If Only It Were Just TV: Schools For The Deaf Are Closing
03/11/2013 - 09:24
Alexis Kashar
Marlee Matlin. Getty Images
Marlee Matlin. Getty Images

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.






view counter

Add comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Comment Guidelines

The Jewish Week feels comments create a valuable conversation and wants to feature your thoughts on our website. To make everyone feel welcome, we won't publish comments that are profane, irrelevant, promotional or make personal attacks.


I am fundraising for my Deaf nephew Yahushua ( of Yahushua's Journey ) for Cochlear implants in South Africa, Thank you for this blog :) Very enlightening.

I am completely deaf in one ear and have about 30% hearing in the other. Since I have been going deaf over several years, I am just now trying to transition to the deaf community. I applaud this group and this show for it's recognition of the needs of deaf and hard of hearing folks. I hope to be able to advocate in like manner as I gain more information and signing ability.

I am learning a lot from this show cause I grew up in the hearing world and still feel trap about the deaf world and the hearing world. I just been leaning sign Language for about 15 year and keep going.

I've been losing my hearing. Next week, I have an appointment to have my hearing aids checked, and I'm sure the audiologist thinks it's just a tune-up, but I'm going into it knowing that if they can't fix it so I can hear, I'm coming out of there without aids.

I have gone through so much isolation, and not knowing what people are saying, and it's becoming harder and harder all the time. I can really appreciate what deaf kids who have a deaf school that's closing are going through.

It means their friends are gone. It means they can't understand anything that happens in class. It means they can't get an education unless they can manage to teach themselves. It means they're condemned to be non-productive in our society. It means they may never be able to support themselves. It means they'll be cut off from all social events.

It's a huge loss for people who can't hear, but it's a huge loss for the United States, too!

This blog does not acknowledge the reality that today, many children who are born deaf receive cochlear implants or otherwise do not rely on sign language. My child is one of many many such children. He is 5 and has been mainstreamed in Jewish schools since he was 2.5. He is doing very well educationally and socially. He has pretty good auditory skills and is also not dependent on lip-reading. He is far from an exception as today, thanks to the universal newborn hearing screenings in most states, children with hearing loss are diagnosed much younger than before. Our son was diagnosed at 8 weeks and was fitted with hearing aids at 3 months. From the beginning we have focused on listening and spoken language and he has never learned sign language. He doesn't know the word deaf. He doesn't see himself as different and is well-liked by his teachers and peers. It saddens me that even today there are so many people who don't know what is possible for children born deaf today. I am not saying that this is the only way, I am all for people's right to choose, but I think it's necessary that the general public, including the Jewish community have accurate information about what is possible for children born deaf today, because sadly there is still too much ignorance.

just curious- do the jewish schools provide any special circumstances or therapies? we are are in israel, and i have considered coming back to the us (not permanently), but worry about how i would educate my son who is 1.5 years old with implants since age 7 months. he is currently in an amazing charedi school for children with CIs in Jerusalem, which has classes from age 3 months until 1st grade. i have always just wondered- what is it like being deaf and jewish in the US?? Are particular cities better in terms of what they can offer?

Just saw the show and am so happy that you blogged about. Such an important topic. Thank you.

It was a great show and it also had closed captions for viewers with hearingloss.

Well-written blog, Alexis.

Recently, I've been asked about my thoughts on mainstreaming kids in public schools. I've expressed my personal opinion (I'm fortunate to experience both while I was younger.) about being placed in a school that led an unpleasant experience in solitude. It's not what I would want to encourage others experience this at all.

Again, great blog, Alexis.


I'm a hearing man looking to get involved with a deaf Jewish group in NJ. I do sign any suggestions
Thank you