Recommended Reading: DEAF UTOPIA by Nyle DiMarco

Deaf Utopia: A Memoir - And a Love Letter to a Way of LifeDeaf Utopia: A Memoir – And a Love Letter to a Way of Life by Nyle DiMarco with Robert Siebert
Summary: In this moving and engrossing memoir, Nyle shares stories, both heartbreaking and humorous, of what it means to navigate a world built for hearing people. From growing up in a rough-and-tumble childhood in Queens with his big and loving Italian-American family to where he is now, Nyle has always been driven to explore beyond the boundaries given him. A college math major and athlete at Gallaudet—the famed university for the Deaf in Washington, DC—Nyle was drawn as a young man to acting, and dove headfirst into the reality show competitions America’s Next Top Model and Dancing with the Stars—ultimately winning both competitions. Deaf Utopia is more than a memoir, it is a cultural anthem—a proud and defiant song of Deaf culture and a love letter to American Sign Language, Nyle’s primary language. Through his stories and those of his Deaf brothers, parents, and grandparents, Nyle opens many windows into the Deaf experience.

DiMarco’s memoir is open and honest, at turns hilarious and poignant. The subtitle “A memoir – and a love letter to a way of life” is right on; DiMarco draws back the curtain on what it was like to grow up in a big Deaf family, from the joys of ASL signs zinging around the dinner table to the tragedies of discrimination from the hearing world and the language deprivation experienced by his father. In describing his experiences on America’s Next Top Model and Dancing with the Stars, he offers a clear-eyed understanding of the ways producers shape the narratives in reality TV, while also cogently analyzing the accessibility fails along the way. Through candid anecdotes, he tracks his changing understanding of his own sexuality, finally embracing his queer identity. Throughout the narrative, the book weaves in just enough background information about ASL and Deaf culture and history to help even newcomers to the topic understand how DiMarco’s personal story fits into the bigger picture of the multifaceted Deaf community.

DEAF UTOPIA is out now.

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Have you read TRUE BIZ yet? If not, fix that now!

True BizTrue Biz by Sara Nović
Summary: True biz (adj/exclamation; American Sign Language): really, seriously, definitely, real-talk
True biz? The students at the River Valley School for the Deaf just want to hook up, pass their history final, and have doctors, politicians, and their parents stop telling them what to do with their bodies. This revelatory novel plunges readers into the halls of a residential school for the deaf, where they’ll meet Charlie, a rebellious transfer student who’s never met another deaf person before; Austin, the school’s golden boy, whose world is rocked when his baby sister is born hearing; and February, the headmistress, who is fighting to keep her school open and her marriage intact, but might not be able to do both. As a series of crises both personal and political threaten to unravel each of them, Charlie, Austin, and February find their lives inextricable from one another–and changed forever.

This is a brutal, glorious read that invites hearing readers into the perspectives of members of the Deaf community, and gives Deaf readers a mirror of their own beautiful, complex culture that is rarely seen in written literature. The author provides background and context for readers unfamiliar with ASL and Deaf Culture through strategically placed handouts from Charlie’s history class that explain everything from name signs to the impact of Deaf President Now. Every word, every sign illustration, every snippet of dialogue works together to create a verbal picture – even the formatting. Over the years, novelists have used many different methods to show ASL, which has no written form, on the page. Nović’s approach is astonishingly effective. Spoken dialogue contains no quotation marks, with nothing to set it apart from narration; it is simply part of the visual landscape, just as it would be for a Deaf person attempting to speechread. Signed communication, in contrast, is italicized and located in different places on the page to represent who is communicating. This creates a sense of visual distinction and echoes the use of space in American Sign Language. Nović expertly weaves in multiple character points of view to showcase the diversity of the Deaf community, exploring everything from cochlear implants to Black ASL to the state of residential schools to the struggle of CODAs (hearing children of deaf adults) to move between two worlds – all with a nuance, authenticity, and depth rarely seen in mainstream literature. With so many weighty topics to explore, a lesser author would get bogged down. But Nović’s story soars as it navigates the shifting relationships at its heart, always returning to the connections woven in the community.

TRUE BIZ is out now.

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Recommended Reading: The Words in My Hands by Asphyxia

The Words in My HandsThe Words in My Hands by Asphyxia
Summary: Part coming of age, part call to action, this #ownvoices novel about a Deaf teenager is an exploration of what it means to belong. Set in an ominously prescient near future, this is the story of Piper. Sixteen, smart, artistic, and rebellious; she’s struggling to conform to what her mom wants–for her to be ‘normal, ‘ to pass as hearing, and get a good job. But in a time of food scarcity, environmental collapse, and political corruption, Piper has other things on her mind–like survival. Deaf since the age of three, Piper has always been told that she needs to compensate in a world that puts those who can hear above everyone else. But when she meets Marley, a whole new world opens up–one where Deafness is something to celebrate rather than hide, and where resilience and hope are created by taking action, building a community, and believing in something better.

Set in Australia a few decades into the future, this compelling novel presents a world where most of the population is dependent on Organicore, a food substitute that has improved nutrition and eradicated cancer and other diseases, but at the cost of estranging the population from so-called “wild food” – and possibly introducing other health problems. In the midst of this we meet Piper, a deaf teen who has grown up as an oral deaf person, relying on hearing aids and speechreading to get by. When the economy tanks and there are shortages of everything – including Organicore – Piper and her mother rent out their house and move into a tiny guesthouse, conserving the little power that is left to them. Piper meets a handsome CODA (child of deaf adult) named Marley and through him is introduced to Auslan (Australian Sign Language) for the first time. As she falls for Marley, she meets his Deaf mother and learns about growing things in the earth and growing a sense of identity and language in her soul. Piper lives out what Deaf educator Gina Oliva calls the “MET DEAF WOW” moment that so many orally educated deaf young adults experience. (… ) She begins to understand that she is not alone and there is a whole community of people like her, with deep connections and ease of communication. As she becomes more engaged in their world, her confidence grows and she joins the wild food revolution, converting the public space on her street into a thriving community garden. Interspersed with Piper’s drawings, the text pulls the reader in from the first page. Unlike many books with deaf (and Deaf) characters, The Words in My Hands never glosses over the relentlessness of the struggle for communication in the hearing world, and how much of that burden usually falls on Piper. When Piper is forced to rely on speechreading, the reader is shown the nonsense that she gets from the other person’s lips and sees in real time the work she has to do into order to construct meaning. The readers also gets to experience the blossoming of communication alongside Piper as she learns Auslan and comes into her own Deaf identity. An extraordinary book on many levels.

10% off the Sign with Robert Series!

I’ve been recommending the excellent ASL/Deaf Culture series SIGN WITH ROBERT since it first came out four years ago, so I am delighted to share that, after a brief period where it was not available, it’s back with a new distributor, and available to purchase streaming or on DVD from Gumroad! Deaf actor/educator Robert DeMayo (from SEE WHAT I’M SAYING) teaches vocabulary, receptive skills, episodes about Deaf culture, and lots of fun games. 30 episodes with over 150 lessons you can download and keep or order on DVD. Visit to learn more.

Special offer! Through September, receive 10% off any purchase when you enter ADA10 (to celebrate the ADA anniversary) as the promo code during checkout! Thank you to director/producer Hilari Scarl for sharing this discount code with Stories By Hand readers!  If you have any questions about the series, contact Hilari at


My review:
This excellent series goes far beyond the usual introductions to American Sign Language (ASL) to create value for multiple audiences. Deaf actor and educator Robert DeMayo brings his native ASL fluency to the demonstrations of signs and discussion of culture, and the series features a clean visual style that keeps the focus on the language. The vocabulary segments go into far greater depth than most ASL materials, making the series valuable to advanced signers and interpreters as well as beginners.


Review: DEAF MINISTRY by Leo Yates, Jr.

Deaf Ministry: Ministry Models for Expanding the Kingdom of GodDeaf Ministry: Ministry Models for Expanding the Kingdom of God by Leo Yates Jr

This book is geared to those involved in Christian ministry who wish to create or expand ministry to Deaf people within their churches. Yates begins with an overview of deafness and Deaf Culture, with a particular emphasis on how both may impact a Deaf individual’s experiences of church. He then explores various models of Deaf ministry, ranging from the Deaf Church, where the dominant language is American Sign and the liturgy may be adapted for Deaf congregations, to Interpreted Ministry, where access is provided to hearing church services and certain activities via an ASL interpreter, to Hard-of-Hearing and Late-Deafened Ministry, which focuses on access for those who do not use ASL to communicate. Yates also offers information on Deaf-blind Ministry, Deaf Advocacy, Deaf Missions, and Disability Ministry (which may or may not include the Deaf community), as well as an excellent chapter discussing the idea of the Multicultural Church, which strives to integrate the needs of Hearing, Deaf, Hard-of-Hearing, Late-deafened, and Deaf-blind individuals, and brings both hearing and Deaf culture values into its services.
Yates gives an excellent overview of the different ways that Deaf individuals may be integrated into a church community, with lots of specific resources relating to provision of interpreters, accommodations checklists, and case studies showing how other churches have done it. This is a must-have resource for anyone looking to start a Christian Deaf ministry.


Recommended DVD Series: Sign with Robert

I have been writing reviews of ASL materials for School Library Journal for several years now.  Whenever I get a new one, I tense a little with worry – there are some frankly awful sign language DVDs out there.

That’s why it’s such a thrill when I get to review a series that I can review as enthusiastically as this one.  Sign with Robert is well-planned-out, well-executed, and always mindful of the needs of its audience.


Here’s some of what I had to say in my review:

“This excellent series goes far beyond the usual introductions to American Sign Language (ASL) to create value for multiple audiences. Deaf actor and educator Robert DeMayo brings his native ASL fluency to the demonstrations of signs and discussion of culture, and the series features a clean visual style that keeps the focus on the language. The vocabulary segments go into far greater depth than most ASL materials, making the series valuable to advanced signers and interpreters as well as beginners.”

Sign with Robert is available as a 10-volume series, or by individual discs or streaming episodes.  Voiceovers and open captions are used where necessary to make sure everyone has access.


Language and Culture in Other Worlds

Sword And Verse_cover revealFor the past ten years, while pursuing my career as an American Sign Language interpreter and storyteller, I have also been quietly pursuing another dream: to become a published novelist.  A little over a week ago, that dream became a reality when my debut young adult novel, Sword and Verse, was published by HarperTeen.  Sword and Verse is the story of a land where writing is restricted to the nobility, and a slave girl who learns the language of the gods and finds the key to saving the kingdom.  Though the story does not explicitly mention signing, it is absolutely soaked in my love of language and informed by the lessons I have learned from the Deaf community.

I am excited to share with you an interview about the book conducted by Ruth Lehrer, a fellow American Sign Language interpreter and the author of the forthcoming middle grade novel Being Fishkill (Candlewick, 2017).  We decided to do the interview in American Sign Language to make it completely accessible to our friends in the Deaf community.  (Don’t worry, nonsigners – we also provided an English transcript – mostly.  There’s a bonus, untranslated question for signers only!)

I loved the thoughtful questions Ruth asked about the role of language in the book, and I loved the opportunity to share how my experiences in the Deaf community impacted the story.  I hope you will enjoy this interview as much as I did!  Watch the interview in ASL or read it in English at the Swanky Seventeens Blog.

Sword and Verse is available in hardcover, e-book, and audio.  Read the first 9 chapters for free at Epic Reads!

Review: ASL Tales

ASL Tales: RapunzelASL Tales: Annie's TailsASL Tales: The Princess and the Pea

ASL Tales: The Tortoise and the HareASL Tales: The Boy Who Cried Wolf

Click on the covers above for previews of each story and purchase information.

ASL Tales proclaims itself to be “a new way of experiencing American Sign Language and English” and these engaging DVD/picture book sets truly deliver on that promise. Each DVD features a story told by a master ASL storyteller, incorporating illustrations from the accompanying picture book. Viewers can choose to engage with the story on many different levels – by watching the story in ASL only, in ASL alternating with the book illustrations, in ASL with voiceover and/or captions, or in multiple combinations of these options. Voiceover narration is available in 11 different languages – English, Cantonese, Korean, Russian, Arabic, Haitian Creole, Mandarin, Spanish, Bosnian, French, and Portuguese – making this product an ideal learning tool for families from many different language backgrounds. The ASL storytelling itself is absolutely masterful, with native signers providing beautiful language modeling.

But where ASL Tales really stands out from the pack is its “ASL Clues” feature, which allows viewers to see each individual sentence of the story in slow motion, with relevant ASL grammatical features explained on the screen. These features include use of role shift, classifiers, nonmanual signals, directionality, and nuances of vocabulary – but you won’t see linguistic terms like these on the screen. Instead, you will find user-friendly explanations of the grammatical features that can be understood easily by all. The producers have pulled off quite a feat here – making big-picture language information accessible to a wide range of learners, while at the same time providing detailed, hands-on information about the nuances of the language that will aid even upper-level ASL and interpreting students.

This feature takes ASL Tales far beyond the typical list-of-vocabulary approach (though each DVD also features a useful video glossary of relevant signs) and helps viewers understand how to put sentences and stories together in ASL. The producers have created an incredibly flexible product that is both enjoyable and enlightening, one that can be enjoyed by hearing and deaf audiences alike, and one which manages to support written, spoken, and sign language development all at once. Bravo!

A Place Where Everyone Signed

For over 300 years, the tiny island of Martha’s Vineyard, located off the coast of Massachusetts, was something of a Deaf utopia – not because it was the bastion of a strong Deaf culture, but because it was the home of a bilingual community of hearing and deaf people, where deaf islanders participated fully in all aspects of life.  That’s because the small, self-contained society had a high incidence of deafness – in the town of Chilmark, 1 in 25 residents were born deaf.  This led to all members of the society using Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language (one of the seeds of modern ASL) alongside English.

Find out more in this great post from REDEAFINED: Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language (Sign without Stigma).

Or check out Nora Groce’s remarkable book, Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language: 516cnGOIy1LHereditary Deafness on Martha’s Vineyard (Harvard University Press, 1988).


It just goes to show: when communication is present, our differences no longer divide us.


Learning American Sign Language Online

picture of computerLooking for a great site to help you learn American Sign Language, or to supplement an in-person class?  Here are three sites that fit the bill:

ASLOnline: Maintained by the University of Texas at Austin, this free online tutorial features three levels focusing on vocabulary and sentence structure in American Sign Language.  Instruction takes places through videos and written text.  The organization of the units mirrors the critically acclaimed Signing Naturally curriculum, making this site an ideal supplement to in-person classes.

ASL University: Maintained by Bill Vicars, this site features clear, well-structured lessons with a mixture of print information, video, and photos.  It also includes lots of activities for practice and an online ASL dictionary, making this a great stop for someone looking for a casual resource or a serious student looking for structured lessons.

Start ASL: This site offers three levels of free online ASL courses, as well as a fingerspelling course.  Students download a free workbook in .pdf form and use it to work through the video activities in each unit.  The free courses are quite robust, but the site also offers a more in-depth paid class option for those who want to access the courses free of advertisements, with the option to submit assignments for feedback and access additional material.

Got a great ASL instruction site to recommend?  Tell us about in the comments, or send an email to!