Why Nyle DiMarco’s Work Is Crucial For The Deaf Community
First he won America’s Next Top Model. Then, last week, the model/actor took home the coveted Dancing with the Stars mirror ball trophy. Nyle Dimarco has also played the lead in the independent film In the Can, acted in ABC Family’s Switched at Birth, is slated to appear on Hulu’s show Difficult People later this year, and is repped by a top modeling firm in New York.
And the 27-year-old native New Yorker’s work extends far beyond the realm of cameras.
Born into a multigenerational deaf family, Nyle is a noted activist within the Deaf community, working as a spokesperson for Language Equality and Acquisition for Deaf Kids (LEAD-K) advocating for bilingual-bicultural education, and even founding his own nonprofit — the Nyle Dimarco Foundation — earlier this year.
Considering his Deafness “an asset rather than a limitation,” Nyle is one of the most visible Deaf activists in the world. And while his platform does not have universal support among those who are deaf and hard of hearing, others consider his high-profile advocacy imperative. Here, three such writers explain why.
Nyle DiMarco’s Platform Is Helping The Silent Minority Be Heard
By Dawnena Muth
A gentleman who cannot hear has shown the world that a person can dance without hearing the music. It’s an act that doesn’t seem possible, but the gracefulness of his moves are undeniable. So, too, is Nyle’s unwavering passion and belief in himself. Winning America’s Next Top Model and Dancing with the Stars has given us a peek into his life, revealing his total dedication to pursuing his dreams and utter commitment to his community. He is living his values, deeply rooted in his identity. This, I believe, is what’s behind his tremendous success.
Like Nyle, I too am Deaf. I was born with the ability to hear, but became Deaf after falling ill with spinal meningitis at age 2. And also like Nyle, I love to dance. My family is full of strong women, deeply rooted in our American Indian identity. We are proud to sing our tribal songs, to dance. I learned these dances when I started walking. I can hear the beats with my heart.
But growing up, my experience was not always joyful or easy.
I went to elementary school with severe hearing loss and wouldn’t wish my educational experiences on anyone. I was isolated because I had challenges communicating with people. I could communicate with my mom and my sister using some homemade signs, gestures, or coded English signs. But I couldn’t, for example, understand my sixth grade teacher when he gave us spelling tests. I would cry because I couldn’t spell what he was asking me to write. When I went out to events with my hearing boyfriend in high school, I felt totally left out.
Not only did I not fit in, it was extra painful because I didn’t know anyone who knew what I was going through. My hearing mother did the best she could, but there were no resources available for me. I received no support from the Deaf community because my mother didn’t know anyone to connect me with, nor did she know about American Sign Language (ASL).
It wasn’t until I attended the University of Colorado as a “hearing impaired” student that I discovered important aspects of my identity. When I took my first ASL class, I was changed forever. I started learning it and discovering that there were other people like me. I realized that I don’t need to be fixed. I could be free to be myself. I can speak using ASL and I also can speak English.
Meeting others in the community and learning ASL allowed me to embrace myself as an American Indian Deaf woman.
This is what Nyle’s visibility is doing for so many. Nyle has shown us that he believes in himself and loves his life; he is not ashamed to be who he is. And he wants others to see that. He is using his fame to do good, to represent people who use ASL — those of us who are a linguistic minority.
Nyle believes that people who are Deaf belong to a shared culture. Others believe that Deafness is a medical problem to be fixed. But I stand with Nyle’s perspective — we’re not a medical problem. We are a community, a linguistic minority that shares beliefs, attitudes, history, norms, values, literary traditions, and art. This Deaf culture is at the heart of Deaf communities everywhere in the world.
Nyle is spreading awareness of this culture through his strong Deaf identity. My own identity, as a Pawnee/Flandreau Santee American Indian, helps me relate even more to Nyle’s platform: Both groups experienced colonialist oppression, both cultures are being assimilated to English culture and its thinking. And both cultures deserve to be heard. We deserve to share what we have to offer with the world.
But first we must know and embrace our identities.
Nyle DiMarco’s Accomplishments Are Helping To Bridge The Deaf And Hearing Worlds
The past seasons of Dancing with the Stars and America’s Next Top Model have been the equivalent of the Olympics for the Deaf community. Deaf people of all backgrounds, including myself, are jumping for joy over his victories. The man who’d only planned to become a Deaf mathematics teacher has become a worldwide icon in the Deaf community and proven that a Deaf person is capable of anything. Nyle has also been giving back to his community through the Nyle DiMarco Foundation.
But what does this all mean for Deaf individuals and the Deaf community as a whole?
The potential is unlimited. Nyle’s accomplishments demonstrate that a Deaf person can do anything if they put their mind to it. When he was selected to compete on DWTS, some people became worried, unsure of his abilities. The Deaf community stood strong, however, believing — and rightfully so — that a Deaf man is capable of anything. This proved to be true when, time and time again, he accomplished the unthinkable. Not only was he able to dance, he’s damn good at it, too.
Moreover, Nyle’s victory has educated the world on Sign Language, Deaf culture, and Deaf rights, all while he triumphed over the damaging Deaf stereotypes that our society subscribes to. To be sure, Nyle may not encompass every Deaf experience, but by sharing his story and becoming a public figure he’s made our world more open-minded on what it means to be both culturally and medically deaf. His accomplishments, ultimately, will help build a bridge between the Deaf and hearing worlds.
Not only that, but he has also raised awareness of the importance of Sign Language through his foundation — especially in our education system. Far too often, our public school system does not meet the needs of hard of hearing and deaf students. According to some researchers, less than half graduate high school and those who do graduate have an average reading level of a fourth grader. Some researchers attribute this to a lack of language in the early lives of medically deaf children; many don’t get the access to the primary language (that is, one learned during the critical period in the years right after birth) and communication that they rightfully deserve.
Like Nyle, I believe that giving Deaf children a primary language — such as American Sign Language — will help them better prepare for our hearing-dominated world. American Sign Language will help these hard of hearing and deaf students when it comes time to learn English, which is something that is quite difficult to do unless you have hearing. As a result of Nyle DiMarco advocating for bilingual education and creating his foundation, which embraces people from all deaf backgrounds, it’s clear to me that more current and future deaf students will get the education they deserve.
Nyle DiMarco has become an icon, inspiration, and role model to both Deaf children and adults. He has shown our community that it is okay to embrace our identities and be ourselves.
When I went medically deaf during my college years, I found myself lost in our hearing-dominated world. I suddenly had to learn American Sign Language, with little guidance on what it means to be Deaf. I’m grateful that someone like Nyle DiMarco has been able to bridge the gap between the hearing and Deaf communities. He has eased my transition into Deafhood by becoming such a public figure. His fame and popularity has opened doors socially, as well as created connections for me within both the hearing and Deaf communities.
Nyle DiMarco has educated both myself and the world that at the end of the day, we are all just people.
Nyle DiMarco Challenges My Internalized Audism And Inspires Hope For The Future
By Alex Lu
When I read Lisa Goldstein’s piece on Nyle DiMarco, I recognized so much of myself in her. I was also mainstreamed and oral. And I, too, am a “success story” by hearing standards — I talk and lipread, I’m a graduate student at a top university, I sit on two nonprofit boards. But as she challenged other Deaf people, in a way I found offensive, for utilizing “intimidation and manipulation tactics,” I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of guilt and sympathy mixed in with my anger.
Where did our stories diverge?
I was isolated in school. As the only deaf student in my class, I cannot remember having a single full conversation with any of my peers all throughout elementary school. As a consequence of being alone, I was a prime target for bullying. I remember a student who would punch me every time I passed him in the halls. When I went to the teacher, she asked me, “Is this a complaint about someone?” I said yes. Her response: “Then I don’t want to hear about it.”
I turned this resentment inwards. I attributed my isolation to my deafness. I saw no deaf role models — no deaf scientists, no deaf writers, no deaf teachers. I thought it was because other deaf people were too incompetent. I was different. I would prove to my abusers that I was just like them, and deserving of their recognition. I was a maelstrom of simultaneously considering myself above others and hating myself, clashing in a body far too small for that turbulence.
It is an ongoing struggle in my life unlearning these messages, rather than letting them solidify into the core of my being. Some of these lessons were due to luck. In ninth grade, I had a hearing resource teacher wise enough to hire a Deaf woman to teach me ASL three days a week. Other lessons were due to trauma. I spent a semester of my time as an undergraduate crying behind closed doors, gouging into my flesh with razors. I had spent the previous semester sitting in on group conversations and pretending to hear. The act was not good enough. Eventually, they all left me, and I was that child again, standing alone on the playground.
The truth is, I love Nyle and his activism — but I also fear him. My dirty secret is that I have never watched any of his videos, beyond snippets. His bright honesty about his Deafness makes me aware of how I have acquired so many terrible habits by trying to live up to hearing expectations. I act sleepy with cashiers, so I have an excuse if I need them to repeat their questions. I dominate conversations, because it’s easier for me to lipread if I know the context. I keep a side-eye on people in group conversations, so I know when to time my laughs. What makes these realizations uncomfortable for me is that, in my bids to “act hearing,” I reinforce myths about how Deaf people who don’t are undue burdens. Still, it frightens me to think of where I might be without the connections I made by lying about my needs and identity.
While these are aspects of myself that I am not entirely ready to confront, I remind myself that even if Nyle unearths these traumas in me, it is not his fault that I am lying in the first place. I try to challenge myself in small steps. A few weeks ago, I brought my interpreters to an academic conference. I paid for it dearly: Far more people approached me about my interpreters and deafness than about my research. Still, I felt proud.
If Nyle can deal with this daily, why can’t I?
Lead image: Wikimedia