For most of deaf activist, model and actor Nyle DiMarco’s lecture in the Oval Theater on Tuesday night, attendees were relatively quiet, trading in cheering for signing for applause.
However, after a question from the audience about DiMarco’s dating life, he revealed that he was single.
“So everybody has a chance,” he said.
For the first time since DiMarco had taken the stage earlier in the evening, the audience, which filled the bottom floor and overflowed onto the balcony, exploded with cheering and laughter.
Though DiMarco himself did not speak and instead signed in American Sign Language (ASL) while his interpreter translated for the hearing portion of the audience, the crowd responded with bursts of the ASL sign for applause, a waving of both hands back and forth above the head.
DiMarco was the first speaker this year in the University Lecture Series (ULS). According to DiMarco's contract with ULS, the event cost $25,000. The lines to get into the event wrapped around the entire second floor of the Marshall Student Center.
DiMarco said when he was thinking of what to do his speech on, he thought back to a time when a friend of his had asked him if he ever wished he was a hearing person, to which he answered no. If he had wished he could hear, he said he would’ve been creating a new set of problems for himself.
“Deaf people can do anything, truly,” DiMarco said.
He went on to speak about his journey as a deaf child in a deaf family, going to a school and eventually university for deaf people and how important he said he feels it is for deaf children to have bilingual education in English and ASL and the importance of community in establishing identity.
DiMarco had experiences in both a deaf school and a mainstream program, but said he preferred the deaf school because of the community. He remembered disliking speech therapy he received at his first deaf school as a child. He didn’t want to learn to speak because he knew ASL.
“I’m in a deaf family,” he said. “I sign. That’s my language. That’s my culture.”
He was missing classes for speech therapy and felt he was falling behind in his learning. When he went to a different deaf school in Texas where almost everyone could sign, things changed.
“I felt like I could thrive,” he said. “… I realized that the key was the community.”
One year, he decided he wanted to go to a mainstream school for a while. He had the same interpreter following him around.
“I had so many barriers,” he said.
DiMarco attended Gallaudet University, a private school for the deaf in Washington D.C., and decided to major in mathematics. He intended to become a math teacher.
“English, there’s no way to prove anything, but one plus one will always equal two,” he said.
DiMarco mentioned that one particular fellow student he had attended Gallaudet with began to change his career path. He taught the student to sign, and once the student had been at Gallaudet for four years, he told DiMarco he was angry.
The student could speak and had worn a cochlear implant, but had often been dismissed by hearing people because he would miss some of what they said. When he realized that this interaction wasn’t how hearing people treated other hearing people, he was no longer happy in the hearing world.
This experience led DiMarco to pursue a public relations position at Gallaudet, one which he almost took until he received two new opportunities: “America’s Next Top Model” and “Switched at Birth.” He took a while to deliberate over which path to take, but in the end, his dog ended up making the decision.
DiMarco’s dog was presented with two tennis balls, one that said “ANTM” on a piece of tape and another that said “SAB” on a piece of tape. The dog picked the “ANTM” tennis ball, so DiMarco gave “America’s Next Top Model” the yes they had been waiting for.
Some of his experiences on “America’s Next Top Model” still bother him to this day, including the feelings of exclusion and isolation because his means of communication were cut down. He remembers trying to teach basic ASL to other contestants and them either not wanting to learn or pushing him aside.
“I understand it’s a competition but you still have to be inclusive,” he said.
He was given a cellphone without internet access as a way of communicating, but one of the other contestants, Devin Clark, took it away at one point.
“So that next morning I decided ‘see you later, Devin’ and I won the whole show,” DiMarco said.
DiMarco had positive reflections about his time on “Dancing with the Stars” where he tried to show everyone during one of his dances what it meant to be deaf. In the dance, there is a part where the music stops and DiMarco dances without his partner and in almost silence.
“I think everybody finally got it,” he said.
He said that particular dance was probably his favorite from the show.
Although DiMarco has changed paths many times, he said he still acts as an advocate for the deaf community. He established the Nyle DiMarco Foundation, which campaigns for early-life bilingual education for deaf youth.
“I’m still teaching the world about what it means to be deaf,” DiMarco said. “… I’m still changing deaf peoples’ lives.”
He said he doesn’t see his deafness as a negative thing.
“It has always brought something positive into my life,” he said.