Netflix's "Deaf U" wants viewers to see "there is no one right way to be deaf"

Salon talks to producer Nyle DiMarco about his new series, deaf gain, and the sign names for Trump and Biden

By Hanh Nguyen

Senior Editor

Published October 11, 2020 11:00AM (EDT)

Deaf U (Netflix)
Deaf U (Netflix)

On Netflix's "Deaf U," Daequan contacts Raelyn in her dorm room and lays on the charm until he convinces her to go on a date with him. He accomplishes this flirtation from afar as they sign to each other through opposite-facing windows. It's just another day at Gallaudet University, the only institution of higher education where all programs are designed to accommodate deaf and hard of hearing students.

"Deaf U" is the new series by activist Nyle DiMarco, a reality show king who won "America's Next Top Model" in 2015 and then "Dancing With the Stars" a year later. He's landed parts on scripted shows, has spoken out about negative deaf portrayals, and runs a foundation that aims to help the lives of deaf people. DiMarco recently extended his reality kingdom to behind the cameras as an executive producer on Netflix's eight-part series "Deaf U," which follows a tight-knit group of students at Gallaudet as they navigate dating, personal traumas, partying, bullying, schoolwork, and family dynamics. 

"Deaf U" is everything one would expect of a reality series set on a college campus with plenty of humor, drama, and heartbreaking moments. And while the usual jealousies and dating betrayals spark conflict, what's eye-opening for mainstream audiences is that some of the in-fighting stems from disagreements over Deaf culture and who feels like they belong to the community. And yes, that's Deaf with a capital "D."

Identification with the Deaf community doesn't hinge on how much hearing one has or not, rather adhering to practices and norms that are distinct from the mainstream hearing community. Those who identify with the Deaf community embrace their difference in human experience instead of viewing deafness as a disability or disease. Many have deaf family members and aim to perpetuate Deaf culture, whether it's by celebrating the arts, following prescribed social behaviors or using signed language as their primary language. 

It's a complex and nuanced subject that creates friction for a few of the featured students in the series. Daequan, who has hearing in one ear, didn't even know how to sign before attending Gallaudet. Rodney, who has a cochlear implant, says he's treated differently, while Dalton threw out his hearing aid long ago and prefers to only date Deaf women. 

Meanwhile, influencer Cheyenna constantly feels ostracized by the diehard Deaf community at Gallaudet and refers to many of them as "Elites," a label that she now regrets. One of those students is Tessa, who doesn't believe Cheyenna's behavior aligns with the Deaf community's, while fellow "Elite" Alexa thinks the criticisms are too harsh.

DiMarco – who is from a fourth-generation family of people born deaf and also attended Gallaudet University – spoke to Salon about the differing views on deafness and the Deaf community, making "Deaf U," and possibilities for a second season.

The following interview was interpreted by Grey Van Pelt, and has been edited for length and clarity.

In an interview earlier this year, Daequan revealed that initially he was reluctant to join the show. Why was it important to pursue him and include his story?

He really represents a large majority of the Deaf community, with 95% of deaf kids being born to hearing parents. Often, they grew up lacking the culture, the sign language, often don't go to a Deaf school, so they're often deprived of that experience. I thought it was so critical for him to be able to tell his story, because he represents 95% of our deaf audience who are really going to relate to him. 

When we first got to talking, he said, "I can't do this. I'm not deaf enough." And I was like, "What do you mean, you're not deaf enough? You literally are the Deaf community and in fact you are the person who would represent more of the community than the 'capital D Deaf' people like me and Tessa and Alexa." So I also really wanted to showcase his experience in order to help our audience relate to him, for them to find their own journey. 

It also reminds me of Rodney. He was asking what is considered "not deaf enough" as far as how people are treated within the community. I wasn't aware of this distinction.

In the Deaf community, I think it's a conversation that we're still going through through every day, which is why we still have a group of Deaf Elites, right. But one has to wonder if we really are Elites when we only make up the minority, the 5% of the Deaf experience. 

I think there's so many layers that that the Deaf community is still really navigating in conversation and finding our own sort of place within the community. My bottom line answer is always there is no one right way to be deaf. We're starting to see that shift.

Some of the students whom Cheyenna characterized as "Elite" didn't like how she "catered to the hearing community," through her behavior, which I didn't understand. One of the criticisms is that she over-expresses her face, and mouths words. Could you explain to me why that's a criticism?

It's interesting because often people who are considered over-expressive would follow English-signing order, which would be called Signed Exact English or SEE. It's not actually a language, it's just a different modality of English. Oftentimes, people who use that, we can't really understand because you simply can't mix two languages, American Sign Language and English. They don't make sense to blend together – the same way Spanish and French might [not].

So what you see in that group is essentially asking, "Why is she catering to the hearing community? Why is that specifically her audience?" With ASL being a language that is shrinking in use, we wonder, perhaps, why she would have picked that road. It's interesting because a lot of the Elites who really identify strongly as culturally Deaf tend to choose just one aspect of their identity – that is the deafness, and they really fall into it. So it made sense to them.

Cameron, Cheyenna's own friend, says he's an Elite, that they're dying out and don't want to lose their culture or language, that they're a minority and need to fight back. This created a friction between them that surprised me.

I think a lot of people throw the word "Elite" out there and really weaponize it against this small group of people, for example, who really only make up that minority. The majority of the Deaf experience is not what you see in the smaller group. 

To really dissect that – 95% of the Deaf community really faces hearing parents who don't teach them sign language or don't enroll them in a Deaf school or don't provide them access to Deaf culture. And that becomes internalized, and arriving at Gallaudet and seeing someone who had that sort of experience that they would have wished they had: they have the confidence in their identity, they have the language, they have the educational background, they're ready to just focus on their degree and learning. I think it gets thrown on them in a way to equalize and maybe pull them down, which of course, does damage in the community. But if we were to shift that narrative, or shift that argument, if you will, and look at Hearing Society, why that's actually causing that separation and causing a lot of the issues that are at the root cause, I think we would have a more clear dialogue coming to that conversation — but it is a conversation.

Many of these students revealed painful parts of their history. How did it come about with Cheyenna discussing her past abuse? 

We actually never realized Cheyenna's history until Cheyenna became really comfortable with our producing team. She actually came to the team and said, "I have this story that I think is important that I tell." And, you know, the producing team obviously was very sensitive to her comfort level and making it as comfortable as possible for her, and an environment that would be conducive for that. But we're very thankful that Cheyenna was willing to be vulnerable. It's not easy, but for Cheyenna, it was very necessary. And uncomfortability is really where we find our journey.

By the end of the season, we find out that Cheyenna has left Gallaudet to attend a mainstream university. What was the conversation like to figure out how to follow up on her story?

We don't know what Season 2 will look like or if we're going to have it. We're definitely manifesting it now. When the time is right. You know, I'm sure that there will be some deep discussion on how we're going to follow through with Cheyenna's story, but right now, it remains a mystery. 

One of my favorite parts of the series was learning about Deaf people having "sign names" – instead of spelling out a name, creating a shortcut sign to indicate that person. We learn that Trump's sign name looks like a hand mimicking a toupee [in the video below]. Is there a Biden sign name?

I don't think I've seen one yet. I'd have to do a little bit of research and find out. Typically, there's a lot of conversation on social media about what the sign will be, but I haven't really seen any yet.

What was more surprising to me in this conversation is that the people who take the time to spell out Trump's name are doing it respectfully because they're his supporters. The president has made ableist comments about deaf people before, so I didn't realize that some people in the Deaf community still would be supportive of him.

There's still a lot of deaf people out there that are very much Trump supporters, unfortunately. I can't imagine why. He's been historically very against disability and [participated in] disability erasure. But "The Social Dilemma" on Netflix, for example mentions people in their own bubbles. They live within their own little "Truman Show." So I can't argue with that I guess.

I recently learned through the "Twenty Thousand Hertz" podcast about "deaf gain," in which a Deaf person has an advantage over a hearing person – such as being able to converse at a loud party or concert, Daequan signing to Raelyn through windows, or as Rodney says, "sh*t-talking" about non-deaf people who are present. Why was it important to include these moments?

It was really key to find a lot of funny parts to being Deaf that would be entertaining and also bring a level of awareness as well. We wanted to show that there are a lot of benefits. One article recently that I was reading talks about gene editing, for example, and a lot of what's happening with that, and how they wanted to edit out the deaf gene. But the article actually argued that the deaf gene prevents other very specific diseases oftentimes, fights Alzheimer's and things like that. That is deaf gain, right? That might not be the most humorous example, but it's something to show that we're perfectly healthy beings who are just enjoying our lives.

There's a scene where Cheyenna is at a restaurant and a waiter puts a bottle in front of her, between her and her friend, and she says that's not deaf friendly because it blocks their line of sight (and therefore communication). Are there ways that people like me can be more deaf friendly?

Yeah, the water bottle is a really great example. You know, when you see deaf people, it's always great to bring them an option to communicate. The phone has a really awesome app called Cardzilla now. And it's available on both app stores. You can literally type something out, it comes in large print that you can pass the phone back and forth. Or you can use speech-to-text like on the phone where you talk into it, it types for you. Bring options and be creative.

Are there any projects that you would recommend other people to watch to learn about Deaf culture?

That's one of the negatives; there's not really enough Deaf experience being put out there yet. You know, perhaps "Deaf Out Loud" – a great [special] out there that's a little bit helpful, but of course it never is enough.

Although I know about Shoshanna Stern and Josh Feldman from the series "This Close," there aren't that many deaf actors who are household names – just you and Marlee Matlin. What have you heard in casting as reasons why they don't want to consider deaf actors?

I think people often don't want to cast actors specifically because they don't know how to write them in because they don't really get Deaf culture, the Deaf experience, but also they don't really understand the accommodations that may be necessary in working with a deaf actor, and they might feel that it's better for them to opt out. They're used to working with hearing actors, and so they just assume that they can do the job, right? And that really leads to deaf people [being] shut out of the entertainment industry. With my platform expanding and growing, hopefully, we're going to see more producers out there looking to really reframe and shift the lens and start hiring people to get the experience.

Are you producing other projects that will also help bring the Deaf community to the forefront?

I'm actually producing a feature film specifically about Gallaudet University as well, about one of our crowning achievements, which was the 1988 Deaf President Now protests, which gave rise to the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. You should be seeing more about that next year, and then I have another show coming out with with Netflix next year called "Audible" that was filmed in the deaf high school that I went to as well 

"Deaf U" is currently streaming on Netflix.

By Hanh Nguyen

Hanh Nguyen is the Senior Editor of Culture, which covers TV, movies, books, music, podcasts, art, and more. Her work has also appeared in IndieWire, and The Hollywood Reporter. She co-hosts the "Good Pop Culture Club" podcast, which examines the good pop that gets us through our days, from an Asian American perspective. Follow her at Hanhonymous.

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Deaf Deaf Culture Deaf U Gallaudet University Interview Netflix Nyle Dimarco