Nyle DiMarco’s speech fell on many ears in Heritage Hall last night as the speaker for SPA’s 2017 SPA Day. DiMarco has been deaf for as long as he can remember, but if you ask him about it, he’ll tell you it’s not an issue.
“Growing up, my life was completely different than yours, and my uniqueness is my advantage,” DiMarco said to the audience. An interpreter was present to translate DiMarco’s speech, which he gave entirely in sign language. He told a story of how a friend once asked him on the beach if he wished he could hear after the friend heard the waves crashing, DiMarco assumed. “My answer was ‘no'”, he said. DiMarco said if he wished he could hear then his life would have all sorts of new problems, such as being nervous at an interview with a non-deaf person. By accepting his deafness into his life DiMarco said he’s been able to form an identity beyond being deaf.
DiMarco believes he was fortunate as a child. After telling the audience he has more than 25 deaf relatives, he explained how they prepared him for the world. He was taught sign language at an early age and introduced to language more than other deaf kids. DiMarco said only 2 percent of the 70 million deaf community have access to the language and education necessary to succeed. Originally from New York, he attended school but quickly learned he was far ahead of his peers in sign language and even better than his teacher, which made learning difficult for him.
His family moved to Texas, where DiMarco began attending a school for the deaf at age 12. With advanced teachers and a deaf principle at the new school, DiMarco said he began to succeed so much that he decided to attend public school. According to him, it didn’t go as well as he planned: There was no communication between his peers and himself. His translator would travel from class to class with him, signing each teacher’s lecture to him.
“I hated it because I looked at the same face all day,” he said. When he asked to switch back, his mom said “Too bad, you wanted it.” After braving through the disconnect in the public school system, DiMarco attended Gallaudet University– the only deaf university in the world. He wanted to become a math teacher for deaf children.
“I thought deaf kids needed good math teachers,” he said. “I wanted to help deaf children to a new level and help them find their identity.”
It was at this time DiMarco was contacted by two television shows to participate in their upcoming seasons: Separated at Birth and America’s Next Top Model, which DiMarco admitted was a tough choice. To settle it, he let his dog decide between two tennis balls with the shows written individually on each one. In the end, his dog chose America’s Next Top Model and in 2015 he became the shows first deaf contestant.
Though he said he wouldn’t replace his experience on the show with anything, he doesn’t know if he would do it again. While he won the show, he said it was a difficult experience.
“You’re in the house with some crazy ass models,” he said. “I was deprived of my language which is hard for a 23-year-old man.”
From childhood education to the television industry, DiMarco realized being deaf without the right help can seem like you’re in a box sometimes. The producers of the show told him it would be “great television,” and though he agreed he knew it was also about so much more. His time on the show solidified his activism for the deaf community and inspired him to start the Nyle DiMarco Foundation to help other deaf kids have an easier time finding their own identities.
From America’s Next Top Model, DiMarco was offered a spot on Dancing With The Stars. “I had some bad dreams and nightmares about messing up and making the whole world think deaf people can’t dance.” He didn’t expect to make much of a difference in the deaf community by going on the show, because though the headlines always focused on his deafness, there was more attention on his disability rather than his abilities.
To break from the shell of those headlines, DiMarco and his partner danced one night, cutting the sound entirely for a few moments of the dance to make the audience experience what DiMarco experiences every day.
It worked, he said. The headlines then became about how he manages to stay in rhythm and learn the dances — his abilities. He says by accepting his uniqueness he has no disability. “I feel like I’m not disabled but the system makes me feel disabled. I don’t see it as a bad word anymore, I just embrace it.”
After the show, DiMarco received thousands of emails and letters from parents of deaf children asking for advice and thanking him. It was at this point DiMarco realized how much he could help the community.
More than 75 percent of parents don’t sign to their deaf children, he said. He added it’s not the parents’ or children’s fault but the lack of resources which facilitate the gap in education for deaf children. Because of this and his experiences as a deaf person, DiMarco is currently working on legislation with senators and other government actors to ensure educational benchmarks for deaf children. The benchmarks would ensure children who are deaf are prepared to enter kindergarten at the age of five.
“The biggest misconception people have about the deaf community is they think we can’t be intelligent,” he said. “They don’t realize we can function like anyone else.”