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'Project Runway' alum shatters assumptions about being deaf

| Sunday, Nov. 10, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

In a “Project Runway” season where fights between contestants raged for hours, one of the finalists took refuge in what some would consider a disability: being deaf.

Justin LeBlanc would turn down the volume on his cochlear implant or completely remove the external device, and he would focus on his designs. “It worked to my advantage,” LeBlanc says. “It allowed me to block out all the drama.”

LeBlanc fell short of the win, but by making it all the way to the final four, he helped educate the viewing — and hearing — public about being deaf.

“A lot of people have never been around a deaf person,” he said, though 2 to 3 out of every 1,000 children in the United States are born deaf or hard-of-hearing, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.

LeBlanc hopes his appearance on “Project Runway” helped dispel some assumptions, myths and stereotypes about deafness.

Among the misperceptions:

“Hearing-impaired” is the preferred adjective. Not necessarily.

“A lot of deaf people get offended when they're referred to as ‘hearing-impaired,'” LeBlanc says. “For me, it's not an impairment. It's a way of life. I was born this way. Deaf is appropriate. I'm a proud deaf person.”

Any deaf person would welcome a cochlear implant. False.

“I was against it for a long time. I feared people were trying to change who I was,” says LeBlanc, whose parents learned he was deaf when he was 18 months old. The opportunity to get an implant arose when he was about 15, and LeBlanc decided to do so at age 18. “I decided I had nothing to lose. I could choose to take it off or turn it down.”

In adulthood, many of his deaf friends have eschewed a cochlear implant, which is why he suggests parents think twice about making the decision for a baby or young child. “It's not for everybody,” LeBlanc says. “I think everyone should have a choice.”

Speaking louder and slower enhances understanding. False.

“That is a complete myth for me since it will only make it more difficult for me to understand,” LeBlanc says. When he first meets people, he needs to see their lips move in their typical manner. As he gets to know them and their delivery, he trains himself so he can look away and still understand. “It takes practice.” If he is in a dark or loud environment or crucial information is being conveyed, he uses an interpreter for backup, as on “Project Runway.” “I don't always trust what I hear,” he says. “I don't like missing out on information.”

Society has moved past “deaf and dumb.” False.

“I still encounter people to this day who associate being deaf with being dumb,” says LeBlanc, who completed graduate studies in fashion at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and now teaches fashion and design at North Carolina State University, where he earned an undergraduate degree in architecture. He did so despite being told once by a high-school teacher that he couldn't go to college because he was deaf. “I went to the school board over that,” he says. “'Deaf and dumb' is the biggest stereotype that bothers me.”

American Sign Language limits expression. False.

“I still consider ASL as my first language,” LeBlanc says. “I would love to use it all the time, but not everyone knows it. It's a beautiful language, all about body language. And body gestures speak louder than words.” A visit to Thailand reinforced that belief. A Thai person who was deaf approached LeBlanc and, despite differences in Asian sign language, they understood each other. “With verbal language, it's hard to convey the emotion. ASL is performance, in a way. All of us could benefit from using more gestural communication,” LeBlanc says. “It has really allowed me to be who I am.”

Wendy Donahue is a staff writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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