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Many of us in the Deaf community worldwide admire the way that Nyle DiMarco has gone about winning two high-profile American TV series in quick succession.
On America’s Next Top Model, he didn’t only excel during the modelling challenges, he also managed to show remarkable resilience even when, as Tara Schupner Congdon wrote in an article on this site, he experienced being marginalised in front of TV cameras during two months of living in a household of hearing contestants.
Then on Dancing with the Stars, he lit up the dancefloor week after week, which you could say is impressive because of his deafness, for the way he trained like a demon, using visual and tactile cues with his dance partner. But it was also impressive just for being good, full stop.
Skilled at modelling, skilled at dancing. Skilled as an actor too, as he showed on the TV drama Switched at Birth.
There’s plenty to admire.
But what’s really impressed me is how he’s consistently used his growing public profile to raise issues affecting Deaf people, particularly regarding giving Deaf children access to sign language at an early age.
Take his victory message after winning Dancing with the Stars as an example:
“This is for 70 million of Deaf people in the world! This is for all the Deaf kids suffering language deprivation. Only 2% of 70 million of Deaf people have access to education in sign language. More than 75% of parents don’t sign to their Deaf kids. Winning this is a HUGE step to ending LANGUAGE DEPRIVATION of millions.”
The truth is that there are very few high-profile Deaf people appearing regularly in the media, particularly on TV, and this is a big problem.
Before DiMarco’s rise to prominence, if you asked a typical American person in the street to think of a Deaf person, I think they’d probably mention Marlee Matlin, the Oscar winning actress, and, aside from one or two other less-well known Deaf actors that might crop up, that’s it.
In Britain, it’s worse. I don’t think the typical person on the street could come up with one single well-known Deaf name. They might have caught the odd episode of See Hear on TV, or seen Deaf actors appearing occasionally in TV dramas, but could they name one? I doubt it.
People who are famous or high profile get the chance to talk about things to a wide audience. On chat shows, in magazine interviews, or even on social media, where they can rack up thousands of followers.
The air space they’re given, just by being known, means they can share messages to a large number of people about the things that are important to them.
Without high profile people to represent and articulate our views, Deaf issues, and awareness of Deaf people and what they can do, can seem completely invisible.
This is what DiMarco seems to have intuitively understood from the start – that having a high profile and being visible means you can influence and change perceptions, both through being a positive Deaf role model, and through talking regularly about Deaf issues in the public domain.
From the start of his time on America’s Top Model, DiMarco sent out a positive message about Deaf people and about sign language, and that continued on Dancing with the Stars.
It’s clear that he saw the bigger picture of appearing on the show early on, telling Time magazine: “It was a chance for me to re-frame the Deaf community.”
As the show progressed and he did well, DiMarco was invited to the White House to meet President Obama.
As his plus one he could have taken a friend or relative along, but instead, decided to take along Gallaudet University’s President Roberta Cordano as his guest, making the very most of a rare opportunity for Deaf people to talk directly to power.
There’s also real substance behind what he’s doing. He’s set up a foundation with the aim of:
“improving access to accurate, research-based information about early language acquisition–specifically, the bilingual education approach. Through the early intervention process, the child’s language and literacy development should be the focal point.”
Deaf people often feel misunderstood, invisible from wider view, with the things we feel strongly about also unknown to the majority of people. The actions of one individual, as DiMarco has shown, can start to change that.
There’s now a ripple effect among young and old Deaf people who have followed DiMarco’s progress across the world, who are now feeling more positive about deafness, their identity, and what a Deaf person can achieve.
I’m interested to see what happens next with DiMarco. New doors will open for him having won two televised competitions in quick succession. No doubt he’ll continue his modelling career and there’s talk of trying to further his acting career too.
Whatever he decides to do in the public eye, it’s very likely he’ll continue to make Deaf issues more widely known, while acting as a role model for others to follow in his footsteps.
Which is a great thing.
Charlie is the editor of Limping Chicken, as well as being an award-winning filmmaker. He is currently making two new episodes of his documentary, Found, about Deaf identity. He previously wrote and directed the comedies The Kiss and Four Deaf Yorkshiremen go to Blackpool along with other film and TV credits. As a journalist, he has written for the Guardian and BBC Online.
The Limping Chicken is the world's most popular Deaf blog, and is edited by Deaf journalist and filmmaker Charlie Swinbourne.
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