'Dancing With the Stars' ' Nyle DiMarco Opens Up About Surviving Abuse and Becoming a Deaf Activist

"My goal is to share untold stories about deaf culture, community and language," says DiMarco

Photo: Tiffany Saccente

Nyle DiMarco is opening up for the first time about painful parts of his childhood.

The first deaf winner of America's Next Top Model and Dancing with the Stars was born in Queens, N.Y. He grew up with his mom Donna, dad Neal and two brothers, all of whom are also deaf. When DiMarco was a young child, he began to notice changes in his father, who, he says, was struggling with drug and alcohol addiction.

"I didn't want to be alone in a room with him," DiMarco, 32, tells PEOPLE of his dad, who he says would disappear for days and would become unpredictable and violent.

DiMarco says he did would also hit him when his mother wasn't home. When he told his mom what was going on, she got a divorce and moved the family to Maryland for a fresh start.

"It gave me a real sense of comfort," he says.

While he has no relationship with his father, as DiMarco got older, he gained insight into his dad, who had grown up with hearing parents and had limited access to American Sign Language.

"I'd meet people who didn't have access to a proper education or language, and those barriers left them angry and bitter," he says. "I started to see a pattern in our community that I recognized from my own father."

Now, DiMarco — who started his own production company in 2020 — is determined to break down barriers for the deaf community.

He produced Deaf U—a Netflix reality series that follows the lives of deaf and hard of hearing students at Gallaudet University, his D.C. alma mater — and his documentary short Audible was just nominated for an Oscar. DiMarco is also sharing his life story in Deaf Utopia.

"Growing up, I rarely saw anyone like me on TV," he says. "My goal is to share untold stories about deaf culture, community and language."

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