Nyle DiMarco arrives to a Manhattan photo studio, his face glistening from the pelting rain outside. The actor’s blue eyes light up as he introduces himself to the room, silently shaking hands. Exuding an affable charm, the New Yorker quickly wins over the room — all without saying a word.
Born deaf, the 28-year-old actor and model is well seasoned in nonverbal communication, which he says has been aided by recent developments in technology. Like the rest of us, DiMarco carries his smartphone almost as an extension of his hand. Raising one finger as if to say “hang on,” the Gallaudet University graduate quickly taps out a message in an app that displays text in large format.
“Back in the day we had to carry a pen and paper everywhere,” he explains, adding that FaceTime video calling has also allowed him to use American Sign Language remotely with deaf friends and family, which includes his parents, grandparents and two brothers, among others. “I’m fourth-generation deaf and we have over 25 deaf members in my family,” he adds.
Fluent in ASL, English and adept at lip reading, DiMarco recognizes his fortune in being able to adequately communicate in his daily life, which is not the case for many of the millions affected by hearing loss. Impassioned to help those in the community with limited access to language resources, DiMarco founded an eponymous foundation two years ago in part to advocate for national legislation that would “ensure every deaf child has access to language from birth.”
DiMarco is coproducing “Children of a Lesser God,” the 1979 Mark Medoff play (and subsequent Oscar-winning film), which returns to Broadway this spring nearly 40 years after it made its Tony-winning debut. The production depicts a hearing speech teacher (Joshua Jackson) at a school for the deaf who develops a complex romantic relationship with a deaf custodian (Lauren Ridloff) and their struggle to properly understand one another.
While Ridloff is also deaf, DiMarco brings an advisory role to the show, which goes into previews March 22 at Studio 54. “Since I have my life experience as a deaf person, I can contribute to the authenticity of deaf experiences on stage,” he says.
Quickly typing his thoughts on a laptop, DiMarco continues, “Our hope is for the audience to leave with some kind of understanding that we [in the deaf community] are no different [than those with hearing] and that we want to fall in love — but it takes work.”
Once again, DiMarco is speaking from personal experience. Since winning the top prize on “America’s Next Top Model” in 2015 (“Tyra Banks found me on Instagram,” he reveals), DiMarco was signed to Wilhelmina, has walked the Giorgio Armani runway and appeared in many print campaigns. But an enhanced public exposure has come at a cost to his personal life. “Dating is the worst now,” he explains. “It’s harder to meet people who I enjoy. Most of them are star struck so I [put up] that wall.”
The “Switched at Birth” actor slips on a beige raincoat before joining a photographer on a rain-soaked stretch of Fifth Avenue. Unperturbed by the brutal weather, he poses comfortably for the camera. “When I do shoots, I never like to bring in an interpreter because I like to work directly with the photographer,” he says. “I feel [with] that, the experience immediately becomes more intimate.”
This newfound celebrity comes as a bit of a surprise to him (“I have a degree in math and I wanted to teach math at a deaf school,” he says), but he understands the social impact he can have with projects like “Children of a Lesser God.” Additionally, DiMarco is developing a television series that features a deaf protagonist and this month revealed he is joining in support of The Hollywood Disability Toolkit project, which advocates for inclusion of disabled people across the entertainment industry.
“I’m fortunate for my platform,” he explains, tossing aside his now-dripping raincoat. “I’m able to start the conversation, raise awareness and better deaf lives. We have a long way to go still, but we will get there.”
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