DiMarco tells PEOPLE he's "happy" he was born deaf
Credit: Yu Tsai

Every time Nyle DiMarco enters the ballroom on Dancing with the Stars, the model and actor is met with a thunderous applause – but he hears none of it because he is deaf.

Not that DiMarco minds.

“I’ve never wanted to hear,” the America’s Next Top Model winner says in the current issue of PEOPLE. “That’s never existed in my life. I’m happy!”

Born in New Jersey and raised in Frederick, Maryland, by his single mom, DiMarco is just one of more than 25 deaf people in his family.

His twin brother, his older brother, his parents, grandparents and great-grandparents? All deaf.

“Growing up, I was always involved in the Deaf community,” says DiMarco, who socialized with hearing children while playing sports at the park and riding bikes around the neighborhood but attended a school for the deaf for most of his elementary, middle and high school years.

For more from DiMarco – including why he thinks being deaf can be an advantage in some situations – pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday

“If I’d been born into a hearing family and went to a public school, I would have probably felt much more isolated, and being deaf would have become my identity,” says DiMarco, who vlogs about his DWTS experience exclusively for PEOPLE. “Since I knew my deaf identity since birth, it wasn’t hard for me to be comfortable, confident and independent in a hearing world.”

And now DiMarco, 26, is using his time in the spotlight to make sure deaf youth get to experience that same sense of independence.

“I started to realize that there are a lot of people who are unaware of Deaf culture, and I’ve been given a great platform to reframe the Deaf community. I want to use my celebrity for good,” says DiMarco, who recently established the Nyle DiMarco Foundation.

RELATED VIDEO: Nyle DiMarco’s Dancing with the Stars Vlog, Week 8

Through his foundation, DiMarco is advocating that parents teach their deaf children American Sign Language even if they plan on getting their child a cochlear implant or hearing aid.

“It’s fine if parents want to get their kids implants or hearing aids,” says DiMarco, who admits he has never seriously considered getting an aid or implant for himself. “But research shows that being bilingual improves their chances of speaking. Depriving them of ASL is denying them language.”

Looking past his time on DWTS, DiMarco hopes that his foundation will be his lasting legacy.

“I’m improving deaf children’s lives and I’m involved in the Deaf community,” he says. “It’s what I’ve always dreamed about doing.”

Dancing with the Stars airs Mondays (at 8 p.m. ET) on ABC.