"Switched at Birth" breaks the mold in depiction of deaf characters
When I was a teenager, the only shows on television that featured people like me in key roles either were on PBS, or were one of the special episodes of 7th Heaven.
When I say “people like me,” I mean blind or Deaf children. Growing up in the 1990s with a disability wasn’t always easy. We were told over and over again that we could do anything we ever wanted—even though just driving a car is something entirely outside of my grasp—but there were few role models to look to for any kind of proof.
It matters where that representation came from because PBS was meant to be educational, and 7th Heaven was meant to inspire and to teach moral codes. In these cases, disabled characters became lessons rather than representations as fully actualized people with highs and lows and personalities.
For years I searched for characters who shared the life experiences I did. I never found any. Until the last few years.
Enter Switched at Birth, a show centering around two teenage girls, one of whom is Deaf.
When I first heard about the show I dismissed it, thinking that a show produced by ABC Family wouldn’t get disability or the culture of Deafness right. They do soaps. They had been associated with The Secret Life of the American Teenager, which had the same producer as 7th Heaven and thus the same “after-school special” relationship with disability. It was hard for me to believe that they would show the challenges of disability, or the fact that many of us do not want a cure to our physical disabilities.
I was shocked when the show I ended up watching was one I related to. In the first season, Daphne (the Deaf character, played by Katie Leclerc, who has hearing loss similar to mine) has to explain to her hearing parents by birth why she doesn’t want cochlear implants—and the show does a great job in later seasons of showing what it is like to get cochlears.
This is just one of the many examples of why I wish a show like this had been on TV when I was a young person.
Of course it has its pitfalls—anything about people with disabilities on television has to learn how to skirt inspirationality and get straight to the heart of the reality of things.
However, representation is important, and Switched at Birth provides that even at its least effective. One example that I think is worth discussing is the trip to Mexico in Season 4. Daphne goes with a program to fit and hand out hearing aids to underprivileged children in Mexico. The episode shows how good everyone is for spending their time helping children hear—and while countries with poverty are not great places for children with disabilities to grow up, the saintliness of people going to help them is questionable.
Representation is important not just because different stories are more interesting, but because even as a grownup, seeing people like you represented in the cultural dialogue matters, and knowing that you fit somewhere is remarkably valuable.
My favorite moment in Switched at Birth came during the second season, when young Deaf students protest to keep their school open. It’s a beautiful episode—done exclusively in sign language with no auditory lines, and it brought tears to my eyes. It’s rare to see American Sign Language as the primary language on any piece of media, certainly even rarer for it to be in the mainstream.
I can’t imagine what it must be like to be a young woman with a disability, with the ability to see role models like this in action—people who care about their disabled community, standing up and saying not only that disability matters, but that disabled spaces matter. It was powerful to see it not just because mainstream television was showing radical disability politics, but because the actual actions on the screen mattered. When I was growing up, there wasn’t anybody telling me I had a right to space where I was seen as an integral member of the community. Having a disabled body was an inconvenience, at least in some places, ignored because it was easier than outright accommodating me.
Role models like Daphne and the other Deaf kids on the show also give young people with disabilities the experience of seeing people with disabilities having normal teen experiences, from dating, to sex, to admission of serious emotional experiences (one young Deaf boy in the show talks about sexual abuse—a first on television that I’ve seen).
This normalizes disability in a new and important way—no longer are disabled characters on television for an afternoon, a blip on the radar of the history of a story. Disabled actors aren’t relegated to being an after-school special moment, meant to inspire able-bodied people to be helpful, or to feel lucky for having been born in the ”right” body. These kinds of portrayals also pull disabled bodies out of isolation, removing them from the singular instance of contact and placing them into the landscape of the viewer. An entire teen soap opera that revolves around disability at its core is amazing to see precisely because it depicts more than just disability; it depicts the reality of being a disabled kid in high school, a disabled young adult in college—the realities of interacting with an able-bodied world and finding the best way to fit in.
Fitting in isn’t really the goal though, nor is assimilation. The goal is equal representation. The goal is being able to be comfortable in a world that isn’t yet fully comfortable with us. Disability is still something that makes nondisabled people uncomfortable—people don’t want to talk about it, don’t want to be anything but overly helpful to us, or see us as a burden on society.
Shows like Switched at Birth don’t just help young disabled people experience themselves on a television screen, but they help able-bodied people look beyond the inspiration and into what it might be like, just for a moment, to live in the world of disability.
The next—and final—season of Switched at Birth premiers next month. What makes the upcoming season so exciting is that the show is going into unknown territory for viewers—we’re not just watching what it’s like to be a teenager with a disability, now we get to watch Daphne and her peers learn how to grow up. Now we’re going to watch as disabled people grow into adulthood.
I hope they’ll tackle things like how hard it is for young disabled adults to get the hearing aids and services that they need—the support systems keeping us afloat in early college are stripped away, and learning new systems comes into play.
I look forward to watching this season, and I hope the dialogue around disability in media continues an upward swing.
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