Jun 25, 2013

ABCFamily's "Switched At Birth Celebrates 25th Anniversary of "Deaf President Now"

NOTE: This was originally posted by myself on Pop-Topia on March 5th 2013. I am now posting it on my own site as well.
Today marks the 25th anniversary of student protests at Gallaudet University, a school for the Deaf & Hard of Hearing, where the deaf students were furious when once again, a hearing person was appointed president of the university, despite petitions and the clear request on the behalf of the students and many of the staff.  When the only hearing person out of the three candidates was named President, the students and some of the staff pushed back. They locked down the school, gated off the property with heavy duty bike locks, and refused to allow anyone in.  And thus began what would come to be known as “Deaf President Now”.

NOTE: Video below may take a few seconds to fully load up and be viewable. Please be patient.


The students lived there at the University for seven days as they insisted on several demands, all of which would eventually be met, including the appointment of a Deaf President, and no retribution against the students and staff. You can read more about this groundbreaking moment in history by clicking this link.

That historic event presents the context for this special episode of Switched At Birth, which airs on ABC Family, and which had the entire episode conducted in ASL (American Sign Language). Now I’ve never seen the show before, or even heard of it until the press pieces about this unique episode in the past week.

I was intrigued about it because of my connection, albeit limited, to sign language and the deaf community.I picked up some sign language back when I was in Virginia and went to a sort of technical school. I lived there on what was laid out sort of like a college campus, and because I snored so loud, I was moved to a “deaf suite” which had nothing but deaf people there.  Yeah, I know, I realize how funny that is. While there, I made some excellent friends and picked up on some basic sign language.  And since then, I've always seemed to be interested in the deaf community as well as issues that affect them, which is why I was interested in this series.

Having said that, due to my not being fluent in sign language, if it weren’t for the subtitles I’d have been lost completely. I could pick up words and phrases here and there, but 99% of the time I had to rely on the subtitles. And that is where the conceit for this kinda falls away. It’s like one of those reality type shows that uses Hollywood makeup to make a white person black for a day so they can experience prejudice and racism and whatnot. That’s all well and good, I suppose, but at the end of that day, the white person will go back to their privileged life (that they aren’t even aware of how privileged they are), and can brush off any unfortunate incidents that occurred, because they’ll never have to deal with that again.


Here, yes we get that glimpse into being surrounded by people and not really being able to interact and communicate (presuming we were someone in that world of the show), however we have a cheat: the subtitles. So that lessens the impact, I think, although it is a necessary element because a show is not going to be broadcast entirely in ASL with no subtitles for the audience, I’d wager a vast majority of which know nothing of sign language.

The main storyline of the episode centers around the deaf students at the school who are upset that their school, Carlton, is going to be closing, and they are going to be transferred to “mainstream” schools, where they will be at a serious disadvantage. There are also some who feel that they are not being given the appropriate amount of attention, due to there being hearing people there which breeds animosity.
Many of the kids feel like they are afterthoughts, and that their thoughts on the situation do not matter.

They’ve spent time in “hearing schools”, being the outsider. Not being able to fully communicate with everyone that they come across. They’re at a severe disadvantage and a great point was made by one of the students: They’ll (hearing people) never understand. You can tell someone something, you can try to do your best to eloquently explain just what the situation is, but that person will never be able to fully appreciate it until they’ve “walked a mile in your shoes”, as Marlee Matlin’s character mentioned.

Which I think this episode is a really intriguing way to address that. Here you have many people watching this who perhaps their only exposure to the hearing impaired is from this very show. And in this episode, after the 1st scene (which had ASL along with dialogue) there’s no vocalization. No one speaks, it’s all 100% sign language. Thus putting the audience in the shoes, albeit limited and temporarily so, of those who are deaf and hard of hearing.

There was one added aspect to this that impressed me as to how far they were going with this. They dropped ALL vocal tracks, aside from the isolated music track once one of the character’s hearing aid went out. So while you see some of the hearing actor’s lips moving as they sign, you hear NOTHING. No wind, no birds, no insects, no footsteps, nothing. You have total silence, aside from the occasional score or song, which admittedly was a bit distracting when it would come in out of the blue.

I would have liked to have seen it go without it at all, and eventually as I was watching, I wanted to turn it down all the way, but I didn’t know if the rest of the show would include audio so I left it alone. Turns out, that was a wise move as the last few seconds brought the sound back in a very effective manner. That aspect though (minus the score) would give a hearing person at least a glimpse into the life of someone who could not hear.

There was a particularly effective scene, I feel, when one of the characters, late at night, went to meet someone in the kitchen and they accidentally set off the alarm. So they’re there in the near dark, and suddenly all these people are running through the kitchen frantically, and you see her standing there confused, and not a little afraid, not sure what was going on, until someone tips her off, after turning the alarm off, to what happened. It’s little touches like this that really make this episode stand out and perhaps gives a sliver of a hint as to what it might be like.

So while the kids are discussing the fun times they’ve had at the school, they come upon a plan to, in a nod to the Gallaudet protests 25 years before, to basically take the school back, and to force change. Or as one of the students put it, “Occupy Carlton”.

And I admit at first I was disappointed with how the protests began, because the kids seemed to be more interested in having fun and tweeting out drunken pictures and whatnot, and I thought this would be a horrible way to commemorate such an historic event as the Gallaudet protests. And then suddenly, things change, and you see someone stand up and take charge and explain that there were too many individual messages going out, and their messages weren’t uniform.

They hadn’t really defined their message, and since they were trying to win over the public and the school board, tweeting out pictures of them with beer wasn’t going to cut it. One of the girls stood up and demanded everyone turn over their phones, iPads, etc, so that there would only be one message being broadcast, and that was one of solidarity and cohesion.

And at that point, it really began to take shape and things veered back into an intriguing area again. This also did not sit well with a couple of the students who didn’t want to give up their electronics, and wasn’t looking to be told what to do so by someone else. So they left, and in an unfortunate situation that potentially could cause some problems for the protestors, went outside and as he was leaving, signed to the reporters, and teachers that those inside were “acting militant” and “trying to take away our phones”.

It was a moment of arrogance and pettiness, that could potentially cause the authorities on the outside to think that the situation was more violent than it truly was. Another worry I had was that in an hour-long episode (one which the protests didn’t really begin until halfway through or so), that it would essentially be forced to rush through the protests and suddenly within five minutes everyone gets what they want, when the actual protests took seven days and had various negotiations.

However that was not an issue, as this was the first part of what I presume to be a two-part episode, with this episode ending as the police showed up. Interestingly enough as two of the friends (one deaf and one not) were arguing over whether or not hearing people had a place at the school, you suddenly notice the sound is back, and there’s a police siren slowly building in volume, and the hearing girl looks up and around. This prompts the deaf girl to sign, “what’s going on?” and the other one speaks (and the audio is back regular now), “The cops are here”. She walks over and peeks out of the covered windows, and all we see are her eyes looking out as the blue and red flashing lights reflect off the glass.

I’m glad this is going to be a multi-episode story, because as I said before, this would be a grand disservice to the legacy of those who fought for rights that were granted to the deaf students at Gallaudet 25 years ago, if this was simply a 10 minute standoff, essentially. Now as I said in the beginning of this piece, I’ve never watched this show before. I had never heard of the show before, until a week ago when I first read about this ASL only episode, which got my attention due to my history with ASL and the deaf community.

However I really enjoyed the episode and felt that the way it dealt with issues surrounding the co-existence of the hearing students and the deaf students (and even the deaf students vs. the hard of hearing students) was handled very realistically. I, myself, went through that very type of situation at the technical school where there were those who were antagonistic against me and did not want me around, because I was not deaf.

Because they had spent most of their lives being dictated to by hearing people. They had their rights violated by hearing people, whether it was in school or out of school. And when that happens, I can see how it would build up an anger and resentment towards those that are not like you, particularly when you’re being forced to share a school with them, and it often seems that they are getting more attention and services than you are. And when the school is supposed to cater towards deaf and hard of hearing students? Even more so.

And that’s not something that can really be changed as far as truly understanding what the other is going through. You can have the ability to sympathize, however the ability to EMPATHIZE is an impossibility. You can never walk that proverbial mile in the other’s shoes. Because you can always revert back to your life. There are methods I could use to try to simulate the everyday situations that deaf people find themselves in. There are these headphones you can put on that cancel out every sound.

You can do a variety of tricks, I’m sure, but at the end of the day, it’s not the same because you know you aren’t going to live the rest of your life like that. You know what it’s like to hear your parent or guardian say your name. To hear the sound of your lips against another’s. You can never truly empathize, and I think that, in essence, is what this episode boils down to.

As much as hearing people may think they can relate and empathize with the world of the deaf and hard of hearing, it’s a fantasy. Which is why the students fought back to keep their school “Open and Deaf”. It’s why the students and faculty at Gallaudet struck back 25 years ago. Because they realized that in order to best serve their community – the deaf community – they needed one of their own. You’re not going to have a hearing person be able to fully represent the deaf community, no matter how intensely that person may want it. Because they can’t relate or truly understand you and your issues. It’d be like having Stephen A. Smith, a basketball guy, brought on to discuss NHL Hockey.  Oh wait.

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