Nyle DiMarco is living a life beyond anything he could have imagined. The deaf model and actor has been breaking barriers in his own career while actively advocating — and opening doors — for others in the deaf community.
DiMarco grew up in a multigenerational deaf family in Bellerose, N.Y. He and his twin brother were given a hearing test soon after they were born that revealed they were both deaf. The doctor broke the news to DiMarco’s parents assuming that they would be upset, but it was quite the opposite.
“My parents were jumping for joy,” DiMarco tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “They were so excited. And the doctor was like, ‘No no no, that’s a bad thing. They failed the test. And my parents were like, ‘No, that’s not a bad thing in our house.’
“Not many people realize, actually, my entire family is deaf,” he says. “I myself am the fourth generation in my family — meaning my two brothers, my parents, my grandparents and even my great-grandparents were all deaf.”
In DiMarco’s childhood home, the family used American Sign Language (ASL). “People assume that it’s very quiet,” he says. “In fact, deaf people don’t know how much noise we actually make. We just don’t realize it. So if you come over to my house for dinner guarantee you’re gonna leave with a headache.”
Although he had planned to become a math teacher, his path went in a different direction when a friend who was a photographer suggested that he model. He wasn't all for it at first. “I wasn’t really interested in modeling. I was in college at the time,” says DiMarco, who was 18 and living in D.C. back then. “I never really gave it a thought until some of the photos were posted.”
When he was 25, America’s Next Top Model came calling after spotting his photos on Instagram. “I thought that they probably weren’t ready to have a deaf person on the show,” DiMarco says. “I sent in my audition video anyway. All of it was in sign language with captions, fully accessible, and turns out, they liked it.”
That’s an understatement: In 2015, DiMarco became the first deaf person to win a reality TV show, which he says was a “really shocking” moment for him. But he also understood that his victory could help open doors for other deaf artists. “I really believe that my winning established some new opportunities to show the deaf community that anything is possible,” he says.
DiMarco continued to chalk up unique and inspiring achievements, including taking the top prize on ABC’s Dancing with the Stars in 2016 and doing a viral ASL version of Ariana Grande’s hit song “7 Rings” in January.
Even when he’s having fun, as with the viral video, DiMarco is finding ways to help increase accessibility. Recently, he partnered with Lionsgate to film an ASL interpretation of the movie Wonder, starring Julia Roberts, Jacob Tremblay and Owen Wilson — reportedly making it the first U.S. film to have ASL interpretation available.
To help make this happen, Lionsgate teamed up with Actiview, a mobile app company that provides film accessibility solutions for blind, deaf and foreign language-speaking audiences. Viewers can watch Wonder on any available platform, and the app automatically synchronizes with the content. Users can choose the accessibility service they need (such as sign language) from the app. The ASL interpretation is being released Feb. 17, which is National Random Acts of Kindness Day.
He has found other ways to give back through the Nyle DiMarco Foundation, which is dedicated to empowering the deaf. “The reason I established the Nyle DiMarco Foundation was to support the millions and millions of children out there living with no language or living through language deprivation,” he says. “And while there’s no one at fault here, we can see that there’s a lack of resources.”
True to DiMarco’s passion for education, the foundation is working with LEAD-K to pass early language acquisition bills. The bills push for easily accessible materials for parents and teachers, assessment structures and milestone program markers to help young children who are deaf or hard of hearing become kindergarten-ready. So far, seven states have passed such legislation and there are many more interested in introducing bills this year or next.
The Nyle DiMarco Foundation has also provided a grant to the nonprofit National ASL & English Bilingual Consortium for Early Childhood Education to support the organization’s inaugural workshop, Assessing a Deaf Child’s ASL.
Helping deaf children have access to sign language and be able to communicate is important to DiMarco. “I certainly have met plenty of other deaf people who have faced barriers and challenges that I was fortunate not to have in my life,” he says, referring to growing up in a household where everyone used ASL. “And now with my platform, I have a chance to make a change. I have a chance to make a difference and work to improve the lives of the deaf community everywhere, now and for the future.”