Deaf model creates lasting impact

Images flash by without the softest peep to accompany them—this is a daily reality for the deaf. Those who can hear may have a hard time imagining a life with no noise, and wondering how the hearing-impaired cope with their condition.

Both the hearing and the deaf received a bit more insight about life without sound Sept. 14 at Sonoma State University. Nyle DiMarco, a model and deaf activist, spoke in the Student Center Ballroom about his life as a deaf man.

DiMarco made one thing clear, he doesn’t mind his deafness one bit.

“I love being deaf, honestly,” DiMarco said in American Sign Language. “I don’t regret it; not one day have I regretted it.”

In recent years, DiMarco has made notable splashes in the public eye. He was the second male contestant ever to win “America’s Next Top Model,” took home the Mirrorball trophy in the most recent season of “Dancing with the Stars,” and even spoke at Hillary Clinton’s 20th Annual National Dinner on Sept. 10.

But DiMarco chose to start his speech by describing his more humble beginnings. He was born into a deaf family in Queens, New York—his parents, grandparents and two brothers also share his condition. Since DiMarco was used to interacting with other deaf people, he said he struggled at an early age with learning to speak and use hearing aids at Lexington School & Center for the Deaf.

“The teachers were hearing, and a lot of people had transferred in from a lot of other countries…a lot didn’t necessarily sign, and I grew up in a deaf family, so it was very difficult to learn,” DiMarco said.

Texas School for the Deaf, which DiMarco began attending at age eight, gave him the opportunity to learn through sign language with deaf students and teachers, he said. Since he thrived in this type of environment, DiMarco went at the age of 18 to Gallaudet University, initially with the hope of learning to teach deaf children. Shortly before his graduation, DiMarco decided to travel the world for a few months. After returning from his travels, he applied for a position as a deaf student recruiter at Gallaudet, but was then contacted by “America’s Next Top Model” to become a contestant.

DiMarco said that he preferred his subsequent experience on “Dancing with the Stars.” While he was on this show, one of his dance numbers involved a brief sequence where the music was removed to replicate the deaf experience for the audience. DiMarco said he felt he was able to make a huge impact, showing what deaf people go through daily with through his participation in the show.

“This is the reason why I wanted to be on ‘Dancing with the Stars,’” DiMarco said. “It wasn’t about winning, it wasn’t about being on TV, it was about making an impact, and also raising awareness that being deaf is cool.”

Richard Senghas, a Sonoma State anthropology professor who teaches sign language and signing communities every other school year, attended the speech. He said that he thought DiMarco did a good job highlighting what deaf people experience for those without prior knowledge on the subject.

“He’s really good at talking [with sign language], the way he mixes both the inspirational ‘We can do stuff,’ but also highlighting the challenges…I think it’s a really nice opening,” Senghas said.

DiMarco’s message also reached Sonoma County citizens not enrolled at Sonoma State. Tyler O’Brien, a hearing Santa Rosa Junior College student who found out about the event in his ASL class, said he was inspired by DiMarco’s positive message of language advocacy.

“I think his goal… not focusing on problems that deafness can bring, more focusing on the positives, I kind of draw a similar correlation with being in a wheelchair,” O’Brien said. “Being disabled, you have a different view of the world, a different perspective…to have a more positive one I think is very important.”

Beyond his public speaking and television appearances, DiMarco has promoted deaf activism through Language Equality and Acquisition for Deaf Kids, a national movement partnered with his Nyle DiMarco Foundation. The organization raises money and spreads awareness for the necessity of teaching language, often American Sign Language, to deaf children before they begin kindergarten, according to Public Relations Director Julie Rems-Smario.

“LEAD-K is honored to have as our celebrity spokesperson Nyle DiMarco, who is a genuine and profound gentleman,” Rems-Smario said. “He is our champion to end language deprivation of deaf kids to get them kindergarten-ready.”

Senghas said he thinks deaf students should have proper educational resources available beyond the elementary school level. Though deaf Sonoma State students have access to interpreters through Disability Services, the university should offer even more programs for deaf students, he said.

“It takes a commitment, and we would probably have to work with the Deaf community to figure out how to get that started,” Senghas said.