This week, ABC Family took the bold step of airing an episode of the drama Switched at Birth entirely in sign language. Though it ran with captioning, the network also added a pre-show message to explain what was going on so viewers wouldn't think there was something wrong with their televisions.
As the title suggests, the show is about two teenage girls who discover that they were switched at birth. Daphne has grown up as the daughter of a Latina single mother, while Bay was raised white in an environment of moneyed privilege. The differences between them and the discovery of the mix-up provide fertile ground for the show's nuanced exploration of identity, but the most interesting thread comes from the fact that Daphne is deaf.
Daphne goes to a deaf school, and the sign language episode deals with a campus uprising caused by the announcement that the school will close and the students will be switched into mainstream schools. Jace Lacob, writing at The Daily Beast, notes that the episode aired almost 25 years to the day after a real student uprising at Gallaudet University galvanized a deaf political movement.
For the deaf community, the Gallaudet University students' uprising was a metaphorical crossing of the Rubicon, just as vital and significant as Stonewall or Rosa Parks. It was a momentous act of revolution that has remained a critical cultural and social touchstone, reaffirming deaf identity, culture, and pride.
In 1988, Gallaudet, the world's first higher educational institution for the deaf and hard of hearing, had just announced as its seventh president yet another hearing appointee. Elizabeth Zinser, assistant chancellor at University of North Carolina at Greensboro, had been the only hearing candidate for the job. Jane Bassett Spilman — chairwoman of Gallaudet's board of trustees, largely made up of hearing individuals — announced Zinser's appointment and defended the board's decision by allegedly saying, "The deaf are not yet ready to function in the hearing world." [Daily Beast]
The resulting protest shut down the school and received national attention, forcing Zinser's resignation, and ending with the appointment of Gallaudet's first deaf president.
Americans generally do not like having to read subtitles, so sign language scenes in movies and TV shows will have a speaking person quasi-interpreting or responding to the signing in a way that repeats the thread of the conversation. Switched at Birth was taking a risk with such a long stretch of silent, captioned primetime signing. Some viewers complained. The first comment on this Slate article about the episode reads:
After watching most of the show, I have to say, I turned it off feeling very frustrated. Because I don't read sign language, I had to read the captions which then kept me from watching the actual happenings in that scene. By the time I read the caption, they were on to the next "speaker" so I found myself doing nothing but reading. [Slate]
Another commenter responded, "now you know what it's like for a deaf person to watch TV."
At the New York Times' Media Decoder blog, Brian Stelter reports that the episode didn't seem to affect ratings one way or the other. That's encouraging news for a show that so deftly deals with the full complexity of a unique American community. Let's hope it continues to take risks that may make people a little uncomfortable in the name of building understanding. As Lacob says, "What we're seeing on screen — within the confines of a teen drama, no less — is an engaged exploration of a culture and a civil rights movement brought to life with all of the color and passion it deserves."