A Model of Marginalization

Nyle Top ModelDeaf model Nyle DiMarco’s run on America’s Next Top Model has been a hot topic. Who doesn’t like a rugged hunk with baby blues and washboard abs? Especially one who has been such a brilliant ambassador of the deaf and hard of hearing community?

Unfortunately, being an ambassador has its pitfalls. Like being marginalized on national television.

In last week’s episode of ANTM, Devin took Nyle’s phone and consequently his primary means of accessing conversations. Nyle’s response sent a powerful message about what it feels like when one person’s ignorance cuts you off from other people.

He also gained widespread sympathy from viewers, which creates the perfect opportunity to open space for a honest discussion about the deaf experience in America. Devin’s actions gave the public an insight into a pernicious attitude among hearing people that trivializes deaf people and our communication devices. This attitude and resulting behaviors seriously impact deaf and hard of hearing people’s ability to integrate into and feel accepted in hearing communities, particularly in workplaces and social events.

Nyle is far from the only deaf person to experience this marginalization. He just happened to live it out on television, in front of millions. Hundreds of thousands of deaf people, myself included, deal with this in anonymity, every day.

Life in the Top Model House

While Nyle is on an upward curve in the competition and enjoys impressive popularity among viewers, both hearing and deaf, his life in the Top Model house hasn’t been so easy.  Nyle only has an interpreter for competition-related events such as shoots and judges’ panel. In the house, his only access tool is a text-to-speech app on his smartphone.

Devin's Birthday Party In last week’s episode, “The Girl Who Got All Dolled Up,” during Devin’s birthday party, Devin takes Nyle’s phone and goes on a selfie spree. For more than 20 minutes, Nyle sits there, isolated and completely excluded from his peers’ conversation (not that he’s missing much, but that’s beside the point).

This is particularly hurtful, considering the previous week’s episode featured Nyle and his friend Brittany investing time and energy into teaching the other models sign language and exposing them to what it feels like to be deprived of your primary means of communication. Nyle even led the models in signing “Happy Birthday” to Devin just before Devin took his smartphone.

“You’re taking away my phone for your own entertainment and you’re not even talking with me? I felt like I was invisible so I just walked out.”  – Nyle DiMarco

Nyle's ConfessionalOnly when does Nyle give up and walk out do some of the models realize what they’ve done, and a few of them have the decency to apologize to him. However, Devin gets defensive.

Lacey, Courtney, and Mame, on the other hand, get it. The first two recognize that without his phone, Nyle is cut off. And Mame points out that Nyle has value: “He’s very smart and he does have a lot to contribute to our conversations, but it’s hard when no one’s including him.”

Solo in Steamboat

This episode hit close to home for me, since I’ve been through this. Many times.

After I graduated from KU, I moved to Steamboat Springs, Colorado, for my first newspaper job. I figured it would be good for personal growth to immerse myself in an all-hearing environment, three hours away from the closest deaf community. I would learn to integrate and advance my career, and I’d try harder to make hearing friends. This was before smartphones and voice-to-text apps.

The staff was composed primarily of 20-somethings who liked to drink, party, and sleep with each other. My being in a committed relationship wasn’t the only thing that set me apart. My deafness and the lack of sign language gave me the sensation of being on the outside looking in, getting snippets of information here and there when people thought to include me. Sure, I’d grown up in the mainstream and went to a hearing university, but I’d always been provided with interpreters. Once I finished school, that was it. I was on my own. I only used sign language every few months, when I visited my hometown.

IMG_3324At first, I tried. I stockpiled reporter notebooks and pens and accepted invitations to go bar-hopping. I tried to talk with my coworkers and got hit on by rodeo cowboys (note: they don’t take rejection well and can’t write for shit when they’re plastered). But I noticed a pattern – when I met new people, half the time they viewed my notepad as the most awesome, cool StPatsBarthing in the world and took it and started scribbling to each other as though they were reliving their middle school gossip journals. I often wound up pulling out my backup pen and resorting to square bar napkins.

I stopped going out so often and focused on my coworkers. I was rooming with two of them, and our house was the go-to place. At our parties, we went through stacks of notepads, but that was starting to get old. During one party, I tried to introduce my coworkers to video relay services. I was excited about the possibility that we’d have a new way to communicate outside work, where my only tool was the instant messaging system on our computers, and without pen and paper or laptops.

We all gathered on the couch and I turned on the TV, sent my then-boyfriend to another room, and called him through the VRS. I had just begun signing when the interpreter looked past me, screwed up her face, and snapped at me, “This is entirely inappropriate. I have to disconnect now.” And she hung up.

I was at an absolute loss. I turned around and found my coworkers falling over themselves in hysterical laughter. One of them confessed to me that a male reporter had mooned the interpreter.

That was the first and last time I demonstrated VRS to hearing peers. I was horrified and humiliated. I was hurt that nobody apologized or recognized the significance of my reaching out to them. Nobody asked for my phone number. I didn’t want to make ripples, so I shrugged it off and got another beer. Like Nyle said, “I keep trying to communicate with them but I’m just tired of hinting and telling them. Do you think I need to stop the whole party and say, ‘Please communicate with me’? No, that’s not something I’m going to do.”

“I keep trying to communicate with them but I’m just tired of hinting and telling them. Do you think I need to stop the whole party and say, ‘Please communicate with me’? No, that’s not something I’m going to do.” – Nyle DiMarco

IMG_9202I threw in the towel, moved out to a ranch in the country, and spent my free time snowboarding, ranch-sitting, and training horses until I left for graduate school a year later.

The VRS incident profoundly affected me, and I shut out my classmates at American University. I didn’t go out with them. I didn’t offer pen and paper. I barely even talked with them during and after classes. I didn’t tell them about VRS. It took a long time for me to warm up to them, and only by my second year did I become friends with some of them, and only through Facebook. It’s still something I regret to this day, because they are wonderful, intelligent, fun people and I missed out on opportunities to discuss topics I loved with peers. However, I still haven’t shared VRS with any hearing friends.

Years later, after I married Seth, we decided to give Steamboat another try. I figured it would be better since I was no longer alone.

It wasn’t.

This time, I didn’t stumble in my social life, but in the workplace. I returned to the Steamboat newspaper, telling myself I’d be thicker skinned and more assertive. I suggested VRS for our weekly staff meetings. I could stay at my desk and call in to the conference room. My suggestion was denied. The editor told me she wanted everyone there in person. My presence was more important than ensuring I had full access.

We bought Dragon Diction voice-to-text software, which failed miserably and produced gibberish. Then we resorted to a coworker typing summaries on a laptop. One day, everybody forgot about the laptop and I didn’t know where it was. I sat there for the first 15 minutes of the meeting before I finally got up and walked out, tears of frustration in my eyes. I was drained.

Between that, a local surgeon turning me away because he “didn’t have the time” to communicate with me using a laptop, and the local hospital dragging its heels on setting up VRI … I was done. We left Steamboat and I took a job at Gallaudet, where I finally had complete access in the workplace and a full social life.

But even as I notched a significant career advancement, I felt like a failure. I had failed to “make it” in the hearing world, job-wise and socially.

I constantly ask myself: Why should I feel this way, when it was hearing people who failed to understand the role of technology in my communication needs and the value I had to offer, if only they would get it? If only they would respect and embrace that technology rather than view it as a cool novelty and not a necessity. This attitude has impacted my life so much, beyond simple, day-to-day conversations.

Playing with Deaf Dolls

Because of all these incidents, I completely identify with Nyle. It’s frustrating and draining and humiliating and degrading.

Nyle DiMarco DollIt is appropriate that the main photo shoot in this episode was about dolls. The models posed like dolls, in a box with accessories. Nyle did particularly well, taking second place.

You see, the hearing world often treats us like dolls. At first, we are neat new toys with awesome accessories and they have fun playing with us and/or our accessories until the novelty wears off. Then they put us on the shelf. Sometimes because they’re no longer interested, or they don’t have the time for us. Sometimes because we’re just a token. Employers like us to “complete” their collection, to represent diversity, but without providing us the full access we need. “Here, look, we have the disability doll sitting there on our shelf!”

All the while, their exuberance, combined with ignorance, deprives us of a two-way connection and the ability to feel included and equal. We’re dumped out of our boxes and left on the floor while our communication tools are taken away and played with.

As Nyle said, “Without my phone, I just get lost, and I feel isolated. And I try to teach them sign language, but I feel there’s nothing coming back in return. I know this is a competition, but I’m human.”

“I try to teach them sign language, but I feel there’s nothing coming back in return. I know this is a competition, but I’m human.” – Nyle DiMarco

This is what we need to be talking about. We are human, and we deserve respect. We don’t deserve to be played with.

A Call to Action

Hearing people watching the show were exposed to one example of the treatment so many of us experience. Nyle’s popularity with these viewers has generated sympathy. One column, for example, calls out Tyra for failing to stick up for him.

Nyle has also shown extreme courage and dignity throughout the show, especially in the last two episodes, and he has served as an excellent ambassador of the Deaf community to a predominantly hearing viewership.

Why aren’t we using that momentum to encourage hearing people to realize that Nyle’s experience is not restricted to the Top Model house, but is the experience of hundreds of thousands of deaf people?

Some stories are easy to identify as examples of inappropriate, over-the-top behavior. Such as the one about a hearing man who called VRS 4,600 times to masturbate and the Republican lawmaker who called people with disabilities a “drain on society.”

What hearing people seem to struggle with is understanding how small, seemingly insignificant actions done “just in fun” can leave deep scars that take years to fully heal and that can often fundamentally change how the impacted deaf person views and interacts with all hearing people afterward.

Over the past few days, people in the deaf community have been focusing primarily on one individual’s comments denigrating Nyle – comments that have absolutely no connection to the events on the show. While it is important to discuss internal bullying and exercise community accountability, we need to be thinking about how we as a community can use the momentum from widespread sympathy for Nyle to encourage more thoughtfulness among hearing people about how they treat deaf people on a daily basis.

Right now, we are completely missing the boat. Now is when we have the prime opportunity to take advantage of Nyle’s popularity and connection with hearing viewers, engage them and other hearing people through mainstream and social media, and educate them that Nyle is far from alone in his experience of exclusion. We need to urge them to understand that their actions, even as simple as taking away a phone or dismissing a communication tool as unnecessary, are more damaging than they realize.

Let’s harness our anger and work not only within our community, but also outside of it. Let’s capitalize on this opportunity to change the world for the better. And let’s not allow this moment to pass us by and the baring of Nyle’s painful experiences to the public go to waste.

*My deepest gratitude to my beta readers, who provided excellent feedback and helped me guide this post in a better direction. You know who you are.

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25 thoughts on “A Model of Marginalization

  1. I sat here nodding for so much of this. I, too, have just given up trying to bridge the gap. Language and communication barriers are draining to deal with, not to mention frustrating.

    Hearing people never understood why I wouldn’t go out and party with them in bars or clubs, but I couldn’t get them to understand. Finally I had to pass it off as I don’t drink, which was easier than trying to get them to understand I can’t lipread in the dark and too many people exhaust me.

    I, too, felt such a relief at Gallaudet, where I didn’t have to explain the communication needs. Yes, I am “oral” and can pass as hearing most of the time, but that doesn’t mean I don’t value and desire ASL instead. I’m an actress in my own life, playing a role, all the while yearning to expose the real me.

  2. Reblogged this on Inside A Deaf Woman's Mind and commented:
    This is from another deaf person, in response to recent events on America’s Next Top Model and the Deaf contestant, Nyle DiMarco.

    I sat here nodding for so much of this blog post. I, too, have just given up trying to bridge the gap. Language and communication barriers are draining to deal with, not to mention frustrating.

    Hearing people never understood why I wouldn’t go out and party with them in bars or clubs, but I couldn’t get them to understand. Finally I had to pass it off as I don’t drink, which was easier than trying to get them to understand I can’t lipread in the dark and too many people exhaust me.

    I, too, felt such a relief at Gallaudet, where I didn’t have to explain the communication needs. Yes, I am “oral” and can pass as hearing most of the time, but that doesn’t mean I don’t value and desire ASL instead. I’m an actress in my own life, playing a role, all the while yearning to expose the real me.

    From this blog post: “In last week’s episode of ‘America’s Next Top Model’ (ANTM), Devin took Nyle’s phone and consequently his primary means of accessing conversations. Nyle’s response sent a powerful message about what it feels like when one person’s ignorance cuts you off from other people.

    He also gained widespread sympathy from viewers, which creates the perfect opportunity to open space for a honest discussion about the deaf experience in America. Devin’s actions gave the public an insight into a pernicious attitude among hearing people that trivializes deaf people and our communication devices. This attitude and resulting behaviors seriously impact deaf and hard of hearing people’s ability to integrate into and feel accepted in hearing communities, particularly in workplaces and social events.

    Nyle is far from the only deaf person to experience this marginalization. He just happened to live it out on television, in front of millions. Hundreds of thousands of deaf people, myself included, deal with this in anonymity, every day.”

  3. Wow that gave me goose bumps !!! That really hit me big time. I know the feeling of being isolated and being left out!!!!!!! I hate the feeling of being an outcast!!!! U wrote an amazing story!!!GOOD JOB!!!!! As for Nyle , he did an amazing thing as a model and an actor!!!!! Keep up ur head real high that u could reach the sky!!!!!

  4. WOW! I am a hearing woman, who since as a child of 5 yrs.. became so passionate about sign language & wanting desperately to learn! The deaf are very special people, with needs like all humans. To be accepted & communicated with. A lot of sign language classes are free. They have an awesome sign language dictionary with detailed instructions. It takes some practice, but if you are fortunate enough to know a deaf person (which I am) they are more than willing to help you. They are better drivers than hearing people (among many different things). It has enriched my life so much for the better. They are sooooo misunderstood! I had the best time of my life when I once attended a “Silent Weekend” for hearing individuals. Spread the word. YOU CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE! And it’s so much fun! How many of you tried as children to have your own “secret language” with your friends? Enrich your lives! I also wish I could speak Spanish…hahaha! sign language is so much easier!). They have opened a whole new world for me, and I am so greatful!
    Kathy Inabinet (Austin, Texas)
    p.s.
    I would love to have more deaf friends.

  5. Beautifully well written. I’m not deaf, but have worked with many that are and you’ve put into words exactly what I was feeling when I watch ANTM last week. I’m so sorry to anyone who has been made to feel this way by anyone in the hearing community. It’s wrong and hopefully Nyle’s time on ANTM will help to start a dialogue that can bring about changes.

  6. Kudos to you. You have expressed what thousands or maybe millions of deaf have wanted to express thru the years. I have the honor to work for the deaf community and I always ask them to remind me whenever I stop signing and just talk with another hearing person. They sure deserve to know what is happening right in front of them. It is a shame that some get it when they have a deaf person in their family, but sometimes not even that makes them give the deaf the respect that they really deserve. Keep up the great work. Blessings

  7. Thanks so much for this! I am hearing, married to a Deaf man and honestly I cannot deal with socializing with hearing people anymore, because they always exclude my husband and just talk to me or expect me to act as interpreter. Then there’s always the phrase that gets trotted out; “Oh I’ve always wanted to learn sign language”, yet after seeing them several times as a couple they still make no effort to communicate a single sign. My husband has a good job in the hearing world, but after 25 years is still facing marginalization, still fighting tooth and nail to get the basic needs of Deaf employees met.
    I completely understand why Deaf people don’t want to be bothered to socialize with hearing people, I will always choose a Deaf social event over anything hearing, because at least them BOTH of us can socialize together as well as have our own conversations.

  8. These “small, seemingly insignificant actions” are called microaggessions and are equally as damaging to the marginalized person or group of people as overt discrimination. Thank you for your story.

    From the mom of two Deaf adult children.

  9. Hi. I’m an ASL interpreter and I work primarily in VRS at Z. I’m appalled that your hearing coworkers were so disrespectful when you tried to educate them about VRS. It was absolutely uncalled for, but I hope you and other Deaf will continue to trying to educate the hearing world. This is a powerful piece of writing and I intend to share it, especially with fellow interpreters.

    Thanks for allowing us to peek inside your world and feel your pain. I know it must not be easy to write about, but I think others will definitely learn from you.

  10. Thanks for penning out this insightful article. Saw it when Nyle posted this on his Facebook. I could not agree more. Here are my thoughts.

    People with disabilities like being deaf and mute have many difficulties communicating with people who do not have such disabilities. However, as someone who isn’t mute or deaf, I can actually relate to their frustrations. Why? Because the main problem is people not wanting to make an effort to accommodate.

    I am a quiet person with a personality veering towards those nerdy type. My conversations are limited to news, astronomy, sciences, people’s behaviors, general topics and my interests. Quite a number people in my school thought that I am boring, and since I don’t gossip much nor talk about their type of conversations topics, I am intentionally left out of their conversations because those people simply assume that I won’t be contributing much to the conversation and they don’t give any damn to what I said and what I want to say. I did drop a few comments and tried to mingle with them, but the rejection is just there. They didn’t give me a chance. Not even a tiny bit.

    So you see. Not only deaf mute or people with natural born disabilities that hinder their ability to communicate, who are facing such rejection problem from the society. People like me, who have different personality from the norm, or like those who are simply afraid of socialising, and many other examples, are also facing the same frustration. The general problem is about how the society simply think for themselves and they are not motivated to make an extra effort to accommodate to people who are different from them. It openly displayed the ugliness within a person and how Ignorant he or she can be.

    For the deaf and mute community, it won’t hurt for us who aren’t, to take out a note pad and write down our thoughts and what we want to say to them to help them to communicate with us. I hope that from examples like Nyle’s encounter on the media and the thoughts from the community will help to improve the attitude of the society towards all groups of people who are a little different when it comes to communication.

  11. Working within the deaf community, I’ve talked about this episode with co-workers several times this past week, and still find it heart wrenching to think back on. Now I’m including others in this conversation, and will reference this episode and article for years to come.

    In addition to being thankful for Nyle’s willingness to put himself out there with his poise, strength, and honesty, I’m thankful to Tara for putting herself out there with her experience, truth, and heart. I’ll be cheering again for Nyle this Friday, as well as for Tara and those who heed her words…

  12. You did a beautiful job explaining how ppl who are dhh are made to feel unimportant, and how these actions affect them. Thank you.

  13. Despite that they are deaf…. I frequently observed that these people are very intelligent, very kindhearted and can contribute to their society in a very positive way. So, I think we all must help them so that they can lead their life like normal people.

  14. As a hearing individual, this season of ANTM has been eye opening for me. And after reading this, I feel like I have a better understanding of the challenges that the deaf/hard of hearing community faces. I never imagined how difficult these situations could be, especially when others aren’t considerate.I was shocked when I read about how your coworkers acted when you showed then VRS. Unfortunately it seems like a common theme after the phone incident with Nyle (and as you mentioned, these things continue to happen). I have a lot of admiration for members of the deaf community like you. Now that I have a better understanding, i really hope I can make genuine, thoughtful connections to those in the deaf community. Thank you!

  15. Pingback: On Advocacy: When to Fight Back and when to Let Go | Life Unscripted

  16. I am a hearing parent of a hearing child that doesn’t speak yet. Dye to his developmental delays he will likely need an assistant device. …..probably a “big mack ” to start with. I have heard from local parents that thus happens every where & every level….it sucks ! I mean no one in their right mind would take my glasses & play with them….they are my assistant device. What is wrong with people? ?

  17. Pingback: Tara Schupner Congdon: How America’s Next Top Model’s Nyle DiMarco was marginalised on national TV | The Limping Chicken

  18. Awareness has been brought to a new level about Deaf people. It is not the Deaf people that has access issues. It is that attitudinal barriers created by the hearing people. ANTM captured those moments and created a new level of dialogue on national level. Thank you for this compelling article. I felt like I am you and you are me as a Deaf person. This is an experience we Deaf people know too well, but couldn’t get this message through to the mainstream society, even to the well meaning individuals. Now I think with Nyle’s situation we are finally breaking through. Thank you to you both, Tara and Nyle!

  19. That episode was really eye opening because as soon as Devin took Nyle’s phone away I was like what are you doing? how the hell is Nyle going to be able to speak to you guys? And I don’t think I would have been able to grasp how huge of an insult and how much of a big issue it was if I had not seen how much Nyle used his phone to communicate from day one. So as a part of the hearing community I have learned so much just from watching this cycle of ANTM and I am sure Nyle has made a similar impact on so many peoples lives. Thank you for this article and thank you for sharing your experiences because you have opened my eyes and made me even more aware.

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