Switched at Birth, Will They Go THERE?

I have no business watching Switched at Birth, and probably shouldn’t even admit to it.

First of all it’s on ABC-Family. Second, it’s geared toward teens. Third, the premise is ridiculous, not so much the switched-at-birth part, as how the families handle the news. Once the wealthy Kennishes find out that 16-year old Daphne Vasquez is their biological daughter, they invite the working-class Vasquez family to move into their guest house. And hilarity ensues.

Only it doesn’t. The idea may be outlandish, but they run with it in a number of unexpected ways. While the show at times comes dangerously close to soap opera, the characters remain realistic. Perfect Daphne isn’t always so perfect, and Bay Kennish – the girl who would have been Daphne – while sometimes spoiled, is never mean, and understands too well all the ironies of her situation. The Kennishes are hardly perfect parents. In season one they are blissfully unaware that son Toby has a serious gambling addiction or that Bay is constantly sneaking out to do “street art.” Even the generally “good” teenagers engage in the types of behaviors teenagers engage in – drinking and other less than legal activities, and they act like teens – impulsive, not always exercising the best judgment, occasionally lying to adults, etc.

But Switched at Birth is more than simply a well-written show about growing up. There’s one thing about Switched at Birth that makes it not just different, but close to revolutionary. Daphne had meningitis when she was three-years old which left her deaf. She goes to a “deaf-school.” While she reads lips remarkably well and speaks with an accent that might be mistaken for Swedish, she prefers to sign. Her switched-mother, Regina learned to sign when Daphne was a child. Regina’s best friend, Melody is a strong, proud deaf woman, played by Marlee Matlan, and Melody’s son, Emmet, Daphne’s best friend, is also deaf.

When John Kennish, Daphne’s new-found biological father first meets his daughter, he offers to pay for a cochlear implant, a suggestion met with anger and resentment from Regina who does not feel that her daughter needs to be “fixed,” and wants Daphne to be comfortable being who she is. Daphne finally tells John she’ll think about it, but it seems more like she’s trying to be agreeable than like it’s something she’s interested in. What she’s not interested in is transferring from her deaf public school to the fancy private school where the Kennishes send Bay and Toby.

Deaf culture is in the forefront of the show, and an upcoming episode airing March 4th will be told entirely in sign language, from the point of view of the deaf students at Daphne’s school. The cultural clash between deaf and hearing has been explored in numerous ways. During the first season, Daphne’s biological family, as well as Bay all begin to learn ASL with varying degrees of proficiency. Bay starts to date Emmett, a development his deaf mother is not thrilled with. She becomes increasingly immersed in deaf-culture, and during season two transfers to a pilot program for hearing kids at the deaf school, where she is (realistically) not exactly greeted with open arms.

While the show sometimes portrays hearing people as ignorant of deaf culture and oblivious to their own rudeness and prejudices, it also gives characters the opportunity to grow and learn. The show has proved popular with both a deaf and hearing audience and gently teaches hearing people things they might have known about deaf people. It also realistically shows that being deaf in a hearing world is not always easy, even for deaf people who can speak and lip-read as well as Daphne. During season one, when taking a culinary class with hearing students, Daphne started a fire because she didn’t hear the alarm. Emmet got arrested – for a typical teen infraction – but almost wound up getting shot because he couldn’t communicate with the police who immediately handcuffed him. This season, Daphne couldn’t find a culinary internship until her well-connected biological mother pulled some strings, and then the chef wouldn’t let her do much because of safety concerns. Even worse, Regina, with whom Daphne has always been close, now has serious nerve damage in her wrists and hands. Among the many things she can no longer do is signing. While Regina will be able to understand Daphne, Daphne will need to read Regina’s lips, making their previously easy communication difficult.

In an interesting development in last week’s episode (Episode 5, Season II), Daphne tells Emmet that she kissed Travis – one of their schoolmates, but she really wasn’t sure how she felt about him. Typical teenage banter, except Emmet makes a cutting observation. Daphne isn’t into deaf boys. All her boyfriends have been hearing. He goes through the list. Daphne seems genuinely surprised and becomes a bit defensive. In a later scene, she and Travis are alone working in a food truck in a not great neighborhood. Travis leaves for a minute when he sees a man selling roses. He wants to surprise Daphne with one. When he comes back, Daphne has been robbed by customers they’d seen earlier, and Daphne knows they were targeted because they were “two deaf kids.”

Could all these incidents be leading to a real game-changer? Nobody has brought up the words cochlear-implant since season one. Given the show’s fiercely pro-deaf-culture stance, and the resistance to cochlear-implants within that community, it would be interesting to see the pragmatic Daphne weighing her options and reconsidering John’s offer. Unlike Emmett, she wasn’t born deaf and isn’t from a deaf family. She had early exposure to both hearing and speech. Hearing and speaking would make communication with both her biological and switched families easier, and she is beginning to understand the limits of living in what characters have referred to as the “deaf bubble.”

If they did go there, how would deaf fans feel? Having very little first-hand experience of deaf-culture, I’ve been surfing the net and noticing the strong interest in the show from young deaf people who have cochlear implants as well as those who don’t, also hearing teens, and other people old enough to know better, like me. On several websites fans with implants have longed to see a character with an implant relating to other deaf and hearing characters.

Possibly, Switched at Birth won’t do anything as controversial as having Daphne decide to get an implant, but another character might. This season they’ve introduced Noah, a hearing student also in the pilot program, and a possible new love interest for Bay. Noah’s recently revealed dark secret is that he suffers from Ménière’s disease and is going deaf – a prospect which terrifies him. Certainly, a real-life Noah would at least consider getting an implant rather than learning to both sign and lip-read as an adult.

For hearing people, watching Switiched at Birth is a bit like getting hooked on Destinos or French in Action. The show itself is entertaining, and while you won’t learn more than a few phrases in ASL, you’ll at least be introduced to a different language and culture.

If you want to give it a try or catch up, all episodes up to the last one can be found (free and legally) here.