"The great thing about Daphne is she is a normal high school girl who happens to be deaf," Leclerc tells TVGuide.com.
The new ABC Family series (Monday, 9/8c) follows two girls who discover they accidentally ended up with the wrong family as newborns. Bay Kennish, played by Vanessa Marano, grew up in a wealthy family. Daphne Vasquez, played by Leclerc, lost her hearing at an early age and grew up in a working-class neighborhood with her single mother. After learning of the mistake, the two very different families must learn to live together for the sake of their girls.
Leclerc learned American Sign Language in high school — then was diagnosed at age 20 with Meniere's disease, an inner-ear disorder that can affect balance and hearing. Now 24, she calls those coincidences serendipitous and says she feels like she's been preparing for the role of Daphne for a long time. While the actress isn't deaf, but is hard of hearing, she says, "I've spent a long time being in the deaf world and the hearing world and I feel very comfortable in both." With an ASL instructor on the set at all times, Leclerc also worked closely with producers to ensure they'd be portraying the deaf accurately. "We figured out where Daphne's hearing loss would be and we mapped it out and figured what sounds she could say and what sounds she couldn't say."
The series also touches on socioeconomic themes. After Daphne, Bay and their respective families meet, Bay immediately withdraws from her wealthy background and her parents' rules. "It's really the first time Bay has had to struggle for anything," Leclerc says. "It's turned her world completely upside down and not to say it hasn't with Daphne, but she just doesn't change very well."
The two begin to understand each other, but it takes much more time for the mothers to. "The Regina-Catherine scenes with Constance [Marie] and Lea [Thompson] are so fun to watch. They get feisty and go toe-to-toe together as they fight for their kids and fight for what they believe in even though those beliefs are totally opposite from each other," she says.
While Leclerc says viewers can still expect a teenage show with boy problems, and struggles with parents and grades, she hopes that it will ultimately be a catalyst to bring together two worlds that don't need to be so separated. "Sign language is the third most common language in the United States and most people wouldn't realize that," she says. "Having a deaf character coming into your television and coming into your home every week can be a huge help in building bridges for both of those worlds."
Switched at Birth debuts Monday at 9/8c on ABC Family.
Watch a clip from the series premiere: