Nyle DiMarco taught the Center for the Arts crowd how to sign “love yourself” in American Sign Language Wednesday night.
He wanted everyone to embrace who they are and learn to “use their differences to their advantage.”
DiMarco, a deaf activist and the 160th UB Distinguished Speaker, has done just that. He spoke to roughly 1,200 people in the Center for the Arts Mainstage Theatre and is the first speaker to give his speech entirely in sign language. The Student Association paid $120,000 for its two student-choice speakers and and UB cashed a $60,000 check from SA on Tuesday, according to its general ledger.
DiMarco, who won “America’s Next Top Model” in 2015 and Season 22 of “Dancing with the Stars” in 2016, appeared on the shows “Switched at Birth” and “Station 19.” He says he didn’t expect this to be his career trajectory, since he got his degrees in education and math from Gallaudet University and aspired to be a math teacher.
DiMarco grew up in a deaf family and his parents, grandparents and great grandparents are all deaf. He realizes not everyone grew up like him and he was “privileged” to grow up in a family which embraced deaf culture and ASL.
“Never once did I ever wish I could hear, or that I was any different,” DiMarco said. “I cherish [and] embody my identity as a deaf person.”
DiMarco discussed attending a deaf elementary school where he was required to wear hearing aids and carry “chunky” FM systems. He wanted to get rid of them because he “didn’t understand them.”
When he moved to Texas, he went to a different deaf school where he remembers how “incredible” it was that all his teachers were deaf and all his peers could sign.
“It was a great challenge for me, for the first time I was really challenged in the classroom,” DiMarco said. “I realized that’s what it should have looked like all along, this is where I can grow, thrive and just be a normal boy.”
He wanted to go to public school to see what it was like, but he remembers being known as “deaf boy” and switched a year later, realizing he “thrives” in the deaf community.
DiMarco said most deaf children aren’t as lucky to grow up in a deaf family and don’t have access to deaf schools, as only 2% of deaf children have access to education in sign language, something audience members were surprised by.
Kayla Kalbfell, a graduate student in occupational therapy, knew about the 2% before the event but was still surprised.
“I thought that was crazy because I don’t know how anyone could grow up without any form of communication, whether it’s sign language or spoken language or anything like that,” Kalbfell said. “I felt like [he emphasized] early intervention and just making sure that every child has access to communicate and be who they are and really develop their personality.”
DiMarco’s foundation is now working to better the lives of 466 million people around the world with hearing loss and to pass legislation to ensure ASL is accessible to deaf children. Nine states have passed legislation, according to DiMarco, but he hopes that will increase to all 50.
In addition to increasing access to sign language, DiMarco hopes to raise awareness for deaf culture, something he said not many hearing people realize exists.
DiMarco discussed his struggles on “Dancing with the Stars,” primarily with having a hearing partner. His partner, Peta Murgatroyd, was hesitant to work with him, cancelling their first rehearsal and teaching him at a slower pace without music. At one point, Murgatroyd got club speakers to help DiMarco hear and feel the beat, which ultimately set them back.
“Why are you still trying to fix a problem that’s not broken? You’re not going to make me hear during this competition and I wouldn’t want to anyway.”
His confidence has only grown since then, as he compared insecurity in his deafness to insecurity at a job interview, a topic that resonated with senior speech and hearing major Katharin McKnight.
“He really took pride in who he was, that he was born deaf and that that didn’t come with any limitations for him,” McKnight said.
Throughout the speech, DiMarco emphasized self-confidence and embracing differences.
“Everything in my life happened just by being myself and loving my vitality,” DiMarco said. “I fought for my dreams in a roundabout way and lived off that, because our paths aren’t always a straight line.”