Deaf rebel against 135-year-old education standards

By May 3, 2016

USA (MNN) – From the outside looking in, Nyle DiMarco may seem broken. He is deaf and the easiest way for him to communicate is through sign language.

"Mercy" Photo Courtesy AMG International

Photo Courtesy AMG International

But despite DiMarco’s impaired hearing, he competed in America’s Next Top Model in 2015…and won.

Shortly afterwards, DiMarco was contacted by Dancing With The Stars. He is currently a celebrity contestant in the show’s 22nd Season.

In both television shows, DiMarco was the first deaf contestant ever to compete.

Educators and advocates have said DiMarco should work on his ability to overcome his hearing impairment rather than depend on sign language. But the majority of the deaf community see DiMarco as a role model because he isn’t afraid to show his deafness.

Unbeknownst to much of the hearing world, the deaf community is split on how to approach a quiet world, and at the center of this 135-year-old war is DiMarco and the inventor of the telephone.

Alexander Graham Bell had a passion for deaf education. He even taught using a form of sign language. But Bell worried that using a different language was isolating the deaf from the hearing. Bell was training teachers in Boston how to educate deaf children in 1880 when a group of educators held an international conference in Milan. The educators decided the best way for deaf people to learn life skills and integrate into society would be to avoid sign language.

The Second International Congress on Education of the Deaf (ICED) of 1880 was loaded with speakers who favored speech therapy sans sign language. Decisions made at the conference basically lead to the virtual extinction of the deaf as teachers, said DOOR International President and CEO Rob Myers.

The vote was rigged. Though the few deaf people in attendance spoke in favor of using sign language, their motion was never brought before the council for a vote.

Called the Milan Conference, many deaf educators now see the symposium as the dawn of the dark ages of deaf education, Myers says. DOOR works to share the Gospel with the deaf in countries throughout the world by learning each region’s brand of sign language, then creating resources to teach those people about Jesus Christ.

Though sign language was accepted again by the turn of the 20th century, the Milan Conference had wide-reaching affects, Myers says. The outcome of that conference can still be seen in deaf schools where teachers have only rudimentary signing skills and students are prevented from using their heart language at school, Myers says.

The tenants of the Milan Conference are still followed, despite the fact that the ICED in 2010 issued an apology of sorts for the 1880 Milan Conference.

In their Bill of Rights for deaf and hard of hearing children, the National Association for the Deaf (NAD) declared, “Deaf children have the right to acquire both English and American Sign Language (a natural visual language). Deaf children can acquire both of these languages simultaneously…”

DiMarco stumbled into the long-standing battle to accept sign as a legitimate language to teach when AG Bell Association replied to a column about DiMarco in the Washington Post and noted the advances in medicine that have been made. In the reply, Bell Association notes DiMarco’s achievements, but stipulates that sign language should be the second language for young deaf people – not their first.

“It’s amazing when deaf kids get access to sign language resources, it is amazing to see how they flourish,” Myers says.

Despite that, he says practices continue that were “catastrophic” in deaf schools. “Kids are not allowed to sign. Their hands are slapped, their hands are tied behind their backs. That still goes on, not so much in the United States, but in other countries.”

DOOR teachers go into some schools overseas where teachers only have rudimentary sign language skills, he states.

“Part of their roll is direct discipleship in the community,” Myers sahres. One of the areas staff saw as a mission field were the schools where they could help teach sign and use the increased vocabulary to advance their whole education.

When the deaf staff came to schools, they saw kids who were not involved, not even paying attention. “’I thought when I grew up, I’d be hearing like the adults around me, or something bad would happen to me,’ one child told the DOOR staff.” When they started teaching, the staff members found that they quickly became deaf adult models to their students.

“As they shared Bible stories in these kids’ heart language, they were captivated,” Myers says. “A month later, when they came back, a child stood in the class and gave sign-for-sign, word-for-word, the Bible story they’d given him a month before.” He told them he liked the story and recited it over and over after they left.

There have been a number of such children in deaf schools in Kenya, according to Myers. The DOOR staff have started working with them, teaching them more stories that the children take back to their families and neighbors and share.

“They are very hungry for God’s Word. They are very excited whenever they get that information,” he said. “Scripture is being used to teach them signs that they have not learned before. They are learning their own language and seeing it modeled by adults who are using it on a daily basis.”

Pray for the DOOR staff as they work to share God’s love in deaf communities.


  • Master says:

    God must bring new more technologies for the Gospel to reach everywhere in the world.

  • Roberta says:

    This is new and welcome information. I have been praying for the sign language translation of the Bible and will also pray for all the issues of the deaf. May they all learn the truth that will set them free!

  • LW says:

    FYI: Marlee Matlin was the first deaf competitor on DWTS.

  • Janice says:

    The Deaf community is NOT split in its opinion on what communication to use. ASL or any country’s sign language should be available for all children to acquire as any spoken language is … through interactions with adults who are native signers.

    Deaf people do not need technologies to become mock-hearing people. They need visual alerts, flashing lights or vibrating alarms … AND hearing people who know how to communicate in signed languages.

    Deaf people are NOT broken hearing people!

  • Ruth Kramer says:

    I see your point. The idea behind that last paragraph was not to get locked into the ‘blue means boy’ and ‘pink means girl’ ideal, appreciating that sometimes there are characteristics and strengths that are misinterpreted or suppressed unfairly.

  • Amen! All simply and clearly made points. And, Yes, Deaf/Hard of hearing are not broken people. I need to become a better sing user.
    Thank you for this information.
    Mom of a 40 + Unbroken son…..and his beautiful family.

  • Katey H. says:

    Greetings Roberta, thank you for your prayers for the Deaf! We so appreciate them. If you’d like to know more about the needs of the Deaf, please visit our website:

    We also have a monthly prayer calendar that you can download & print off: Thank you again for your interest in and prayer for the Deaf!

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