You may know Nyle DiMarco from America’s Next Top Model, where he was crowned the victor of the show’s 22nd season, in 2015. You may have seen DiMarco demonstrate perfect rhythm on Dancing With the Stars, where he went home with yet another grand prize. DiMarco, in short, is a winner.
But DiMarco, who is deaf, believes he owes his good fortune in life to a childhood experience: learning language — both spoken and signed — at an early age. Language acquisition, he says, helped him understand and engage with the world, which led to life-changing educational opportunities.
Now DiMarco is using his fame to try to help millions of deaf children around the world also gain access to language through his eponymous foundation. As part of that work, he appeared at the 2018 Social Good Summit in New York City to recognize International Day of Sign Languages and will appear at International Week of the Deaf, annual events that highlight the importance of access to sign language as part of achieving full human rights for deaf people.
Here are six things DiMarco wants you to understand about sign language and the importance of language acquisition for Deaf people:
1. You are a fierce advocate for early language acquisition among Deaf children. How did learning sign language at an early age change your life?
I was born into a large, multigenerational Deaf family — my great grandparents, grandparents, parents, and my two brothers are all Deaf. I am the fourth generation and have been exposed to American Sign Language and English since birth.
Knowing sign language saved my life. I was never alone. My entire family used sign language, so I never missed dinner table conversations. Growing up, I attended Deaf schools including Gallaudet University, the only Deaf university in the world. You could say it was a utopia for me.
With sign language, I was able to embrace my own identity as Deaf. I did not let being Deaf define me. Instead, I defined it.
2. Why is it often difficult for Deaf children to access sign language education?
Audism. Audism is a set of beliefs that include: hearing people are superior to Deaf people; Deaf people should be pitied for having futile and miserable lives; Deaf people should become like hearing people as much as possible; and that sign languages should be shunned. The stigma that notion has created positions sign language as a “lesser option” and pushes people consciously, or unconsciously, to prioritize hearing and speech therapies over sign language education. Materials and information become less available to the less popular option, and when you’re a new parent to a Deaf baby or child you look to the most available materials.
That is something my foundation, The Nyle DiMarco Foundation, is looking to change.
3. What myths about sign language and language acquisition are most harmful to the human rights of Deaf people?
In this bizarre world we live in, there are doctors, early interventionists, and audiologists that tell hearing parents not to expose their Deaf child to sign language because it will hinder their ability to learn English. That is a myth. A foundation in sign language helps your Deaf child learn how to read and write.
People believe that sign language is not a language. That is false. Sign language is a full language with its own grammar, syntax, and structure.
4. If you could immediately change anything about the representation of Deaf people and sign language in popular culture, what would it be?
Representation behind and in front of the camera. Empowering Deaf people as actors, writers, directors, producers, etc. There is no true representation if we’re not part of the stories being told — nothing about us without us. Sign language is being exploited and that only adds irreparable errors.
5. What does the International Week of the Deaf principle “nothing about us without us” mean to you?
It means that society needs to empower Deaf people as decision makers. This is true for every minority group. In order to improve our society as a whole, every marginalized group needs to be included in the conversation whether it’s political, social, or within the entertainment industry. I know that is easier said than done, but I feel like people are taking charge of their cultural and personal narratives more and more and it’s inspiring to see that.
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