When Nyle DiMarco and Peta Murgatroyd won the Mirror Ball trophy on Dancing with the Stars, the Deaf community erupted in celebration. But it was much more than a Deaf guy winning a dance competition. He broke through the Deaf Barrier. It's rare when someone gets the opportunity to grab the world's attention and show what Deaf people are capable of doing.
As Nyle himself pointed out, "Our voice has constantly been ignored. Our message is heard, but we're not listened to."
People are listening now.
Back in 2004, the movie Meet the Fockers contributed to a widespread surge of interest in sign language for babies. Robert DeNiro's character in the film, Jack Byrnes, understood how early use of sign language enhances language acquisition. He went to great lengths to teach it to his infant grandson--with impressive (and hilarious) results. This unique story angle resulted in hearing parents of hearing babies flocking to baby sign language classes and reaping the benefits.
This coincided with another surge involving college students enrolling in American Sign Language (ASL) classes all over the country. This was nice, but there was one burning question:
Where are the Deaf kids?
They were excluded.
In what would come to be known as The Greatest Irony in the Deaf community--a term coined by Deaf advocate Amy Cohen Efron--leaders in the Deaf world wanted to know why it was okay for hearing babies to get a head start in language acquisition via ASL, yet parents of Deaf babies were told to avoid it. This irony often extended all the way through high school, where Deaf students were (and still are) steered away from the most visibly-accessible language available to them.
There are plenty of myths out there that influence the decision-making process for parents of Deaf children. We're going to have a lot of fun addressing those myths in upcoming articles.
When Nyle went on his amazing run on DWTS--right on the heels of a previous groundbreaking victory on America's Next Top Model--there was a clear paradigm shift.
Once again, there was a surge in popularity for ASL. There has also been a noticeable acceptance of Deaf people in such a manner that rather than pitying us, the world at large admires us.
I've always made it a point to sign "Thank you" in ASL whenever buying something at the store. Sometimes the cashiers give me weird looks. I don't care. Nowadays, their eyes light up and they sign right back. It's the Nyle DiMarco Effect. How about that? Deaf people are trending.
This time around, Deaf kids are included. Nyle has made sure of that. At every opportunity he has talked about the importance of language acquisition for Deaf children. He has also addressed the harmful effects of language deprivation, which unfortunately affects a significantly high number of Deaf children.
As a spokesperson for Language Equality and Acquisition for Deaf Kids (LEAD-K) and through The Nyle DiMarco Foundation, Nyle has taken great steps towards ensuring Deaf children no longer fall through the cracks. This is huge.
Let me explain it this way. Between the ages of 0-5, your brain is like a sponge. When you're my age, it's like a hockey puck.
There's nothing more risky for parents of Deaf children than putting all of their language acquisition eggs in one basket. They've been told for decades to "choose one" communication methodology over another.
What if you choose something that doesn't work? When the years 0-5 are gone, they're gone forever. The window closes.
With LEAD-K, parents now have a safety net. They'll be able to make the most of the opportunities they have, and at the most critical time.
How is LEAD-K a safety net? It provides parents with language benchmarks, and holds state-mandated early intervention programs accountable for reaching them. Deaf professionals and ASL are now added to the mix so that parents have full access to all resources. In a nutshell, LEAD-K creates a level playing field where everything is on the table. It involves a team of different professionals supporting different approaches, from which parents are free to use as much as they want. By keeping track of developmental milestones and language acquisition at an early age, these professionals--a balance of both Deaf and hearing experts--will be able to identify, and close, any gaps before it's too late. By working together in this manner, language deprivation can be prevented. It's win-win for everyone.
If you told me a year ago that a Deaf guy would win a dance competition on national TV and change the way everyone thinks about Deaf education, I would have rolled my eyes and said, yeah, right.
The dance competition on national TV? That's the part I would have found most believable. Changing people's views on Deaf education? Now that's something I wondered if I would ever see in my lifetime.
Thanks to the Nyle DiMarco Effect, it's happening. Nyle's opening many doors. All we need is for people to continue opening their minds.