Recently, I watched the first season of ABC Family’s Switched at Birth, a show that centers around two teenage girls from Kansas City, Mo. who were accidently switched at birth. Bay Kennish was raised by two parents, has a brother and comes from wealth. Daphne Vasquez lost her hearing after contracting meningitis, grew up an only child of a single mom and lives with her Puerto Rican grandmother in a working-class neighborhood. The two families come together to allow the girls to connect with their biological families.
There is much more drama including Daphne’s mom’s recovery from alcoholism and the teens’ dating lives. What I was most interested in, however, was seeing how Deaf and hard of hearing culture is handled. I have been enlightened. I had no previous insights into that culture. I don’t know anyone who is deaf. This television show also allowed me to gain perspective and have conversations that weren’t possible beforehand.
A friend, Cate, also watched the show. While her brother is deaf, she also had new insights and realized—for the first time—how her brother struggles during family reunions. The family relies on him to read their lips. Cate is now motivated to practice American Sign Language (ASL) and to expand her children's ASL vocabulary and fluency so that her brother (who is the only deaf person in the family) will not feel alienated.
Another friend, Tammy, was diagnosed with Meniere’s disease and is losing her hearing as a result of tumors that have grown in her ear. Two of her daughters are also hard of hearing. Tammy said she and her daughters have enjoyed the show because it has made them feel less like pariahs. It’s also helped Tammy better transition to a life in which she is now completely dependent on a hearing aid.
Even though the show is a one-hour drama, it offers characters not usually seen in mainstream media. There are many silent scenes in the show where characters communicate just using ASL. English subtitles are provided. My perspective shifted.
I appreciated that the show illustrates that deafness is not a deficit. Another poignant scene is when a deaf teenage boy and a hearing teenage girl are camping and looking at the stars. He remarks how peaceful it all is, while the girl is struggling to appreciate the moment because people camping around them are being really loud. Also, later in the season, one of the characters who relies on a device to help with hearing, is at the free-throw line at a basketball game. She turns off her aid, allowing her to block out the distracting noise from the crowds. She focuses on making the winning shot.
We still have a long way to go for inclusion on television, but this show is headed in the right direction. I think viewing a portion of an episode in class would open a wonderful discussion with students.
I want to learn more about ASL. I want my children to learn this unique language. I have started learning signs and using them with my toddler and his older siblings, and I love that they are learning there’s more than just one way to communicate and that every language and culture is to be appreciated for its uniqueness.
As a teacher, I haven't yet had the privilege of a hard of hearing student being a part of my class. I hope that what I’ve learned will help me be a better teacher for any future hard of hearing students. In the meantime, I will continue learning and sharing with my current students. I’ll look for opportunities to have discussions about Deaf and hard of hearing culture in the classroom. I want my class to be a community that is welcoming to all students. If anything, this has taught me how much more there is to learn and explore about my students' worlds.
Sansbury is a middle and high school English teacher in Georgia.