Sound of Silence

Katie as Daphne (left) in a scene from Switched at Birth.

Bruce Birmelin/ABC Family/©2010 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

Two teen girls—one from a rich, two-parent family and the other with a single, working-class mom—learn years later that they were each sent home as infants to the wrong families. Does any of this sound familiar?

As you may have guessed, it’s the plot of ABC Family’s hit TV show Switched at Birth. And one of its stars—Katie Leclerc—has a special connection to Daphne, the character she plays. Not only has Daphne just had her whole life turned upside down, she has also been dealing with her deafness since the age of 3.

Having lost some of her own hearing, Katie knows how that feels. On the show, Daphne became deaf as a result of a meningitis infection. In real life, Katie was diagnosed a few years ago with Ménière’s disease, an inner-ear disorder that causes hearing loss, ringing in the ears, and vertigo. With Ménière’s, hearing can come and go—and it can get worse over time. “My hearing loss isn’t as severe as Daphne’s,” Katie says, “but there are definitely symptoms, and some times are harder than others.”

ASL

Daphne communicates by combining speech and American Sign Language (ASL). Katie began studying ASL before she knew she had Ménière’s disease. “I’m very fortunate that I know it,” Katie says, “because no matter what happens with my hearing, I’ll always be able to communicate.”

Katie, now 24, had been acting in plays, commercials, and television for 10 years before she was cast as Daphne, but she had never played a deaf or hard-of-hearing character. “Most people were unaware of my hearing loss,” she says. Her agent told her about the role of Daphne and submitted her name for the part. The show’s producers wanted an actress who was hard of hearing and had some familiarity with ASL.

The actress hopes the show will help bring together the hearing world and the deaf world. As she puts it, “Daphne has problems with grades and boys and struggles with her family, and she just happens to be deaf. I think that having a deaf character in their homes every week will help the hearing community realize that there are not a lot of differences. And the deaf community can see that hearing people are not always so bad.”

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