Deaf, transgender model Chella Man shares how to be a better ally for people with disabilities

To honor the 30th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), In The Know is asking young people with disabilities about growing up with the law, and how it’s impacted their lives.

At 21, Chella Man is a whopping nine years younger than the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the watershed law that made discrimination based on disabilities illegal.

Man knows his history though. The actor, model and LGBTQIA+ activist, who was profoundly deaf by age 13, told In The Know he understands his life would be drastically different without the ADA.

“Personally, the ADA has impacted my life academically through allowing me to have access to a sign language interpreter, to cars, to FM systems, to live transcriptions and to live translation resources outside of academic places, such as the movie theaters [and shows on] Broadway,” he said.

Then there’s his career. Man’s fame has skyrocketed in recent years, beginning with his YouTube channel, where he started posting sign language translations of pop songs in 2017.

In reality, the page was a full-on lifestyle vlog, with Man sharing his journey as a young, deaf, transgender, genderqueer man (some of his earliest videos included him getting his first-ever testosterone shot and a personal account of him realizing that he identified as male).

Man then singed with the famous IMG modeling agency in 2018, just months before being cast in the DC Universe series “Titans.” As his notoriety has grown, so has the platform from which he can discuss the issues disabled people deal with each day.

“One of the biggest issues the disabled community is continuously facing is not being provided the resources they need because of money and people believing [that] the amount of people in need should not allow for the resources to be given,” he told In The Know. “It’s not about the number of disabled people in need. It’s about, ‘just one should be enough.'”

Man speaks highly of the progress achieved in the past. He’s a fan of the recent Netflix documentary “Crip Camp,” which he said made him cry with “tears of pride.”

“It was pride because never had I seen people for my disabled community band together across the board, regardless of their disability and just fight so hard for inclusion and equality. And I just couldn’t believe it,” he told In The Know of the film, which focuses on disability rights activists in the 1970s.

However, the 21-year-old also knows that those early achievements — which were furthered by the ADA’s passage in 1990 — aren’t enough.

“I do wanna emphasize that the fight is not over. And there are many things within the ADA that still need to be refined and mutated to create a better society,” he told In The Know. “That is more inclusive for all. Although we have the ADA, the fight is not over.”

Man is continuing his own fight, which includes speaking out in Ted Talks and on his popular Instagram account.

One thing Man often discusses is intersectionality, a concept that he cares deeply about as a transgender, deaf and genderqueer man who is also outspoken about his Chinese and Jewish heritage. Man says people need to understand that disabilities aren’t black or white — they’re complex and unique to each individual.

“Another big issue that society should unlearn is understanding that just like race, gender, just like sexuality, [a] disability is on a continuum,” he told In The Know. “People must unlearn disabled identities as a stereotype because it invalidates a lot of people in their own ways.”

That’s why he stresses that, even with the progress made by the ADA over his lifetime, Americans need to listen closely to their disabled friends, coworkers and loved ones.

“I think the best way to be a better ally is to just listen to those around you and support them depending on what they say, because we all have different needs of different ways that we need to be supported,” he said. “Ask them specifically what they need. That’s the best thing you can do as an ally.”

If you liked this story, check out In The Know’s previous interview with Chella Man, where he told us how he expresses love through sign language.

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