Nyle DiMarco is an actor, producer and deaf activist who is known for winning both “Dancing with the Stars” and “America’s Next Top Model.” Born into a multigenerational deaf family, he is an honorary spokesperson for Language Equality and Acquisition for Deaf Kids (LEAD-K) and founder of the Nyle DiMarco Foundation, which works to improve the lives of deaf people around the world. He is the author of “Deaf Utopia: A Memoir and a Love Letter to a Way of Life” and served as an executive producer on Netflix's Oscar-nominated short documentary, “Audible.”
Net Assets: Growing up, you went to different kinds of schools for deaf children and a public school with hearing children. Each had its strengths and weaknesses, and some more weaknesses than others. In each case, school culture, which was often enforced in school policies, made a significant impact on your learning and outcomes. Can you say a bit more about the impact of an inclusive school culture or lack thereof?
Nyle DiMarco: My experience going to a public school mirrored everything in a Deaf school with one big exception: I had an interpreter all the time. As the only deaf kid in the classroom, my ability to interact and connect with other students was often impaired by having to use the interpreter. I couldn’t express myself as directly as compared to when I was enrolled in the Deaf school, where I could have side conversations, pass notes, keep rumors and secrets, all sorts of things like that.
So what does LRE really mean? For me, personally, it would mean instruction in ASL and exposure to Deaf culture in all schools — a bilingual, bicultural approach.
For many disabled students, I think the least restrictive environment (LRE) model is fantastic, meaning students with disabilities are included in the mainstream education classroom as often as possible. However, when you consider the ramifications on deaf kids, who do not grow up with an immediate cultural and linguistic community, you see it’s important to have the opportunity to socialize with peers without barriers, without having to rely on an interpreter. So what does LRE really mean? For me, personally, it would mean instruction in ASL and exposure to Deaf culture in all schools — a bilingual, bicultural approach.
Net Assets: I read that you had planned on becoming a math teacher before finding yourself in the national spotlight. Has your interest in education translated into any aspects of your current career, as a model, actor, producer and advocate?
DiMarco: Definitely! Through my production company, I am working to empower deaf people to tell their own stories and working to bring the larger disabled community into Hollywood. That, to me, is still teaching. I think so much of what I do is now on a larger world stage in a bigger classroom when people see my work on Netflix or other streaming platforms. That’s my classroom, just decorated a little bit differently. So I don't think I've really changed what I'm doing one bit.
Net Assets: Speaking of your production company, I read that for your 2020 Netflix series, “Deaf U,” you pushed for hiring deaf producers, post producers and behind-the-scenes staff – resulting in a crew comprised of about 50% deaf people. What do you think were the outcomes of having significant Deaf representation in the workforce for this particular project?
DiMarco: Very early on in production, we knew that hiring members of the Deaf community was key to capturing interviews with the all-deaf cast in a way that really allowed people to get directly to the point and also work from a place of vulnerability. We wanted to see how the cast really expressed themselves and capture the nuance in ASL as their stories unfolded.
Personally, my goal is to empower my own community and equip them with the skills and experiences to create their own stories and show off their expertise to a larger audience.
In my own experience on “America’s Next Top Model” and “Dancing with the Stars,” I found that many of the questions that I would receive were paternalistic. So many questions focused my “disadvantage” and how sad it was to be deaf and how many problems it must have created for me to go to a Deaf school. In fact, they were missing out on all of these other incredible storylines that they could have had if they flipped the script and focused on the positives of growing up within the Deaf community.
Net Assets: So much of your book is about what it means to be your own advocate and how that helped you achieve all kinds of goals. What drives you to face new frontiers?
DiMarco: Personally, my goal is to empower my own community and equip them with the skills and experiences to create their own stories and show off their expertise to a larger audience. You can see that so many hearing people out there are interested in Deaf stories. They just won't hire deaf people. So we have to essentially develop our own content for TV and the big screen that shows deaf people and their incredible creative abilities. To ignore that is to further discrimination in the industry.