TCA: 'Switched at Birth' goes deeper into deaf culture

2013-01-12T19:00:00Z 2013-02-27T14:12:56Z TCA: 'Switched at Birth' goes deeper into deaf cultureBy Gail Pennington gpennington@post-dispatch.com stltoday.com

Watching Marlee Matlin speak is enthralling, informative and endlessly entertaining. Matlin's hands fly in American Sign Language, while her face adds emphasis and her interpreter, Jack Jason, speaks her words.

On a set visit to ABC Family's "Switched at Birth," in which Matlin, who is deaf, plays a teacher at a deaf school, visiting TV critics first watched Matlin in a scene, directed by "Growing Pains" veteran Joanna Kerns, and then gathered in the Kennish family's living room. There, Matlin answered questions about everything from her bad habits ("I swear a lot," she said) to what she loves about "Switched at Birth," the ABC Family hit in which two teenage girls discover that were switched in the hospital,

One of those girls, Daphne (Katie Leclerk), is deaf. The other, Bay (Vanessa Marano), is hearing. In two seasons, with Daphne's single mom (Constance Marie) and Bay's parents (Lea Thompson and D.W. Moffett) and brother (Lucas Grabeel), the girls have become family to each other.

Producers set out from the beginning to use “Switched at Birth” to open a window to deaf culture for hearing people who might know nothing about it and could see deafness as a handicap. ("Don't say hearing impaired," Sean Berdy (Emmitt) told one interviewer through his interpreter. "Say deaf. Don't worry about it; it's not your fault. I just wanted to clear that up.")

To that end, the second half of Season 2, now ongoing, will include an episode done entirely in American Sign Language (ASL). The episode, which ABC Family calls a first for a scripted series on mainstream television, will air at 7 p.m. Monday, March 4.

"The special episode will be told from the perspective of the series’ multiple deaf characters – with open captions for hearing viewers – in a storyline that puts the audience in the middle of a student uprising in which the very essence of their deaf identity is at stake," the network said in making the announcement, adding that “Switched at Birth” is "the first mainstream television series to have multiple deaf and hard-of-hearing series regulars and scenes shot entirely in ASL."

Creator and executive producer Lizzy Weiss said:

"I've been wanting to do an all-ASL episode since the series began, and the story line we've been focusing on this season gave us the perfect opportunity. It's an exciting, visual, empowering story of kids who are different fighting back, and it allows our audience to experience the world as our deaf characters do. We've been building to this for 39 episodes and we're all thrilled to be the first to try this."

The story line finds Bay transferring from her school to Daphne's school, which will now admit a few hearing students in a pilot program. Controversy ensues.

Meanwhile, other "Switched" cast members say they've loved learning ASL. At lunch, Lucas Grabeel, a Missouri native and veteran of "High School Musical," showed some of his favorite signs and explained how people from different regions have ASL "accents" and use slang expressions.

Gail Pennington is the TV critic for the Post-Dispatch. Follow her at stltoday.com/tubetalk, @GailPennington on Twitter and facebook.com/tubetalkPD.

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Gail Pennington

Gail Pennington

Post-Dispatch television critic Gail Pennington watches bad TV so you don't have to. Visit Tube Talk for news, schmooze and occasional rants about everything television.

Every Monday, watch for Gail's Tube Talk video report. And find more news from Gail at facebook.com/tubetalkpd and twitter.com/gailpennington.