Brow Beat

Switched at Birth Does an All-Sign-Language Episode—and It’s Terrific

Katie LeClerc in Switched at Birth.

ABC Family.

I’ve been a fan of ABC Family’s Switched at Birth since the show’s early days. Nevertheless, episodes often accumulate unwatched on my DVR, because I don’t feel prepared to make the commitment the show requires. It’s not that the plotting is twisty or complicated, it’s that the cast includes several deaf characters who communicate in American Sign Language. And since Switched at Birth doesn’t cheat and have hearing actors magically translate the ASL even though they’re not even looking at the person signing—as happened on the Feb. 25 episode of 2 Broke Girls and many other less fastidious shows—viewers who don’t know ASL have to read subtitles to follow the dialogue.

That’s no problem—unless you’re accustomed to tweeting, emailing, and generally multitasking while watching television. As Emily Nussbaum put it in an appreciation in The New Yorker, the ASL sections make Switched at Birth “a show that can’t be skimmed: in extended scenes among deaf characters, whole minutes elapse, submerging the audience in a world that feels intimate and alive, rich with grimaces, grins, and other physical nuances we’d usually ignore.”

On Monday, March 4, leave your phone, tablet, and laptop in the other room, because Switched at Birth is doing an all-ASL episode, in which the students at the destined-for-closure Carlton School for the Deaf stage a protest inspired by Gallaudet University’s 1988 “Deaf President Now” standoff. Well, there’s dialogue in the first two minutes, and in the final few seconds, but for the rest of the hour there is no vocalization whatsoever—even the background music drops out for minutes at a time.

Apparently, ABC Family worried that some viewers would conclude that their televisions were on the blink, so the show’s two lead actresses, Katie Leclerc and Vanessa Marano, make an appearance before the episode to reassure them, “There is nothing wrong with your TV.”

In this pre-show message, the actresses sign and speak aloud, and some viewers may be surprised to hear Katie Leclerc’s “real” speaking voice. In Switched at Birth, she plays Daphne Vasquez, who lost her hearing at the age of 3 when she contracted meningitis. Although Daphne is profoundly deaf, she reads lips and is able—and willing—to use spoken English, which she speaks with a “deaf accent” that the actress who plays her doesn’t share.

Leclerc has Ménière’s disease, a problem with fluid retention in the inner ear, which leads to fluctuating hearing loss. “Sometimes I hear fine, sometimes it’s completely nonexistent,” she told me. Leclerc learned sign language in high school, when she needed a foreign language to graduate. “At the time, I had no idea that I had Ménière’s disease. I had no association with deaf culture. It was an elective that the school offered. But apparently I was supposed to be involved with this world and this culture.”

Leclerc thinks of Daphne’s speaking voice as being like any other accent, but rather than working with a dialect coach, she researched it with the help of her sister, an ASL teacher who also has Ménière’s. “She and I sat down, and we pulled out an audiogram, and we mapped out Daphne’s specific hearing loss and chose sounds that she could say and couldn’t say based on her exact hearing loss,” Leclerc told me. “It’s a very specific choice. From there, I just made my family crazy and spoke with the accent for two months until I felt I could do it.” When the show goes on hiatus, and she goes months without using Daphne’s voice, Leclerc pulls out the audiogram again and studies it until the accent becomes second nature.

Although Leclerc is fluent in sign language, the all-ASL episode brought another challenge, since it includes scenes from Carlton’s production of Romeo and Juliet. “So, in addition to speaking two languages at the same time—spoken English and American Sign Language—Daphne is doing Shakespearean English. That’s three different languages in my head at the same time!”

Thanks to the switch in the show’s title, Daphne’s birth parents only recently learned that they have a deaf daughter. Consequently, their signing is a fairly rudimentary. Leclerc says that Lea Thompson, who plays Kathryn Kennish, Daphne’s birth mother, has an interesting approach to her ASL scenes. “We have an ASL master on set, who’s there to teach anyone who has sign-language scenes all the words they need to know. But Lea thinks Kathryn would learn her sign language from Daphne, so she comes in and goes, ‘All right, Katie, let’s do this,’ And I teach her the signs for the scene. Obviously, the master is there, overseeing it, but we learn from each other. She learns right then, 15 minutes before the scene happens.” Compared with that frantic preparation for work, reading a few subtitles doesn’t seem so hard.