The Nyle Essay

NyleA really positive thing happened last week. Nyle won the American version of Dancing with the Stars. Fresh from winning America’s Top Model he went one further and won the Mirror Ball. He doesn’t even have a last name any more. He is just Nyle. “You know Nyle?” You can ask anyone and they’ll say, “Oh yeah that deaf guy.” Even the Gay Lesbian Bi Transgender Intersex community laid claim to Nyle as the first of their community to win the Mirror Ball. They did note that he was also the first Deaf winner too. The man can do no wrong.

We should celebrate shouldn’t we? I mean what an achievement for a deaf person to win a dance competition. It is said that Nyle and his partner developed a series of taps so that he knew when to do  his moves and to help with his timing. It’s an enormous achievement that shows Deaf people can do virtually anything. We should all party and remember this. But no. There has to be a fight. A fight about what? Well that hearing is better than deaf and visa versa. AGGHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!

You see Nyle is a political animal. He is using his profile to promote the Deaf community and sign language at every turn. Good on him for that. He has a view that every child who is deaf should sign. He does not care whether they have implants or not. He thinks that they should sign. He wants the law changed, similar to what happens in some Scandinavian countries, so that every child diagnosed as deaf, implanted or not, be given access to sign language. He uses strong terms like language deprivation to put his point across. That is his right. He comes from a family that has 25  members who are Deaf. It is something that he is passionate about.

I am not as strong as Nyle about forcing kids to sign. It should be a parent choice. That’s just my view but I certainly can understand where Nyle is coming from. I certainly agree that sign language is enormously beneficial for deaf kids. I’ve worked in this area for nearly 30 years and I have witnessed and supported deaf adults who have been language deprived. It happens less now because the cochlear implant is leading to many kids developing great spoken English and English literacy. But it still happens.

Even so, these kids with implants can still benefit from sign language. But for me the key is language. There is nothing worse than a language deprived deaf adult. The great Oliver Sacks said of deafness and language deprivation, “A human being is not mindless or mentally deficient without language, but he is severely restricted in the range of his thoughts, confined, in effect, to an immediate, small world.”  

All too often I have witnessed this and it is for this reason I prefer all deaf kids to learn spoken language and sign language together. I believe that this helps to ensure that they develop the strongest language possible. But still it is the parents choice. One can only hope that professionals will advise parents of the benefits of bilingualism so that they may make their own informed choices.

But this stuff is old hat and has been discussed at The Rebuttal many times. In Nyle we have a wonderful human being. And yeah, as my wife and her besotted girlfriends will tell you, “He is hawt!!” We should be in awe and celebrating what he has done for people who are Deaf, people who are different and people who have disabilities. He is changing attitudes and the world. But no! We can’t do that because apparently Nyle’s form of activism is dangerous for the Deaf community. Say what????

Lisa A Goldstein said as much in her article, Nyle Dimarcos Activism is Dangerous for the Deaf Community. Goldstein is also deaf and believes that Nyle is misleading people. She asks the question, “Would your reaction change if you knew that Nyle could have heard the music if he had wanted to?” Well actually, no. Because he chose not to hear and he still won anyway, that’s amazing. Goldstein claims that Nyle chooses not to hear. She implies that if he had worn hearing aids, or if he had perhaps had an implant, that he could have heard the music if he wanted to.

Now Goldstein is implying that Nyle is misleading us. Hello Black it’s Pot calling.  She is implying that if you stick some hearing aids in Nyle’s ears or give him an implant he will somehow miraculously hear well enough to be able to dance in the same way as hearing people. Perhaps by hearing the music with his aids he would have danced even better. I am sorry Goldstein, but if you are going to imply that Nyle is misleading people don’t mislead people yourself.

We all know that what people hear with hearing aids or cochlear implants varies. We all know it depends on frequency losses, degree of loss, age of onset and a host  of other variables. What we also know is that people with cochlear implants get various degrees of enjoyment from music with their implants. Kate Gfeller acknowledges this in her essay, Music Enjoyment and Cochlear Implant Recipients.

She states that cochlear implants  can impact on the understanding of melody, harmony and tones in music. She acknowledges that other factors associated with hearing loss can have a negative impact on the enjoyment of music. Despite this she also states that many with cochlear implants get great enjoyment from music. But clearly that enjoyment varies. To imply that Nyle would hear just like every one else if we stick a couple of aids in him is misleading to the extreme. Bottom line, he won without sound anyway. Celebrate that. Nit picking is not needed.

Goldstein claims that Nyle is making inflammatory and misleading statements. I laughed at the irony of that. But lets look at what he is supposed to have done. Apparently Nyle has an extreme view of deafness. This extreme view of deafness is that he has chosen to be Culturally Deaf. Coming from a Deaf family he has had instant access to communication, family get togethers, conversations and just everyday things. He has wanted for nothing. He correctly points out that if he had been the one person in a hearing family he might have been isolated. It happens, it’s a fact. It certainly is not an extreme view. But Goldstein thinks it is because, cop this, she functioned well in a hearing family and therefore everyone else can too.

Well I am glad she did well, obtained language, is literate and functional. You would not want the opposite wished on her or anyone. But again she fails to acknowledge the diversity of experience and success of deaf kids in hearing families. Sure it is true, as she says, that kids with cochlear implants are learning spoken language brilliantly. She even cites research on the topic  showing that kids with implants who use auditory methods perform better than bilingual kids. Cool, well I’ll give you another. Lets look at relatively recent research by Lyness, Woll, Campbell and Cardin – 2013

Lyness etal acknowledge that cochlear implants have led to greater speech perception, far greater than for people who are deaf who do not have cochlear implants. This is well and great but they also acknowledge,

“Despite prevailing assumptions, there is no evidence to link the use of a visual language to poorer CI outcome. Crossmodal reorganisation of auditory cortex occurs regardless of compensatory strategies, such as sign language, used by the deaf person.”

More revealing they say,

“Imaging studies show that visual activation during speech reception over time following CI becomes more specific, suggesting that in the CI brain, auditory and visual information mutually reinforce one another.”

I am no expert in academic mumbo jumbo but this appears to suggest that learning speech and sign language together actually assists the child’s language development, certainly does not hurt it. This is just one item of research that I know of that refutes suggestions that kids who have cochlear implants, and who access sign language too, perform worse than kids who are exposed only to auditory verbal methods. Who knows which is right but if the esteemed Goldstein wants to cite particular research she needs to balance this up with research that suggests the opposite. To not do so is to exhibit the bias she accuses others of.

Either way academics make my head hurt. Know this – Kerridge, right now, anecdotally will tell you that kids who sign or kids who speak do brilliantly in equal proportion. Variations occur depending on the child’s access to a language model and other socio-economic factors including access to support and so on.

Let’s stop crapping on about one being better than the other, its rubbish. Each child will be successful depending on any number of factors and will have their own story to tell. What harm will learning sign language do to them? Well none – The harm is done when a child’s language development is hindered through lack of access to proper language models. So there – Kerridge told you.

Now thus far I have been quite civil to Goldstein. I am finding it hard to be so based on some of what she has said. I will remain so because I understand she has been trolled and abused for stating her view. This should never happen and those that abused her should hang their heads in shame. But there is one statement that she made that really riled me. She said this – “I am fully integrated into society. Someone who only uses ASL, like Nyle, can’t interact with society without help from others.” Let me say this to Goldstein, that’s offensive and absolute rubbish.

Firstly Nyle is already part of society. I am betting he goes to his local shop and orders a coffee without an ASL interpreter at his side. I am betting that he uses technology like emails and SMS to get what he needs, order pizza, get a taxi, book his own flights and so on. Probably not now, I would say he is doing pretty well and probably pays a manager or PA  to do those mundane things. But point is, Nyle is a fully functioning human being. He contributes and adds value to society. To suggest that he only does so with “help from hearing people.” suggests that Goldstein may have a very large chip on her shoulder.

Now when Nyle meets a hearing person, the hearing person wants something that he has. At the moment it is his enormous charm, good looks and talent. So he gets on TV and they pay him for it. Unfortunately these hearing people don’t know sign language and so to communicate with Nyle they have to book an ASL interpreter. Looked at in a different way, the interpreter is helping the hearing people. Dang pesky things these hearing people are.

But yeah Nyle has been getting the producers of various  TV shows enormous profits  BECAUSE HE IS GOOD! He is adding value and they need him. He could be a scientist who is deaf, a lawyer or computer programmer – Whatever – he brings value – equal to what any hearing people do. He doesn’t need help, he is the one with the power. The hearing people need the help.

And you know we deafies have so much power. Cochlear couldn’t be rich withouts us. Hearing aid companies make massive profits because of us. Captioning companies make massive profits and sign language interpreters are getting fed tonight on the backs of deaf people. There is a whole economy out there that relies on deaf people. Take them away and the world is poorer for it, not just for diversity but for dollars too. All I can say is that the relationship between a Nyle that uses sign language and any services or technology he uses to assimilate with society is a reciprocal and even relationship. Nyle doesn’t need help but by golly they need Nyle – Savvy!

One thing I do agree with Goldstein on is that it should be a parents choice. But parents should be aware of the choices. Likewise deaf people make their own choices. Goldstein prefers her oral club – both deaf and hearing it seems. Nyle prefers his community and wants to see more deaf kids learning sign so they can choose to be part of that community. That’s his choice too. These choices exists and and they are all viable choices.

Let’s also be clear that there are very few deaf members of the Deaf community who choose not to hear in total. Most like hearing but what they do know is that the Deaf community offers them more than a hearing community alone can. OK, Goldstein has not made that choice, good for her, but that is no reason for her to talk absolute rubbish and suggest that Nyle is misleading the people.

He is not. He is just talking about a viable alternative, an alternative that is of great value to many deaf people. And he is right, language deprivation can and still does happen, although thankfully it is much less now. Bottom line for me is that sign language will do no deaf kid any harm, whatsoever. In most cases they will get enormous benefit.

It all comes down to the strength of the language models that they are exposed to. If that model, be it spoken or signed, is not strong then language deprivation can ensue. Goldstein is wrong to deny that. For her to suggest that sign language might contribute to poor language development in a deaf kid is bordering on a lie.

Poor form Goldstein. That said I am sorry for all the abuse that you copped. People should play the ball not the person.


3 thoughts on “The Nyle Essay

  1. Clearly remember having a discussion with some senior students. They had been complaining about the fact their parents didn’t sign and they could not communicate with anyone at home. I raised the question of whether Auslan should be made compulsory for all families when children were diagnosed as Deaf or HoH, as per some Scandinavian countries. Their response was strongly NO! NEVER!
    One very wise student summed it up beautifully.-

    ‘It breaks my heart when I want to talk to my parents about important things in my life and I can’t, but I would not want to force them to learn Auslan. I want them to learn my language because they WANT to show how much they love me – not because they are forced by some law”.

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