sign or both, and it usually depends on when hearing loss occurred.

Weiss is very proud of the show and its unique story. “We are a totally bilingual set. Every deaf actor gets their own interpreter. We have a sign language master to make sure every sign in every take is done correctly, or if a hearing actor who isn’t fluent, but who’s supposed to be has a question, they can ask. It’s a real integral part of our show.”

“We did an all ASL episode that had never been tried on TV before. The first scene and the last scene have verbal dialogue and everything in the middle is sign and caption only, so the viewer is thrown into the concept of being a deaf person in a hearing world.”

One of Weiss’ biggest achievements from the show was to give viewers exposure to and education in deaf culture. Weiss notes that being deaf is viewed as a disability, but the deaf community sees hearing loss as deaf gain and celebrates their community. Weiss brings this to light four minutes into the pilot and, of course, it is the major focus of the show.

Weiss “loves creating a meaty stories.” Pun intended. Daphne is a vegetarian and her biological father, John Kennish, is a gun-toting hunter. “I created his character to be a Republican NRA member. I always want to do something I haven’t done before.”

John Kennish treats deafness as a disease. He and his wife are completely uneducated about deaf culture. Bay calls her parents allergic to the truth.

In the first episode, Daphne’s mother, Regina, argues with John, Daphne's biological father, when he offers to pay for cochlear implants. “If I had wanted it, I would have found a way to pay for it,” says Regina. “Implants rewire the brain to work electronically. Daphne is comfortable being deaf. She likes it.” 

“Nobody likes being deaf,” says John.

Early in the first season, Kennish visits Daphne’s school for the deaf to entice her to transfer to Bay’s prestigious private school.

“I don’t think isolating yourself in a deaf bubble is a good idea. I think you should go to a regular school with regular kinds.” D.W. Moffett who plays Kennish delivers this thought-provoking, cringe worthy message.  Daphne has no desire to leave her friends, and her school, but she agrees to take a tour to appease her father.

“I read on social media literally every single day that the show is about disability, and I hope that we gave a new perspective on it,” says Weiss. “One thing I learned about very quickly was something called deaf gain. Hearing people say, ‘hearing loss’ implying that it’s so sad that they can’t hear. But most deaf people like being deaf, they celebrate the culture they have, the unique language they have.”

Marlee Matlin has a recurring role on the show as Daphne’s guidance counselor and Emmett’s mom. Matlin was shown a screening of the pilot to get her opinion and to Weiss’ great surprise, Matlin immediately wanted to be part of the show.

Weiss was thrilled and re-wrote Emmett’s story line to make Matlin his deaf mom. “It was incredible that she not only said the show pilot was incredible, and that she wanted in, but that the show was ground-breaking for her because no one spoke for her. We captioned her lines. There wasn‘t a hearing person speaking for her.”

Weiss gets daily tweets from people who have decided to become an ASL interpreter as a result of this show.

“We have heard that in community colleges and high schools all over America, students have petitioned the administrations to get sign language approved as their second language. ‘This is the language I am interested in. Can we get a sign language class? I want to take this instead French or Spanish.’ So it has created a new interest in this language! I am very proud of that.”

Another important topic for Weiss was tackling college campus assault in season four.

“It seemed to be happening everywhere. I think we are the only show on TV with two college-age women as protagonists. How can we not do the number one topic happening is college discussion right now?” Weiss goes further. “When I went to Duke, the concept was ‘No means no’ but this generation has a totally different concept of assault which is ‘Yes means yes.’  You must get a yes. We laser-focused on ‘Is a drunk yes good enough?’ and the answer was no.”

And for Weiss, tackling those “big, meaty topics” did not go unnoticed.

In 2012, Weiss won the Gracie Allen Award for Outstanding Producer for Switched at Birth

The show’s exploration of nature vs. nurture, family, identity and class also earned Weiss the distinguished Peabody Award. Weiss was thrilled.

“It was amazing and it was a total surprise! Our all-ASL episode hadn’t even been shown yet. I think I said in my acceptance speech that the two most gratifying things a writer can get are the Peabody and people telling me that it has changed the lives of their kids...getting to see people like them on TV as the protagonist. Not just people who are deaf, but who get to see a main character who is different.”

Weiss tells us fans will get closure during the series finale that airs tonight, April 11,  on Freeform. “It’s been a big, emotional part of my life. The cast is incredibly close. We all know how rare it is to get a show that lasts this long.”



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