Nyle DiMarco’s Activism Is Dangerous For The Deaf Community

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“Can you believe a deaf person won ‘Dancing with the Stars’? Nyle DiMarco took home the coveted mirror ball trophy — without even hearing the music!”

Would your reaction change if you knew that Nyle could have heard the music if he wanted to? He has said he never wanted to hear, so he chooses not to wear hearing aids. That’s his prerogative — he’s opting to live in silence, which is something many people may not realize.

And of course, that choice makes for more dramatic television, which garners higher ratings. During one routine, for example, DWTS turned off the music so the audience could feel what it was like for Nyle. The finale dance was to “Sound of Silence.”

It’s also more dramatic when a deaf person communicates via American Sign Language (ASL), a visual language that relies in large part on facial expressions. A deaf person who communicates by speaking and reading lips, by comparison, just isn’t as different or exciting when it comes to media.

As a winner of two reality television shows (he also won ‘America’s Next Top Model’), Nyle is using his newfound fame to push an ASL platform. But in the process, he’s making inaccurate — and inflammatory — statements. More than anything, I fear that such statements will mislead parents of young deaf kids.

More than 25 people in Nyle’s family are deaf. He went to a school for deaf children and communicates using ASL. He says that if he had been born into a hearing family and attended a public school, “I would have probably felt much more isolated, and being deaf would have become my identity.” He adds that he’s known his deaf identity since birth. These extreme views on deafness are common within the Deaf Culture community.

My perspective is quite different.

I was born deaf just like Nyle. Unlike Nyle, however, I was born into a hearing family and mainstreamed in public school. I don’t feel isolated at all because I can speak the predominant language of this country rather than being dependent upon the few hearing people who know ASL. I have a (speaking) deaf community and my deafness is just one part of who I am. I am fully integrated into society. Someone who only uses ASL, like Nyle, can’t interact with society without help from others.

Nyle has started a nonprofit foundation, the Nyle DiMarco Foundation, to advocate for the teaching of ASL. He’s careful to say he’s fine with parents getting their kids cochlear implants or hearing aids, but adds, “Research shows that being bilingual improves their chances of speaking. Depriving them of ASL is denying them language.”

My deafness is just one part of who I am.

While everyone agrees that early language, in any form, is important, Nyle is basically saying that I’ve been denied language. My parents chose to take advantage of my early developmental window by teaching me how to lipread and speak, knowing I could always learn ASL later. Like many other Deaf Culture proponents, Nyle claims that ASL is required for people who are deaf. The reality is, I don’t need to know ASL to be deaf. I’m reminded of my deafness every second of every day. I know and speak my native language, which is spoken English.

As part of his foundation’s efforts, Nyle is trying to get states to pass a law that requires bilingualism for deaf people — ASL and English. In other words, he wants to make ASL a requirement for deaf children, which infringes on parental choice. As long as parents are informed of all communication options, it should be up to them to choose what’s best for their children. Ninety percent of children who are deaf are born to hearing parents, the vast majority of whom do not know ASL or have connections to Deaf Culture. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, they would opt for their own culture and language. I wouldn’t want to be forced to raise my child a certain religion, teach my child to speak Yiddish, nor compelled by policy to dress my child in, say, cobalt blue every day. Similarly, requiring that deaf children learn ASL is going too far. (By the way, the number of people native in ASL is comparable to the number of people who speak Yiddish.)

The reality is, I don’t need to know ASL to be deaf.

Nyle also wrote in a letter, “It was recently proven by science that [bilingualism] will benefit the Deaf child a lot more than just English only.” In fact, the opposite is true. Numerous studies — like the one summarized by pediatric audiologist Jane Madell — have shown that children who receive a cochlear implant and an oral education focused on lipreading, listening, and speaking have higher literacy rates than those who rely on ASL. Bilingual education, where ASL takes priority, does not lead to better results. English is a second language to children raised with ASL, so this is not surprising. ASL has a completely separate syntax than English; it’s not simply signed English.

Deaf Culture extremists will respond to this essay in full force; they’re well-known for their intimidation and manipulation tactics. The last time I spoke out about Nyle, I was spammed and bullied for weeks, but I refuse to be cowed. They’ll ask for the specific research and share their own, but look closely — their so-called research is biased, unscientific, and disseminated by their own publishers. The evidence behind cochlear implants and oral education is based on multiple objective, longitudinal, and large-scale studies. In this case, the statistics don’t lie.

We’re deaf in different ways, and that should be OK.

Indeed, Nyle’s comments have created an uproar in the deaf community, where there’s already a gap. What he says about language deprivation may be true in developing countries where technology is difficult to obtain and parents rarely make the effort to learn sign language. But in our country, where hearing aids and cochlear implants are largely accessible, it’s just patently untrue. As a deaf friend posted on Facebook: “Nyle needs to change his language by refraining from applying the word ‘deprivation’ to the entire deaf population and instead say that he wants to make sign language more accessible to deaf children who have no means to access the hearing technologies.”

It’s great that Nyle is showing what deaf people are capable of and that we can do anything we put our minds to. Yet, despite him saying he wants to use his celebrity for good, he’s dividing instead of bridging. We’re deaf in different ways, and that should be OK.

Nyle is a talented dancer and model. But that doesn’t mean he does — or should — speak for all of us.

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