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One semifinalist on Project Runway this season, Justin LeBlanc, from Raleigh, North Carolina, distinguished himself by his unique life experience: he is deaf and received a cochlear implant.

The popular reality TV show Project Runway features fashion designers who compete against each other to make the best garments while restricted by time, textile and theme. Each week designers are eliminated until a few remain and showcase their collections at a New York City fashion show.

LeBlanc was born with severe sensorineural hearing loss. He received a cochlear implant at age 18, which enables him to hear well enough to communicate with his peers and on the phone. However, LeBlanc still signs and during televised moments, viewers could sometimes see a Sign Language interpreter translating for him.

LeBlanc repeatedly mentioned throughout the show that he wants to be seen as more than a deaf individual and that his hearing loss is not a disability. In fact, Justin was even able to use his hearing loss to his advantage! He admitted in a monologue that he would turn his cochlear implant off when his fellow designers squabbled in the workroom, allowing him to better concentrate.

LeBlanc credits hearing loss as the inspiration for his final collection, which he said symbolized his journey as a deaf person. The first few pieces in his collection were stark white, clean-cut attire, meant to represent the pure silence he experienced during his first stages of life. The collection then transitioned to dark grey pieces, splattered with white paint on the edges, which signified adjustment to life with a cochlear implant. LeBlanc described this phase as being very noisy, which he disliked.

LeBlanc ended his collection with his final “unconventional materials” piece that the designers were challenged to make with an unusual textile. LeBlanc rose to the challenge and fashioned a beautiful cascading gown entirely out of test tubes which demonstrated the three-dimensional effect that hearing brought into his life. LeBlanc articulated that when he was unable to hear, he felt like he was living in a two-dimensional world and that changed once he was implanted.  To really drive this point home, LeBlanc also created modern accessories with a 3D printer in attempts to emphasize the 3D effect that hearing creates.

Although LeBlanc did not leave as the winner, he received many accolades from the judges as host Heidi Klum told him, “We’re so impressed with your collection.”  Leblanc’s fans have also been a pillar of support and his mother emphasized that as she met him when he left the stage by telling him, “America fell in love with you.”

At the time of his elimination, a teary LeBlanc confessed to the camera: “Just growing up being a deaf person and having people constantly tell me that I’m not capable of doing things I want to do, that’s definitely something that’s scarring. Project Runway has given me the opportunity so I can prove these people wrong.”

by Esther Shasho