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Sign language will say it all on a ‘Switched at Birth’ episode

KATIE LECLERC SEAN BERDY

KATIE LECLERC, SEAN BERDY

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Updated: April 5, 2013 6:07AM



ABC Family is quietly making television history Monday.

The basic cable network’s drama about two teenage girls who were switched at birth — one is deaf, one can hear — will air an episode entirely in American Sign Language, a first for any scripted show on mainstream television.

“I’m thrilled; ASL is a beautiful language,” deaf actor Sean Berdy, 19, said through an interpreter on the Santa Clarita, Calif., set of “Switched at Birth.”

Fans of the show — it’s ABC’s Family’s most-watched series after “Pretty Little Liars” — are no strangers to seeing scenes with sign language. Several cast members, including Northbrook native and Oscar winner Marlee Matlin, are deaf. Their signs are translated through open captions for viewers who don’t know ASL. Monday’s episode is the first to use sign language throughout the entire hour — something the show’s creator has wanted to try since “Switched at Birth” debuted in 2011.

“We’ve always talked about doing two things: One is an all-ASL episode and the other is what life would be like for the girls and the families if the switch never happened,” creator and co-executive producer Lizzy Weiss said.

She got the idea for the series after hearing about two grown women who were switched at birth on radio’s “This American Life.” ABC Family liked the concept but wanted one of the young protagonists to face an additional challenge. Weiss had taken a sign language class for the heck of it while at Duke University and decided to make the Daphne character deaf.

Daphne (Katie Leclerc) was raised by a recovering alcoholic single mother while the other girl, Bay (Vanessa Marano), grew up nearby in a posh house with rich parents (Lea Thompson and D.W. Moffett). The series focuses on how these two families cope now that they know that a hospital mix-up sent Daphne and Bay home with the wrong parents 17 years ago.

In Monday’s all-ASL episode, Daphne and her classmates wage a protest against the proposed closure of Carlton School for the Deaf.

“The deaf kids are fighting a really hard fight,” said Leclerc, who has Meniere’s disease, a condition that’s compromised her hearing but hasn’t ruined it. “A lot of times they get swept under the rug or are thought of differently because their ears don’t work. In this episode I really want to express … that they’re just as strong, just as powerful and just as able as anyone else.”

The storyline was inspired by a real-life protest 25 years ago, when students and faculty lobbied for a deaf president at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C.

“I learned about that when I was researching the pilot,” Weiss said. “It was such a cool story that I always said to the writers we have to do an homage to that one day.”

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