What’s the Bigger Picture That AGBell’s Missing With Nyle DiMarco?

The Deaf community’s in a furor over AGBell’s post on Nyle DiMarco (who was the winner of the last America’s Next Top Model season, and also Deaf, and also an astonishingly pretty man).

That post, in turn, was prompted by a Washington Post article, also on Nyle DiMarco, in which he advocates for ASL for d/hh children, calling it “their own language.” Matter of fact, the AGBell article identifies him as a political activist, pointing out that he’s started a foundation dedicated to promoting deaf infants’ access to American Sign Language.

So now that we are all caught up on the drama, here are the snippets that caused the kerfuffle. DISCLAIMER: This is not meant to be an anti-endorsement of AGBell, as I’ve actually found many of their proponents to be quite open-minded. Heck, I attended a Montessori school with their namesake, and there’s been a long-standing partnership between several AGBellers and Cued Speech. On this one, though, AGBell missed the mark.

1. Lip service to viable alternatives.

“The Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (AG Bell), applauds DiMarco’s achievements and recognizes that ASL exists as a communication option for deaf children. However…”

Wince. As a native cuer, this opening strikes a bit too close to the pandering I’ve seen in regards to Cued Speech. “Oh, well, of course Cued Speech is an option, but… [insert spiel about how Our One True Way is so much better].” (D/HH educators, please do take note, and please don’t do this. After the parent/student/child has been around the block a few times, it gets old.)

2. Couched, cagey language. 

“While bilingualism (use of ASL along with spoken language) may be helpful to deaf children who are unable to fully achieve spoken language, a young child whose family desires spoken language often achieves their desired outcome better through a full immersion in spoken language.”

“may be helpful”? “often”? This doesn’t really do wonders for winning credibility among people that you’re purporting to advocate for. Of course a visual language/mode is going to help d/hh children “who are unable to fully achieve spoken language.” Children learn to speak/sign/cue largely through mimicry. It is exceedingly difficult to copy what you can’t clearly access to begin with. Not impossible, but… difficult.

3. Lack of data.

“Deaf children frequently communicate quite well with listening and spoken language alone, and the number of children who have a need for ASL has decreased dramatically.”

Well, hold on. Where are the cites for this? Earlier in the article, AGBell states that 90% of hearing families with d/hh children are opting for listening and spoken language, citing BEGINNINGS for Parents of Children who are Deaf and Hard of Hearing in North Carolina. So, my next questions: where and how was this data collected? And could you pretty please link to it?

4. Lack of empathy.

Come to think of it, in writing point 2, I realized that part of the Deaf resistance to AGBell’s stance stems from this seeming lack of acknowledgement for just. how. much. work. goes into a spoken-language-only approach, at least for the folks I know.

Heck, even one of the students that AGBell highlights goes into a lengthy description of the prep work he undergoes for high school and college classes. Which– hey– is life. No right or wrong about it: if that’s what it takes to get him where he wants to be, more power to him. (That said, I do worry a bit about burnout, having been there and done that in my senior year.) But come on, AGBell, don’t you realize that amount of extra work isn’t exactly normal? Maybe not even ideal? At what point do you hit diminishing returns?

5. Sound is put on this odd pedestal. 

“In videos available on AG Bell’s YouTube channel, families share the remarkable abilities of deaf children today—making music, singing songs, and participating fully in sports, theater and more, with wonderful speech and remarkable hearing.”

Look, I enjoy music– heck, I taught myself a few basic piano songs in elementary school– but this is giving off a weird “if you don’t engage in this specific interest, you’re irredeemably missing out” vibe. Plenty of signing d/hh people love music, with or without aids, and plenty of hearing people don’t listen to music regularly, if at all, so I’m pretty sure this is a variation in people-being-people and not so much level of hearing.

Furthermore: as numerous residential school programs and d/hh athletes/performers indicate, sound is not a requirement for being fully involved into extracurricular activities. Yes, when you’ve got a d/hh child in a hearing group, it helps massively– but you know what? So do visual accommodations and learning some kind of visual communication method, even if they’re just made-up signals. Come on, let’s see some middle ground here.

Let’s rephrase this: “In videos available on AG Bell’s YouTube channel, families share the remarkable abilities of blind children today–making art, drawing pictures, and participating fully in sports, theater and more…”

Are you getting why this sounds a bit odd? Am being odd? I mean, I love art, and I draw lots of pretty pictures, but I wouldn’t expect everyone to be into it, nor try to push visually impaired children into taking it up “because you need to SEEEEE.”* **

*If they want to pursue it, that’s one thing. In that case, I’mma be all let’s go find tactile paints or play-dough or whatever and figure out a way to make it work because yay art.

**Yes, I realize this isn’t a perfect analogy because deafness entails a two-pronged challenge– listening and speaking– whereas visual impairment is, well, mostly an eyesight issue, at least in the mainstream hearing world. Visual impairment in the Deaf world, sadly, carries very much the same challenges that d/hh people do in hearing settings, though.

Now, since this is primarily a Cued Speech blog… some cuers have wondered where the hell we fit into all of this. Well, we know ASL isn’t a deaf child’s “natural” language (despite Mr. DiMarco’s word choice), but we don’t neatly fit into AGBell’s box, either.

So, I close with an insightful comment from my friend Benjamin Lachman: “Everyone’s lost their damn minds. Any language can be effective provided it is accessible as early as possible. ASL is effective if there is exposure to fluent signers ASAP. English is effective if there’s auditory feedback and/or visual access (preferably both) as soon as possible. Period. That’s our [cuers] message, in my respectful opinion. Everybody else is just putting their collective feet in their collective mouths.”


10 thoughts on “What’s the Bigger Picture That AGBell’s Missing With Nyle DiMarco?

  1. I d like to meet you someday. Very insightful and well-written article. I live in an international community on a beach in South America.

    So many different languages!! Add all the tourists that breeze through Montañita. From all over the world. Predominately Spanish yet most locals are multi-lingual. So there s a swirl of languages and yet really everyone ends up gesturing.

    To get basics clear.. That kind of thing, ya know? I’ve lived here 7 months at a hotel and gesturing became wide spread because I forced everyone. Don’t bother using your voice with me! Gesture! Spread all through town LOL.

    I digress. I never learned CUED.. I was taught everything else while growing up. SEE, PSE, ORALISM, ASL… No harm done and I did date someone who uses CUED but mainly ASL nowadays. So. Whatever mode of communication is FINE!!!! As long as it doesn’t make one person work much harder than the other, PERIOD!

    Now Montañita is a happy community who also includes visual gestures as one of the languages. Lovely people! Hasta luego!

    • Zane, you sound like someone I’d love to meet someday too. Every time I’ve gone to China, I’ve bumped into people from all over the world, and it’s always been a fascinating experience. I never cease to be surprised or encouraged by the commonalities I find.

      “As long as it doesn’t make one person work much harder than the other” — we are in agreement there; communication is a tw0-way street.

  2. April 8, 2016 AGB finally responds a week later… But, Again, no facts. I totally agree with Amy Cohen Efron to AGB: ‘You believe that respectful open discussion will help us find common ground, then did you set up an open meeting with the Student Body Government of Gallaudet University? They are waiting for your response by today and they want to have a meeting with you as soon as possible. These students are your “end-product” of your own ideology. Listen to them very closely.”

  3. Hello! I am trying to centralize everything on a “go to” website related to Bell’s effect on people, wonder if you’d be okay with me adding this piece to the website?

    • Go for it! As long as it’s properly attributed and links back to this page, I’m fine with it.

      Not sure on the purpose of The Bell Effect, so I probably should mention that I am a tad more sympathetic to him and his work than many Deaf people are. I don’t intend for this piece to hate on him or the organization (hence the disclaimer).

      • Bell didn’t pioneer speech therapy, but the Milan Accord of 1880 did essentially extinguish sign language in education across many countries. He was also active in eugenics and feared deaf people meeting and marrying.

        In 1880, the National Association of the Deaf also formed, to protect deaf people’s civil rights. This may be one of the reasons ASL managed to survive when all other sign languages were extirpated in Europe.

        I’ve met a lot of people who were byproducts of oral education in the 60’s and such, and they tell stories of being smacked on their hands for even the tiniest gesture (which hearing children do not receive.) I have stories of oralism failures and risk of language deprivation within my own family, too.

        But this is a cued speech blog! I can say that cued speech (invented in the 60’s by a physics professor at Gallaudet) is NOT oralism. I actually like it, but I never saw it until I was 18 and the cues unfortunately are like Cyrillic to me– very hard for me to remember B and N and such doesn’t stand for the same thing in cued speech as it does in ASL– cognitive interference is high.

        I had a coworker who used cued speech with her child, so I was exposed to it, she tried to teach me, but it was very confusing.

        A friend who had evolved a verison (Scued speech) with ASL handshapes instead of cued-cyrillic showed me it when I commented about my experiences at work. Wow, I couldn’t get over how much easier it was to understand with the familiar handshapes as cues.

        Really, it should have been made more compatible with various sign alphabets from the start; it would have became a great auxiliary to the signing community and perhaps find its way into ASL. I’d like to see cued speech supplement or replace fingerspelling one of these days.

        Let’s not remotely confuse cued speech or speech therapy itself with the oralist approach, which is a rigid ideal, putting excessive emphasis on speech and listening skills to the expense of actual education, including fundamental language acquisition (Not “spoken language”– pshaw!)

        Since 1880, the main goal of this oralist method– as pioneered by AGB and continued by his foundation— has been to ban sign language in favor of expensive speech-education quackery.

        In fact sign was not even recognized as a language until the 60’s, thanks to William Stokoe’s research– even though 1500 years ago, St. Augustine wrote of a deaf man who could understand things as well by gesture as in any spoken language.

        If you’re familiar with the history of deaf education in America (if not, I can refer you to some good books), the key concept was that quality deaf education was not possible en masse AT ALL until the first deaf school using sign language was founded in 1813. Within 20 years, there were 100 deaf schools. 52 years later, there were enough deaf people educated and ready for higher schooling, that a deaf college was founded.

        15 years later, the Milan accord was passed, and within 20 years of that accord and an aggressive push by the anti-sign education movement in America, deaf education crashed in quality overall, and deaf child abuse skyrocketed.

        We’ve made good progress again in the last 50 years (including introducing cued speech as an option), but it’s precarious.

        We can’t afford another setback led by hearing people claiming to know best what deaf people “really need” and refusing to permit deaf people to achieve with methods other than what they’ve decreed to the best.

        Neither can we afford deafness to be labelled as a medical condition and treated by “experts” who have never interacted with deaf people socially, when the impact of lack of treatment is not medical (illness or death), but linguistic, social, and intellectual. A doctor isn’t an expert in education, social development, or language.

        Least Restrictive Environment should be just that, from birth– and the experts in charge of evaluating deaf babies SHOULD be fully informed of all the issues concerning language acquisition, the benefits of sign language, cued speech, speech therapy, medical options, be able to educate families of such, and that resource be available on an annual basis.

        The same goes for families of kids who become postlingually deaf– these kids are the best candidates for an oral-only method, but even so, they need ongoing education for their parents and general support for social and other growth, which I do think the AGB organization tries to provide in its fashion.

        But denying sign language learning just because a kid can mainstream well orally is, well, it engenders a LOT of anger. I’ve seen it first-hand from people who finally learned sign in their teens. They’re the ones that are really the major anti-oral zealots, I can tell you!

        • Whoa… a LOT to cover there! I’m tempted to ask you if I can post this as a stand-alone blog post (with attribution to you, of course), along with my response. 🙂

          Really, though, I agree with all of what you say, except for one thing: I’m skeptical of using a combined version of Cued Speech with ASL fingerspelling. I just tried it and it feels cumbersome! I do understand why it’d be easier receptively for someone who learned ASL first, though expressing it is another story. Bear in mind that Dr. Cornett used those handshapes specifically because they were easy to transition between each other with minimal movement.

          That said, the bigger issue I see is that Cued Speech is based on SPOKEN phonemes, not the written word. I’d be concerned about– for lack of a better word– neurological “wires” getting crossed while you’re trying to cue a word that isn’t spelled how it’s pronounced, using fingerspelled handshapes. It’s bad enough when I try to fingerspell foreign or unusual words based on how they’re pronounced, then I have to go back and correct when I realize the other person’s lost!

          A third reason is that English and ASL are separate languages in their own rights and should be kept as such, IMO. Cued Speech is designed to visually represent the framework of spoken language, upon which the written and signed variants (like SEE) are based. I don’t see it working well as an emulation or auxiliary to signed languages because the underlying frameworks are so different.

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