Switched at Birth and Deaf Representation

Switched at Birth, a successful ABC family series

Switched at Birth, a successful ABC family series

ABC Family’s Switched at Birth is a great success. With more than two years of airtime, it’s now in its third season, and it seems people are in love with it. The show chronicles the lives of two teenage girls (Daphne, the redhead, and Bay, the dark-haired one) who had been born at the same hospital, and, through one fateful mistake, go home to the wrong family. With one of these girls (Daphne) becoming deaf as a toddler, and later joining the Deaf community, the show is also praised as being a positive representation of Deaf people and Deaf culture.

That’s good, really. When I first saw a preview, I was still quite new to JSL, and was very excited to see how they would deal with the issues of Deafhood and ASL. I barely missed an episode once it started.

I stopped watching the show a while back, though. It has too much (melo)drama for my liking, and I found that my sign language reception was not being challenged by watching it. With the sim-com, and the subtitles, it felt like my brain was being pulled more towards the spoken and written English than the signing. (It’s hard to focus on two languages at a time…)

Anyway, back to the representation of Deaf culture and language. As I said, it is good, and better than much television representation of Deafhood. But, in my opinion, it’s not perfect. Let me share why:

  1. Yes, we all know my big issue with simcom, simultaneous communication, with both sign and voice being used at the same time to communicate. It would be realistic for some of the hearing signers to use this form of communication, especially when there are other hearing people around. But to have all of them do it (almost) all the time? That’s not a good representation of Deaf culture. The danger with that is that it encourages the idea that ASL is not a language on its own. In fact, in one interview, Lucas Gabreel, an actor in the show, actually says that very thing: “It’s English, you know, it’s not like you’re truly learning another language.”

    But it is another language, Lucas; if you are learning ASL. It’s like trying to speak Japanese and Spanish at the same time; they have different structures and syntax. Hearing signers who know enough ASL/JSL know this. A responsible TV show that features Deaf culture should avoid presenting that false picture. Of course, I know it saves them the cost of adding subtitles for all the signers, and it saves viewers the tedium of reading so many subtitles, so I understand that. But still, this takes away from a good representation of Deaf culture.

    Bay and Toby Kennish | These siblings of Daphne almost always speak while signing

    Bay and Toby Kennish | These siblings of Daphne almost always speak while signing

  2. Take a look at this video:

    Do you notice anything about it? In this clip, so critical to expressing ideas of Deaf culture, at times, Melody Bledsoe’s signs aren’t completely visible. The camera zooms in so much that we can’t see them. It’s not a deliberate action, I’m sure, but to me, it seems to suggest a lack of respect for the language of the Deaf; even to the point that a within a Deaf pride discussion, it ends up being cropped out to an extent. Yes, we have subtitles there, but don’t you think the Deaf and hearing signers who watch the show would like to see the signs, just as the hearing people would like the hear the characters’ voices?

    Marlee Matlin, who plays Melody Bledsoe, once said she is glad her character can speak for herself, without an interpreter. I wonder how she feels about her signs being cut off...

    Marlee Matlin, who plays Melody Bledsoe, once said she is glad her character can speak for herself, without an interpreter. I wonder how she feels about her signs being cut off…

  3. Too many Deaf people in the show could read lips pretty well in the first few episodes…. With the addition of others later on, they fixed that, I think. Of course, they wanted to make it easier for things to flow in the show, so this was a nice, easy solution. But it’s unrealistic. Lipreading is not a skill that’s easy to catch, I suspect. It certainly is not one that Emmett, as the Deaf child of Deaf parents, was likely to catch growing up.

    Emmett Bledsoe: photographer, bike rider, and master lipreader.

    Emmett Bledsoe: photographer, biker, and master lipreader.

  4. There are some things that are inaccurate about Deaf culture. In introducing Travis Barnes‘s background, the show takes us, through Daphne’s eyes, into his home. Daphne meets his mother, and is met with the unpleasant surprise that she does not know ASL. From that episode, I think it is easy for the viewer to get the idea that this is rare, that most parents of Deaf learn to sign. Of the few families of the Deaf characters that had been shown up till then, Travis’s is the only non-signing one. Sure, I imagine the show’s story writers wanted to register the shock of how horrible it is, but I think it would have been more responsible to represent the fact of how prevalent this is: “Many hearing parents are unable to communicate clearly and unambiguously with their deaf offspring. They are reluctant to learn sign language because they are denying their child’s deafness, or attempting to mold their child into being normal (i.e. hearing). About 90%of the deaf population has two hearing parents and 88% of those parents do not know sign language.” (Why Parents of Deaf Children Don’t Learn Sign Language)

    Travis Barnes | He is set up as a character who has a lot against him, but pulls through with the help of others.

    Travis Barnes | He is set up as a character who has a lot against him, but pulls through with the help of others.

While the show is not for me, I would not knock anyone for watching it. The awareness of Deaf culture that it has fostered is a very good thing. I know that there are quite a few people who started learning ASL just because it exposure to the show. But I do hope, though, that later television representation of Deafhood is a bit more accurate, and avoid those inadvertent bits of disrespect to the culture. I also hope that viewers are able to see past the mistakes the producers have made.


You didn’t ask, but let me tell you, anyway: When I stopped watching, my favourite character was Bay. Who knew she would become the responsible one? She was selfish and silly, and rude, but she matured more than I expected. It’s like she and Daphne switched places… (Looks like ‘switching’ is a kind of a theme for this show, huh?)

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