As star of the ABC Family series Switched at Birth, actress Katie Leclerc calls upon her own fluctuating hearing loss to infuse her role with a dash of reality. She plays Daphne Vasquez, a deaf teen who meets the family she never knew she had, and gets to share the screen with Lea Thompson and Academy Award-winner Marlee Matlin. ABILITY’s Chet Cooper caught up with the starlet to discuss her career, life with Ménière's disease, and how not to trip on the red carpet.
Chet Cooper: Tell me about Switched at Birth. How did that opportunity come about?
Leclerc: My agent submitted me for a nationwide casting call for the roles of Emma and Daphne. I ended up getting a call back, and that’s when I was asked to try a “deaf accent.” It’s something we discussed in depth. We wanted to make sure my portrayal was respectful and done correctly. At the same time, we felt that using a deaf accent would be a really strong choice for the character.
Cooper: I’ve heard the term “speech pattern” before, but not “accent.” When you were cast, did they know that you had some hearing loss?
Leclerc: They did. Hearing loss is one of the symptoms of Ménière’s, as are attacks of vertigo. I get fluctuating hearing loss and pressure in the ears. I get ringing in the ears. I get headaches. Some of the symptoms come and go as they please.
Last night, for example, I was giving an interview on the red carpet when my vertigo kicked in. I couldn’t tell the reporter, “Oh, my God. I’m sorry, I don’t know where your face is right now, because I don’t know where I am right now.” I just powered through the conversation and put a smile on. It’s really hard for me to complain about Ménière’s disease because without it I wouldn’t have this job. So I’m thankful.
Cooper: Do you know what triggers your periods of vertigo? Do they happen when you move your head a certain way?
Leclerc: The symptoms are sporadic. If I get up too fast, I sometimes get dizzy. One day on the set I did a stunt that involved my character dodging a car. Someone grabbed my shoulders and pulled me out of the way. That day was especially rough on me, because there was so much jostling and movement. But, really, there are only a few preventive measures I can take right now.
Cooper: Can the symptoms be triggered by diving into deep water? If you jumped in and got water in your ear, could that trigger—
Leclerc: It might. I haven’t done that sort of thing since I was little, and I wasn’t diagnosed until I was 20. When Ménière’s is triggered, I hear a weird, whooshing kind of sound. It’s a feeling I can’t describe very well. It feels as if the air evaporates out of my head. It’s different for everyone, I guess. My sister has it, as well, and hers is different from mine.
Cooper: How so?
Leclerc: Well, she’s older than I am, and her disease has grown progressively worse. She’s 40, and I’m 24, but we have the same parents. My sister’s disease is far more progressed than mine, so it’s nice that I am almost getting a warning of what my own future might hold. My longest Ménière’s attack has been three or four hours. Her longest attack was six days.
Cooper: Really? What happened during those six days? Was she able to function and go to work?
Leclerc: Not really. But she has to be there for her family. She’s got two kids, and she just puts a smile on and makes the best of the situation. You can’t make your kids suffer because you’re in pain.
Cooper: But what if the kid’s are a pain?
Leclerc: (laughs) Sometimes I get attacks where only two of the four symptoms will show up, sometimes I get all four.
Cooper: And they show up whenever they want? Is there ever a time when only one shows up?
Leclerc: Yeah. Sometimes my hearing drops out, and that’s it. I’ll be totally fine, nothing else is wrong, except that I can’t really hear.
Cooper: That sounds pretty convenient if you want to tune out your boyfriend. “Sorry, Hon, can’t hear you!”
Leclerc: (laughs) “Sorry!”
Cooper: Is there any treatment or medication for the condition?
Leclerc: I’m on a low-sodium diet, because there can be a problem with fluid retention in the inner ear. Reducing my salt helps keep that fluid problem under control. I’m also on a diuretic, a water pill, to help with water retention.
Within the next five years or so, there may be a cochlear implant specifically designed for Ménière’s patients. If you get that whooshing sound, you can push a button and the implant will stop the symptoms from progressing.
Cooper: That’s an invasive procedure for something that, at least in your case, doesn’t sound that bad. Do you think it would be worth it for your sister?
Leclerc: Yeah. If you have attacks that last for six days, it completely makes sense.
Cooper: Do you know about the controversy surrounding cochlear implants?
Leclerc: Oh, yeah. I’m well aware of that.
Cooper: We did a piece about a stand-up comic who got a cochlear implant. When performing she would normally feel the vibration from the laughter in her feet through the stage floor—the first time she did her act and could hear the laughter, she said she almost broke down.
Leclerc: Did she hate it?
Cooper: No, she loved it.
Leclerc: Oh, that’s awesome! We have an American Sign Language (ASL) master on the Switched set at all times. He has a cochlear implant, and he said when he chose to get it, five or six years ago, half of his friends disowned him. They no longer speak to him. I can understand that portion of the deaf community that worries maybe a way of life is going by the wayside because of technology. I completely understand that. But at the same time, I feel like it’s a very personal decision, whether to use that technology. Whatever makes a person comfortable, whatever that decision is, cannot be decided by somebody else.
Cooper: How did you find out you had Ménière’s?
Leclerc: I was helping out on a documentary four years ago, and the documentarian needed footage of someone getting her hearing tested. I was like, “Well, I’ve never had my hearing tested. You guys can test mine.” They tested it and said, “Are you aware you’re eligible for hearing aids right now?” When we investigated further, we discovered my sister has the same condition. It’s kind of a genetic trait.
Cooper: Your father has it as well?
Leclerc: We suspect he does. He’s never officially been diagnosed, but he shows symptoms of it, and my sister and I are both pretty convinced that old pop passed it on to us.
Cooper: He just doesn’t listen to you guys.
Leclerc: I know! That’s the problem! (laughs)
Cooper: “You kids are making me dizzy!”
Leclerc: Dizzy with excitement, yeah. (laughs)
Cooper: How did your career get started?
Leclerc: I was Annie in my junior high school production of Annie, and that was when I sort of got the bug. My family ended up moving to California from Utah, because there was this group of girls at school who were just really miserable and who made fun of me a whole lot.
Leclerc: Because kids are mean.
Cooper: It couldn’t be you? Because when I first met you, you kicked me in the shins, and I thought, “That’s just not right.”
Leclerc: Kick and scrape down, that’s the trick, you’ve got to scrape down the shin. (laughs) But no, so these girls weren’t very nice, and we moved from Lakewood, CO, to San Diego and I just did high school theater at Valley Center High School there..... continued in ABILITY Magazine click here to order a print copy or to subscribe Or get a free digi issue with a "Like" on our Facebook page.
Excerpts from the Katie Leclerc Issue Aug/Sep 2011:
Mercy Ships — Healers on the High Seas
Silver Scorpion — New Breed of Superhero
Katie Leclerc — ABC Family Star and Ménière’s Disease
Paralympic Sailing — Harnessing the Wind
Funny Business — Sue Z. Hart
Lasik Surgery — The Eyes Have It
Ra'Shad Solomon — Model of Persistence
Articles in the Katie Leclerc Issue; Humor — Jockey: A Horse Tale (Pt. 2); Ashley Fiolek — The Wind Beneath Her Wheels; Sen. Tom Harkin — A Call to Employers; Lasik Surgery — The Eyes Have It; Funny Business — Sue Z. Hart and the Art of Laughter; Water skiing — Mama Does It Barefoot; Paralympic Sailing — Harnessing the Wind; Mercy Ships — Healers on the High Seas; Katie Leclerc — ABC Family Star on Ménière’s Disease; Silver Scorpion — New Breed of Superhero; Ra’Shad Solomon — Model of Persistence; Eating Local — A Four Seasons’ Palette; ABILITY's Crossword Puzzle; Events and Conferences... subscribe