The Final Season of America’s Next Top Model concluded in a monumental way with Nyle DiMarco, the show’s first ever Deaf contestant, overcoming all obstacles to win the competition. Smashing through stereotypes and assumptions, DiMarco proved to mainstream audiences that people who are Deaf can do anything they set their minds to. More than that, however, fans of ANTM were exposed to a side of deafness they may have never experienced. Throughout the season, viewers came to see DiMarco as a complex human with his own ambitions, passions, and vulnerabilities– qualities not commonly associated with deafness in the media.
Popular media outlets struggle with diversity, and this is especially true when it comes to depicting Deaf individuals. Can you think of any prime time programming that casually features characters who are deaf? When deafness does appear in film or TV, it’s generally only used as a plot point for an episode or two. Because so few Hollywood writers are deaf, it is very rare that Deaf individuals have the opportunity to portray a well-developed character.
The reality TV format of ANTM was the perfect platform for DiMarco to just be himself. He was able to communicate with viewers through candid confessional interviews. Viewers at home were able to access DiMarco’s thoughts through captioning, so they could follow along with his experience. However, because his primary language is American Sign Language DiMarco was not able to communicate effectively with the other cast members in the house, most of whom made little effort to bridge the communication gap. DiMarco was left out of social situations, had to combat ignorance (such as when Devin stole his phone), and did his best to adapt during difficult photo shoots (like when they shot in the dark). Most people who are hearing never get to witness firsthand the subtle ways d/Deaf people are excluded and oppressed, but fans of ANTM had their minds opened to the daily experience of deafness in America.
Audiences witnessed the emotional impact of excluding people who are deaf. Even though he felt alone and sometimes discriminated against, DiMarco never gave up or was discouraged from following his dreams. In fact, he claims the lack of communication just drove him to focus more on his modeling so he could prove himself. But, at the end of the day, DiMarco’s experience showed that it still hurts to work and live with people who never make an effort to get to know you!
In interviews, DiMarco shared his feelings of isolation with the world. This is a sadly familiar situation that many people who are deaf face at work, in school, and sometimes even in their own families. When hearing people learn even a little sign language, it makes such a difference in the quality of life of the Deaf people around them.
After feeling lonely for more than 2 months in the Top Model house, DiMarco was inspired to take communication barriers right out of the equation. He went on to help create The ASL App, an educational tool for those who wish to learn conversational sign language. Through the ASL App, DiMarco aims to facilitate greater cultural understanding by encouraging people from all walks of life to discover ASL in a fun and easy way.
On ANTM, mainstream audiences got to see firsthand how Deaf people crave social interaction just like anyone else, and how cruel it can seem when hearing people reject the opportunity to create simple two-way communication. Throughout the series, audiences were challenged to confront their own audism (the belief that the ability to hear makes one superior) and maybe even question their own past behavior toward Deaf people. Viewers also got to see a handsome, thoughtful, and motivated young man pursing his passion and developing his skills. DiMarco wasn’t just “the Deaf contestant,” he showed himself to be both a fierce competitor and a genuine soul.
The final season of ANTM was groundbreaking in the way that it positively depicted the Deaf community. DiMarco exposed a wide audience to the social, linguistic, and cultural experiences of deafness. He opened people’s minds to American Sign Language and the beauty of Deaf culture. He reminded everyone that Deaf people are unique and complicated, and that they absolutely can be winners.
The film and TV industry is starting to embrace the multicultural world around us. Through pop culture, we are slowly creating a world where Deaf people can be seen as strong, perseverant, compassionate, gentle, kind, funny, creative, charismatic, or dedicated– sometimes all at once! Deaf people are finally being given the opportunity to show the world who they really are, and change is happening one small step at a time.