High school sweethearts Ryan Alex, who is deaf, and Ellen Mika, who can hear, post about their lives in an effort to connect both communities. They say their Sign Duo videos, many of which have hundreds of thousands of views, have helped their audience better understand what it means to be deaf and dispel myths about deaf-hearing relationships.
How did you meet?
Ryan: I was in a sign language class with Ellen’s best friend. Ellen would meet up with her friend after class so I would always see her around. One day, I finally asked, “Who’s that?” Her friend told me everything about Ellen, and then I decided to Facebook Message her, “Hey, you’re cute.”
Ellen: I didn’t know any sign language, so messaging was the only way we could communicate. After a few weeks of messaging, we met up in person. We started by writing in my geometry notebook. We would meet every day, and I started to pick up sign language. Three years ago, we started making videos because there was (still) a language barrier between us. We thought that vlogging our lives would help with our relationship.
How did it help?
Ellen: Our first vlogs were made as a fun way for us to communicate better. It helped my family and friends understand how our relationship works. My parents had shown concern over whether Ryan could support himself. That’s why we make videos: to show that deaf people are capable of doing everything that a hearing person can do.
Ryan: She learned sign language pretty quickly; she was a fast learner. In order to really communicate and learn, you have to practice with someone who knows the language, so she spent almost every day with me and caught on quickly.
How do your videos help break down the barrier between the deaf and hearing communities?
Ryan: Really it’s a cultural barrier, because anyone who is deaf has their own culture, their own art, their own expression, poetry, and language. All of it is based on sign language.
Ellen: Most of the time, people just don’t know how to approach a deaf person or how to interact with them. A lot of hearing people don’t have great eye contact, which is something that is important to incorporate when communicating with a deaf person, whose language is all visual. Little things like that, we try to explain in our videos.
Do you make a living doing this?
Ellen: We make money through our ads, but we’re both college students so Youtube is just a side thing. It has recently shown some potential, but we’ll see how that goes.
How have your videos affected your audience?
Ellen: Our subscribers are always commenting on how much they enjoy our videos. Someone reached out to Ryan one time, a boy who was having trouble in high school.
Ryan: He messaged me through Instagram, and we talked about how he was going through a tough time at the moment. He told us that when he came home from school, the first thing he would do was watch our videos and he felt he had something to look forward to. This impacted me because I also faced bullying and discrimination in high school. I could understand exactly where he was coming from.
What message do you want to share through your videos?
Ellen: All I see is Ryan—that’s all I see. I don’t see a deaf person. People are often placed in boxes: deaf or hearing. By showing people our everyday lives, people get to see Ryan, too. We try to share with the world that deaf-hearing relationships work. That’s the bottom line. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you are from; it can work.
Ryan: Overall, (the message is) that we are people, too.