Published October 24, 2019
Deaf activist and reality TV star Nyle DiMarco brought his message of positivity and inclusion, as well as a hefty dose of humor, to the Center for Arts last night to kick off UB’s annual Distinguished Speakers Series.
DiMarco regaled the crowd, which included many deaf attendees, with tales of his journey from a child who insisted on attending public school with hearing children to becoming a global advocate for the partially deaf and deaf.
Along the way, he embraced his deafness and found ways to make it work to his advantage.
“Never once have I ever wished that I could hear. There are a lot of reasons behind that. But the biggest one is that I cherish what I embody, my identity, as a deaf person,” signed DiMarco, who communicated in American Sign Language (ASL) through an interpreter.
He described his early childhood, when he attended a deaf school in the 1990s where many of his classmates did not know ASL. This surprised him because he grew up in a deaf household — his parents and twin brother are deaf — and could sign fluently.
It was entirely different at a deaf school in Texas, where his family moved. There, he experienced what he described as “deaf culture shock” because everyone used ASL. It was the first time he could easily communicate with fellow students, and the experience was exhilarating.
It wasn’t long, though, before he insisted on attending public school with hearing children.
“It was hell, let me tell you,” said DiMarco, who felt marginalized by people who saw his deafness as a limitation.
“I was only known as Nyle, the deaf boy,” he said.
He split his time between public school and deaf school for a year before returning full time to deaf school, where he excelled. To further immerse himself in deaf culture, he eventually attended Gallaudet University for the deaf and partially hearing in Washington, D.C.
“I tell you, deaf people rage way harder than hearing people,” DiMarco said of college parties, which drew laughs from the audience.
He described travelling the world solo, including a humorous account in Italy between an American and an Italian who couldn’t communicate because of language barriers. DiMarco was able to read their body language and act as an interpreter between the two.
“I’m a deaf guy translating for two hearing people,” DiMarco said, again drawing laughs from the crowd.
While contemplating careers as a math teacher and in public relations, DiMarco was working as a freelance model when he was approached by the TV show “America’s Next Top Model.”
He described the difficulties he encountered on the show, such as being left out of conversations because his cast mates weren’t willing to learn ASL. Ultimately, though, he said the show was an “incredible experience” and that his deafness helped him with critical body language skills necessary for modeling.
Upon winning the contest, he was offered a spot on “Dancing with the Stars” in 2016. He accepted, despite not having any formal dance training. He explained how he developed with his partner a set of cues, such as squeezing his hand to alert him the music had started. Like “America’s Next Top Model,” DiMarco persevered and was named winner of the show.
Since then, DiMarco has acted, modeled and started a foundation to provide resources to the millions of deaf people who are woefully underserved worldwide. He credits his success to hard work and learning to embrace who he is.
“I love being deaf so much to the point where I want to share this experience with you,” he said.
In a question-and-answer session with Robin Schulze, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, DiMarco said he hopes to make more people aware of deaf culture. And for those interested in learning, he suggested making friends with deaf people and learning ASL through apps and traditional methods.