A lot of the impetus for starting Redeafined came from a frustration that deaf people are often portrayed as broken or "less than"; the mainstream media loves to cover deaf people as spectacle--when they're getting their cochlear implants activated or signing songs in ASL-- doing things that mesh with the interests of a hearing culture, but most hearing people are never exposed to deaf people succeeding in "normal," everyday life. The idea behind the "Deaf and Smart" series is to showcase deaf people who've taken various educational and personal paths and have full, successful lives, lives that are not hindered by "disability," but rather augmented by bilingualism and dual cultural experience.
This week we heard from Justin LeBlanc, a fashion designer and contestant on Season 12 of the hit TV competition Project Runway!
Redeafined: Many of Redeafined's pieces focus on education options for deaf children. Can you talk a little bit about your education growing up?
Justin: For primary and middle school, I attended the public schools that had the resources for deaf children. I attended all of the same classes as the hearing children, but I had a sign language interpreter with me. In addition, I had a “resource” class where I reviewed my daily lessons with a special education teacher. It all worked out very well. But, when the time came to plan for high school, the middle school advisors said that I would again be mainstreamed in a regular public school, but that my goal would be to get a certificate rather than a high school diploma. I knew that I wanted to go to college, so this was unacceptable. My mother and I worked with the school system to establish a “college-track” program for deaf kids in my neighborhood high school. Several of my deaf friends and I earned high school diplomas in this track. Unfortunately, after we graduated, the track was closed.
I attended college at North Carolina State University and the school provided me sign language assistance when needed. There, I received my BA in Architecture. From there I attended graduate school at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Again, I was provided a sign language interpreter when needed.
R: When did you decide to get a cochlear implant? Do you like using it?
J: I decided to get my cochlear implant when I was 18 years old in 2004. When I was younger, my parents felt that the technology was not yet good enough, but when I was around 16, they told me that the technology was good enough for me to decide whether I wanted an implant. I made the decision for myself and I can only speak to my experience. This is not the best option for everyone. Each person needs to decide what best fulfills their goals and lifestyle. For me, I feel it provided greater access to the hearing world and the possibility to further my education and meet my personal dreams for the future.
R: We noticed that you had access to ASL interpreters on the show. What kind of information does the implant provide you with vs. having an interpreter?
J: The information that I receive from the implant vs. having an interpreter varies from time to time. The cochlear implant would provide me with the audio information that I could match up with what the interpreter was signing. Sign language will always be my first language and it is habit for me to converse in sign language before spoken language.
I generally don’t need a sign language interpreter when I am speaking to someone one-on-one. I do become very dependent on an interpreter when I am in a noisy environment because I cannot always differentiate the sounds. On Project Runway, I couldn’t risk missing important information, so I requested the sign language interpreter. So to answer your question, it really depends on the situation that I am in. Having the cochlear implant and a sign language interpreter is the perfect situation for me.
R: Anything you'd tell parents of deaf children, or deaf people considering an implant, that they might not be able to find out from doctors or internet research?
J: This is a difficult question to answer because there are many things to consider and the different things weight differently on different people. I suppose that my main advice to parents of deaf children is to not deny the fact that they are deaf. I’m proud that I am a successful deaf person and even through I have a cochlear implant, I am still a deaf person. The cochlear implant is an important tool that will help the child become an active member of the hearing society. I have no regrets about getting an implant. But I am very thankful that I learned sign language first. The cochlear implant helps me in my every day life, but it is useless when it come to communicating and socializing with some of my best and dearest friends. Maybe instead of implanting deaf children, everyone should learn sign language!
R: When did you first get interested in fashion design? How did you get started?
J: I’ve always had a strong interest in art. As I began think more about a career, I moved into design. As a high school student, I attended a design summer camp at North Carolina State University. I applied to the NC State’s College of Design to study architecture and was accepted. However, in my final year of study, I felt that maybe architecture wouldn’t provide me satisfaction as an artist. One of my professors, Lope Diaz, saw that I had potential in fashion design and he encouraged me to pursue fashion even though I was about to graduate in architecture. He suggested that I compete in NC State’s runway event “Art2Wear.” I designed and created seven garments fashioned on the theme of the “seven deadly sins” and was awarded “Best of Show.” At that point, I realized that fashion and not architecture was my passion. After graduating with my degree in architecture, I enrolled in The School of Art Institute of Chicago to pursue a Master's degree in fashion.
R: Can you describe a kind of "typical" day of work for you?
J: My “typical” work day has changed quite a bit since Project Runway. I am currently an Assistant Professor at North Carolina State University. My typical day involves going to my office to meet with students and plan for my next class. I teach a studio class in fashion design, so studio teaching time takes up about five hours of my day. I am also the Faculty Co-Advisor for NC State’s Art2Wear program. My duties for this vary depending upon how close we are getting to the big runway event. But my typical day involves meetings dealing with fundraising, event planning, and working with the students who are directly involved in making the event happen. Since Project Runway, my days also involve, television, magazine, newspaper, and blog interviews, speaking engagements, developing my business and brand, and working on my fall/winter collection. With that said, I do have quite a bit on my plate!
R: Did you ever come up against any discrimination in the field? Or, does deafness make any aspect of the job more or less challenging?
J: I can’t think of any examples of discrimination. The biggest challenge is getting people to be comfortable communicating with me. People are sometimes unsure of how they should communicate with me. Should they talk to me or to my interpreter? Should they speak slowly or loudly? Sometimes I feel that people choose to not talk to me rather than risk an awkward situation. I must say that being on Project Runway has really made a difference in this department. Viewers heard me tell the other designers to just be themselves when talking to me. They also saw that the other designers, Tim Gunn, and the judges were very comfortable communicating with me. This has made a definite difference.
R: Can you talk a little bit about your experience on Project Runway?
J: My experience on Project Runway was amazing! I had no idea what to expect when I found out that I was part of Season 12.
Right now, I have mostly fond memories of the experience. But in reality it was very, very difficult. The lack of sleep, being constantly on the go, having the constant pressure of the competition while having a camera constantly in your face was both physically and emotionally challenging. But the designers, all being in that same pressure cooker, became very close. The biggest and best thing that I have taken away from Project Runway is my new crazy Fashion Family that I can reach out to.
R: What's next for you in terms of your career?
J: I will continue to teach at NC State and Co-advise the Art2Wear program. Be sure to check out it out! Leveraging the exposure that I have received from Project Runway, I will continue to be an advocate for the Deaf community. I would like to inspire deaf and other kids to stand up to their challenges and be successful. I am also developing my brand “Justin LeBlanc Design.” I'm currently designing, creating, and distributing on a limited basis, but I hope to have a full line of designs available to the public over the next year.
R: If you were to tell people who don't know much about deafness or deaf culture the most important thing they need to know, what would it be?
J: I would tell people that deafness is not a handicap. It is a way of life. Deaf people should be proud of who they are and the culture that they are part of. Hearing people should respect the deaf and their community. Deaf culture is part of the diversity that makes our life interesting. Everyone should learn more about Deaf Culture and learn a little sign language. It’s like dancing with your hands.
R: Last one. What do you do on your day off?
Find Justin on the web at http://www.jleblancdesign.com/ or @JLeBlancDesign, or learn more about Art2Wear here.