The latest event in the Fall Convocation and Lectures Series hosted by the Associated Students of the University of Redlands (ASUR) brought Hollywood actor, model, and activist for the deaf community Nyle DiMarco to campus on October 2nd.
DiMarco is the founder of the Nyle DiMarco Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting deaf people and organizations. He is also known in the entertainment industry for his championship win in reality shows America’s Next Top Model (ANTM) and Dancing with the Stars (DWTS), as well as his appearance in the television series Switched at Birth (SAB).
Calling himself the “embodiment of [his] deafness,” DiMarco shared his unique experience as one of the few deaf people in the entertainment industry and about his impact advocating for increased awareness of the deaf community. Among the audience were not only those from the deaf community, but also allies of the community, American Sign Language students, and those who are simply his fans.
“Why do you try to fix something that’s not broken? Why fix me?”
Defying the notion that being deaf means he is unable to do what hearing people can, DiMarco highlights the moments in his life when his deafness gives him an opportunity to “bring a different perspective” to his works.
One such moment, he tells the fully packed audience in the Chapel, is when he cut the music off in the middle of one of his dances in DWTS while still performing the routine, without missing a beat. In the span of the two minutes the video was shown, DiMarco depicts the everyday life of deaf people, which in his words, is to “bring [hearing people] into the experience [of deaf people].”
Bringing an unprecedented decision in the history of the show, DiMarco said he would not be able to come up with something so artistically creative if he weren’t deaf. “I wouldn’t need to,” he said.
His career in Hollywood is not all roses, however. Remembering the treatment he received from other models during his time in ANTM and the toll it took on his mental health, he broadly suggested the ignorance and misconception people often have towards deaf people. DiMarco recalls it was his positive thinking and his decision to “move on” from their insensible actions that enabled him to win the show.
“Only 2% of deaf kids have access to education in sign language.”
Despite his struggles, DiMarco emphasizes how fortunate he has been where millions of others weren’t. DiMarco grew up in a predominantly deaf family, was able to go to a school for deaf children and, later on, Gallaudet University—the only university in America specifically for deaf students. “But 75% of deaf kids come from families with hearing parents,” DiMarco explained.
Therefore, his mission now is less to teach, as he had planned originally, but more so to “recruit” deaf children to bring them into the community, and to “build a sense of community and network” so that they are able to access the necessary resources for success. That is his aim with the Nyle DiMarco Foundation.
Afterwards, DiMarco opened the floor for a Q&A session with the audience. Seemingly inspired by DiMarco’s speech, many questions from the audience revolved around the topic of how to better include deaf people in society in general and in education in particular. For instance, how can allies (people who are not deaf but support the deaf community) defend the community against prejudice and how can educators can make deaf children feel more included in the classroom? DiMarco and the audience also tackled difficult questions such as the importance of representation in media and the role of his impact on increasing representation.
“A lot of people ask me, ‘How do you love yourself as a deaf person?’”
In one of the last questions, a single mother, nearly tearing up, asked for his advice to give to her 17-year-old daughter who is deaf and entering college. His simple yet profound answer was “have confidence in your identity, although that’s the toughest part. Moreso, love yourself.”
To reinforce the concept of self love one more time before ending his speech, DiMarco taught the audience how to sign the phrase “love yourself,” and asked them to sign with him “I love you.” The enthusiastic signing of the whole audience, in synchronization, shows an incredible spirit of harmony that transcends physical and social barriers.
Photographs by Kyle Eaton.