The name Nyle DiMarco might ring a bell for several reasons — he won the 22nd cycle of America’s Next Top Model in 2015, and, the following year, he won season 22 of Dancing with the Stars.
During a visit at Ohio State on Monday night, however, he said he considers his most important role to be that of an advocate for the deaf community.
DiMarco was born deaf, his parents are both deaf, and so are 25 other members of his family.
“Hearing people need to realize that deaf people have a culture,” DiMarco said through a sign language interpreter. “You can call us disabled, but that doesn’t mean we’re lacking something. There’s a language. We’re not invisible.”
The event was moderated by OSU American Sign Language senior lecturer Marla Berkowitz, who is certified by the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, American Sign Language Teachers Association and the Supreme Court of Ohio.
“It was a really meaningful event because I’m learning about the deaf culture in my class, and they’re a collective community, meaning they do things for the benefit of the group,” said Lauren Reinhold, a third-year in science, technology, engineering and math education who is also taking American Sign Language classes. “It was so beautiful to see them so proud of Nyle and their community.”
Besides OSU students, the event was marketed toward students at the Ohio School for the Deaf and OSU’s ASL program.
DiMarco also spoke about his upbringing and how he stumbled into modeling.
He grew up playing sports with his brothers, and earned a bachelor’s degree in math from Gallaudet University. When America’s Next Top Model reached out to him via Instagram, he thought it was a scam.
He then went on to become the show’s first deaf winner.
“I feel the burden (of representing people with disabilities), but it is a good burden to bear,” DiMarco said. “It’s a great feeling to represent my community.”
Although about 70 million people in the world are deaf, DiMarco said there is a lot of misunderstanding surrounding the condition.
“I would not say I’ve experienced prejudice, but more a lack of communication,” he said. “Sometimes I am pushed to the wayside because people find it hard to communicate with me.”
After his success with America’s Next Top Model, DiMarco was invited to participate in Dancing with the Stars, which was an offer he said he initially considered declining.
“If I took the chance and screwed it up, 18 million people would assume deaf people can’t dance, which isn’t true,” he said. “I’m glad I went through with it, because it turned out well.”
DiMarco and his partner, Peta Murgatroyd, were crowned winners at the end of their season, making DiMarco the first deaf contestant to win the show.
DiMarco said his favorite performance was one in which there was no music for 30 seconds — only silence.
“I could feel the emotion from the judges and the audience, how they could feel what it was like to experience dancing the way I do,” he said.
Dancing with the Stars was DiMarco’s first experience with dancing ever, and he said that he and Murgatroyd had to rehearse twice as much as the other pairs competing that season.
He relied heavily on physical cues from Murgatroyd to make sure he was keeping in time with the music he was unable to hear.
However, when questioned about the challenges he faces as a deaf person off the dance floor, he said he did not view them as limitations.
“My approach to the obstacles that deaf people face is that I can do anything,” DiMarco said. “Deafness can be a disability but it’s also a culture. I accept both perspectives.”
DiMarco promotes awareness of deaf culture through his foundation, the Nyle DiMarco Foundation.
His foundation has partnered with the Language Equality and Acquisition for Deaf Kids, abbreviated LEAD-K, which is a national education campaign that works with deaf children and their families, with the goal of increasing accessibility to learning languages and literacy.
DiMarco also addressed his sexuality; he came out as “fluid” in a 2015 interview with Everyday Feminism.
“Growing up, I never thought of labels, but now I am being asked to define myself,” DiMarco said. “Fluid is the best definition for me. It’s all about embracing who you are.”
DiMarco is also politically involved. He has been featured in Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s ad campaigns and tweeted last week, “I’m just so glad I can’t hear Trump #DeafGain.”
There have been reports that Donald Trump, the Republican nominee, mocked a contestant on his reality show, The Apprentice, who was deaf, and called her “retarded.”
“There are 55 million disabled people living in America,” DiMarco said. “I don’t want a president who marginalizes my community.”