More than a decade ago -- as my high school reunion committee has recently reminded me -- I learned the sign language alphabet in an effort to communicate with a classmate from whom I had been unceremoniously separated from due to our constant whispering during lecture. I additionally picked up a few word signs, such as "beautiful" and "thank you," but my knowledge of this specialized language ceased there, although my interest in it remained.
Fast forward nearly ten years and the ABC Family program "Switched at Birth" has reignited a deep fascination with the Deaf culture and this language those of us who can hear clearly take for granted. For those who have yet to tune into the show, "Switched at Birth" follows two teenage girls -- the fairly privileged Bay Kennish and Daphne Vasquez, who became deaf as a young child -- whose lives drastically change when they learn they were, as the title suggests, accidentally switched at the hospital as newborns. Several key characters within the program are deaf. Vasquez attends a deaf school as well, placing a significant emphasis on the language, its culture and the role it plays in the lives of those who cannot hear.
It was Helen Keller who once said, "Blindness cuts people off from things. Deafness cut people off from people." A lack of education about deafness is often the impediment that causes just what Keller notes here. Not only are those within the Deaf -- with a capital D, when described as a culture -- community consistently misunderstood in the lay world, but in arenas they need on a regular basis as well, including healthcare. Research indicates that American Sign Language clinicians are not common, causing significant language barriers for the deaf seeking medical attention. "So what?," you might say. "Try an alternate means." Gestures, lip-reading, even written communication are not always sufficient in a medical setting, or general communication. "Switched at Birth" demonstrates how poorly a simple conversation, such as an introduction, between individuals can unfold. Imagine discussing a cancer diagnosis or required car repairs, riddled with field-specific terminology. This is where a need for vast education emerges.
During my recent graduate-school tenure, my fascination with this culture -- partially sparked by my consistent viewing of "Switched at Birth" -- allowed me to examine this subject area closely. I discovered that some steps are being taken within the medical industry, such as ASL-training and increased translator services. However, education cannot start or end there. We must all become aware of our personal ignorance and I believe television programs such as "Switched at Birth" are greatly assisting in identifying weaknesses we, as a larger community, occasionally don't realize are there until individually confronted with them.
Education does not always come in the shape of school books and quizzes; rather, it sometimes surfaces from the entertainment world we surround ourselves with on a daily basis. Once in a while, we should be grateful for that, for that swift kick in the ass we didn't even realize we needed.