On Monday, March 4th, the television show ‘Switched at Birth’ did something on mainstream TV that had never been done before. It ran an episode in sign language. Some viewers thought at first that the sound on their television was broken.
The show is an ABC Family drama that revolves around two teenagers who were switched at birth, one of whom is deaf. According to ABC Family, it is the first television series to have multiple deaf and hard-of-hearing series regulars, and scenes shot entirely in American Sign Language. Marlee Matlin guest stars. Because of this, the series not only exposes the American public to the deaf community, it also has the power to educate us about important related issues: last week’s ASL episode focused on the failure of the American education system to serve many deaf students who find themselves there because their own schools have closed.
The main story of ‘Switched at Birth’s’ ASL episode focuses on the closing of such a school, and the protest created by the students to keep it open. Many students who are deaf want to study in a school designed for them, where they can communicate directly with teachers and counselors, interact directly with their peers and participate fully in extracurricular activities – things most hearing students take for granted.
Many mainstreaming programs do not provide the educational environment that is a basic right for all American students. Imagine having an adult translating for you as you tell a joke to a group of students in a hallway in an attempt to connect with your fellow students. Imagine having your chemistry or honors history class translated by a sign language interpreter who has never taken chemistry, or is not fluent in sign language, a situation often endured by many students.
Harder still, many parents and siblings of students who rely on sign language never learn to sign, thereby creating further isolation in the home as well. Students who are deaf often consider their schools second homes.
Yet many states are cutting or trimming programming for the deaf in an attempt to trim or balance their budgets. Decisions for the deaf are often made by those who are not members of the community, and without regard to basic human needs – the right to language, and to connect with other human beings.
Last week’s episode of ‘Switched at Birth’ conveyed the panic that students at schools for the deaf experience as their programs go on the chopping block: the same panic that most people would feel when they lose their homes, or their right to communicate.
On Monday, March 11th, we will learn the fate of the school on ‘Switched at Birth.’ Will the school survive? Will the school board hear these students’ cries and protests? Will the school board deprive these students of a basic human right—access to language?
What can we take away from this show? Regardless of the fate of the school on Switched at Birth, can we be inspired to ensure that members of the deaf community always have a seat at all of our decision making tables? Can we as a community ensure that access is provided to everyone? Yes. That time has come. We must embrace our diversity. All voices whether visual, quiet, silent or loud must be heard.
Alexis Kashar is a civil rights lawyer skilled in special education advocacy. She is using that expertise to make the Jewish community more accedssible to the deaf and hard of hearing. She is the president of the board of the New York-based Jewish Deaf Resource Center (JDRC), a nationwide organization dedicated to transforming institutions to enable deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals to fully participate in Jewish life.