I cannot remember the last time, if ever, that I learned so much from a memoir. Nyle DiMarco’s Deaf Utopia should be required reading for everyone.
Nyle DiMarco won hearts by winning both America’s Next Top Model and Dancing With the Stars, breaking barriers and bringing awareness to a beautiful silent world that many of us, myself included, don’t think about much. Part of a multi-generational Deaf family, this love letter to Deaf culture is sometimes joyful and, at other times, heart-breaking.
The writing is exquisite. I learned about the frustratingly slow evolution of allowing Deaf students to use American Sign Language, as opposed to forcing speech and oral education, in schools for the Deaf. I learned about the Milan Conference, a group of decision makers in the 1800s who made crucial choices about educating Deaf children when only one of the members was Deaf himself. I learned about Alexander Graham Bell, who has always been heralded as a pioneer, and his belief that if Deaf couples didn’t marry and procreate, the “deaf gene” would eventually be “bred out” of the human race.
As an elementary school teacher, I firmly agree with DiMarco’s statement “Kids need a language rich environment for their brains to acquire the rhythm and pattern of language.” It seems so basic, and this is why we sing a lot of songs in kindergarten about numbers, the days of the week, the months of the year, etc. It is why, even when I taught fifth grade, I still set aside at least half an hour a day for “story time,” where I read to my students and tried to exemplify a love of words and language.
In a school for the Deaf, this love is best conveyed through their native language, ASL, which DiMarco describes as “…something uniquely ours, a beautiful creation made with Deaf minds, hands, and bodies. When we use it, we feel truly content, truly ourselves.” Which makes the decades of systemic resistance to using it even more shocking. The more Deaf children have access to ASL-rich classrooms, the more they thrive and learn a variety of subjects. When the emphasis is all about speech and lip-reading, gaps can form in the child’s education. His family has members across the spectrum with all these experiences. The consequences, both good and bad, last a lifetime.
Discussing the book would not be complete without mentioning Nyle DiMarco’s amazing mother, Donna, who is also Deaf, and raised her three Deaf sons pretty much single-handedly. The way she fought for them, advocated for their education, nurtured them, and supported them is nothing short of heroic. If there was a school that was better, they moved there. If there was unfairness in the system, she challenged it. All of her sons are graduates of the prestigious Gallaudet University. Seriously, this lady deserves her own biography.
This book is revelatory. It is also fun and anecdotal. There’s mischief, love, setbacks, and creative solutions on nearly every page. I recommend it highly. Like with any culture, the only way to understand it better is to learn about it. I was honored to learn about Deaf culture, which is larger than we realize and has much to teach us.
May 8, 2022 video addition: There are lots of videos of Nyle DiMarco modeling, dancing, and being interviewed. But if you read this book you’ll learn that the foundation for all of his success was early language acquisition. (Not speech, but LANGUAGE. There’s a difference.) He’s very passionate about it. (I agree!) In that respect, I think these two videos are the best ones to post here.