‘Dancing with the Stars’ winner wants to empower others who are deaf

01:30 - Source: CNN
Dancing without music

Story highlights

Nyle DiMarco was born deaf and raised in a deaf family

He won "America's Next Top Model" and "Dancing with the Stars"

DiMarco started a nonprofit to help people gain access to American Sign Language

CNN  — 

When Nyle DiMarco was asked to join season 22 of “Dancing with the Stars,” he almost turned down the opportunity.

“I’d never danced in my whole entire life,” DiMarco says. “If I failed in the first week that means [millions of] people would view deaf people as people that can’t dance.”

But the deaf model and actor decided to take on the challenge.

During a rehearsal, professional dance partner Peta Murgatroyd cranked the music up so DiMarco could feel the vibrations.

“When we danced, it really just threw me off,” he says. “I told Peta I’ve always been deaf. I’m not used to sound, so I think it’s better if we dance without the sound. And after that we did better.”

Not only did they do better, they won the competition on May 24.

“We ended on a good note,” he says with a smile.

DiMarco was born in Queens, New York.

“We have over 25 deaf individuals in my family,” he explains. “It is genetic, but there’s only 10% of deaf people that actually come from deaf families.”

His twin brother Nico and older brother Neal are deaf, as are his parents, grandparents and great-grandparents.

“I really consider myself fortunate having that communication access,” the 27-year-old says. “My whole family knows [American Sign Language].”

Because of that, growing up deaf wasn’t an issue. He credits his mom Donna for helping him integrate into the hearing world.

“My mom did a great job because ever since I was born she would put me into any type of sporting activity with hearing teams,” he says. “My mom would often send me out to play with the neighbors, so I felt like I had the best of both worlds.”

DiMarco went on to graduate with a degree in mathematics from Gallaudet University, a private university for the deaf and hard of hearing in Washington, D.C.

“In middle school, I had the best math teacher I’ve ever had, and he was deaf…and I felt inspired by him,” he recalls. “I knew from then on that I wanted to be a math teacher.”

But his life took a different turn when Hollywood came calling.

The producers of the TV drama “Switched at Birth” approached him on social media to play a deaf character on the show.

Then “America’s Next Top Model” producers invited him to audition for season 22, after discovering him on Instagram.

But being on the modeling reality show wasn’t easy.

“I had to live with the models in one big house for two months, 24 hours a day. Only a few of them actually learned how to sign … I couldn’t really communicate with anybody and I felt isolated,” he remembers. “I just remained optimistic and I was like, ‘I’m gonna win this show.’”

And he did.

“I’m very visual and through those visual cues, I was able to absorb it really fast,” he says.

The win led DiMarco to a modeling contract.

“All within one year, my life just completely flipped for the better.”

Now he wants to put his celebrity to good use. He recently founded the Nyle DiMarco Foundation to help people in the deaf community gain access to American Sign Language.

“There’s 70 million deaf people in this world and only 2% of them have access to education in sign language,” he says. “We’re talking about millions of deaf kids without language, without education.”

DiMarco wants to change that.

“What people don’t realize is we have our own beautiful culture. To deaf kids, they should always find the ability in a disability … if you do then you will do great things in life.”