Then ABC Family approached her with the same idea, and the challenge was on to find a logical and engaging way to realize the ASL-only goal and a big enough story to make the most of it.
Last year, a "CSI: NY" episode took a stab at a nearly silent episode, using music by Green Day for most of its storytelling before reverting to dialogue in the final act.
The solution for "Switched at Birth" was to make sure every scene included a deaf character: "The truth is, when you're around people who are deaf, it's considered rude not to sign if you know how," Weiss said.
To avoid overloading viewers with subtitles the story was designed to be highly visual, including scenes of the student protest complete with picket signs and a defiant "Take Back Carlton" banner unfurled from the occupied school building.
Although some moments depict the pitfalls of being a deaf person in a hearing world, Weiss said, that's balanced by positive aspects.
"If you have been anything that's in the minority — gay, Jewish, a woman, anything — you have some piece of your identity that brings with it a lot of baggage and hardship, but also a lot of pride," Weiss said. "That's what we're trying to connect with."
The episode also highlights the beauty of ASL and its "coolness," such as being able to sign across a crowded theater and have an essentially private conversation, she said.
As with a silent movie — last year's Oscar-winning "The Artist" the latest case in point — "Switched at Birth" includes music intended to reflect the characters' internal lives. A viewer could add to the silence by muting it, but Weiss said that misses the point.
The episode "is not about silence, or 'absence of' sound. It's about language and culture and seeing the world from the point of view of a deaf person, and our perspective is that deaf people's inner lives are not silent," she said.
Matlin, whose counselor is a recurring character on "Switched at Birth," said the episode is an emotional and professional high point for her, one she would like to see exceeded.
"I never thought in my life I would see this happen. But I want to go further in terms of using deaf actors. ... I want (Steven) Spielberg to say, 'Hey, we want to use deaf actors.' Why not? And, hey, let's have the same respect for actors who are deaf as for those who are hearing.
"I don't know if we'll ever get there, but never say never," Matlin said.
Lynn Elber is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. She can be reached at lelber(at)ap.org and on Twitter (at)lynnelber.
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