I was initially excited to see Deaf U, a docuseries on the life of deaf students at Gallaudet University. Executive produced by Nyle DiMarco, the chance to show the public the deaf and hard-of-hearing (D/HH) reality was exciting.
I’m HoH; our house is bilingual (although we sign more Pidgin Signed English (PSE) than ASL), I face many of the same obstacles with hearing difficulties, and we actively support D/HH issues. I’ve written about this before, from hearing-washing in Hollywood to the lack of accessibility in gaming.
That being said, I am not Deaf, as in a member of the culture and fluent in the language. I was raised in the hearing world, developing difficulties in my teens, diagnosed as an adult, and didn’t begin learning sign language or culture until almost 40.
I want this to be clear, though, while I was raised hearing, that doesn’t mean I’m not familiar with Deaf life or Gallaudet. While I might seem like an “outsider” and merely an ally in my critique, I’m not ignorant and will be including comments from the D/HH community.
My status as a HoH person, in fact, plays a significant part in how aspects of the show affected me.
Deaf U was touted, in its trailers, as an accurate representation of Deaf life at Gallaudet. I fully expected to see the D/HH experience both on- and off-campus during the show.
That was my first mistake because Deaf U is less documentary and more reality television.
The show focuses almost solely on the cast’s relationships, sex life, and drama rather than Deaf or Gallaudet life. It’s set at Gallaudet, and you see aspects of the university in the background, but you don’t spend time in a classroom, meet any teachers, or indeed learn much about the culture or lifestyle.
That’s not to say that Deaf U doesn’t have its moments to educate the hearing audience. Deaf people must navigate hearing establishments or interact with hearing people, but that’s not the focus.
Instead, almost everything in the show is centered on the dramatic social (and night) life of the main deaf cast, concerned more with who people are having sex with or pursuing. Everyone was a Z-ennial, searching for love, and with many constant hook-ups (and ensuing spectacles).
Many deaf viewers from Gallaudet were not happy with this fact and decried the use of “toxic” and “selfish” people as somehow representing them.
A larger issue was the representation of the D/HH community. The main cast consists of seven people: one white man, two Black men, and four white women.
Contrary to what they show here, the D/HH community is diverse. Deafness knows no race or ethnicity, and people from all different backgrounds come to Gallaudet. The demographics there are usually only between 45-55% white and, contrary to what the opening episode claims, women do not outnumber men 2:1.
Given these facts, the lack of representation, particularly Women of Color (WOC), was a significant problem.
Seriously, the entire show limits its black deaf representation to two men, but nobody else. You see two black women (in two different episodes) the whole show, and they’re the main cast’s hearing family.
They have one Asian deaf friend in several scenes, but he’s not a focus, and he’s limited to the “gay best friend” trope. Deaf U has more diversity from those walking in the background than anywhere else in the show.
And that doesn’t even touch on the fact that the two black male leads spend the entire series involved with, and pursuing, white women.
All of this is ironic, given that Nyle DiMarco and Netflix both kept tweeting about the need for representation. Yet, both turned around and did such a poor job themselves.
Audiences have been putting DiMarco on blast, which is made worse because he’s retweeting their criticism without even reading them.
I don’t want people to be discouraged entirely from watching Deaf U because there are moments among the “sex, lies, and videophones” that hit on aspects of Deaf culture. As I mentioned earlier, despite its reality TV formula, there are some decent insights into the deaf experience.
However, one of these hit me very hard, and it focused on Cheyenna Clearbrook’s story. Television shows do not usually trigger me, but the discrimination she faced for “not being deaf enough” is a significant issue that audiences need to see.
As a Hard-of-Hearing person raised in the hearing world who didn’t experience deafness until adolescence and adulthood, I’ve struggled with Deaf society’s exclusion. Having to learn sign language in my 30’s from college classes, encounters with some (culturally) Deaf individuals mirror what Cheyenne went through.
I’ve been ignored by Deaf “elites” because of my signing ability, shunned at Deaf events when they find out I’m “only” HoH and often been treated as “not really deaf” because I can “pass” in the hearing world. If that sounds familiar, you’ll probably find similar experiences among multiracial people.
This behavior is essentially a form of audism, except instead of the hearing discriminating against deaf people, it’s the Deaf discriminating against other D/HH people. It’s a controversial subject with claims of preserving language and culture but at the cost of xenophobia and fighting any assistive technologies or integration.
Everything Cheyenna went through, from being mocked to outright assault, triggered my anxiety. I often don’t sign with strangers because of this discrimination and a feeling of “imposter syndrome” that arises when I identify as a HoH person.
I was even more saddened to see that Cheyenna released a video days before the release of Deaf U, in which she walked back her words in the show about discrimination. While I understand some of her points, no amount of privilege we have as mainstreamed or late-deafened individuals excuses the prejudice many of us in the D/HH community face.
I do need to be clear to hearing readers that, while that “elite” does exist in the Deaf community, they do not represent everyone (or even the majority). All but one of my ASL teachers were very open and welcoming, and I’ve met many great members of the Deaf community.
My personal experiences with some (extreme) people do not detract from the overwhelming joy of finding a place with others who understand the obstacles I face. If you question if you’re “deaf enough,” please accept that “yes, you are,” that you are not an imposter just because of how you sign (or if you sign), and that the Deaf community wants people to learn ASL and Deaf culture.
In conclusion, Deaf U is less documentary and more The Real World: Deaf Edition. It is not representative of Deaf life or Gallaudet University, neither in the demographics of its cast nor their behavior.
That isn’t to say it doesn’t have some redeeming qualities or that you shouldn’t give it a chance, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the Deaf world. The show has some informative and poignant moments and does highlight a severe divide that many non-Deaf members of the D/HH community face.
However, it’s reality television and needs to be taken as such. Even those who participated (or know the cast) have said as much.
Sorry, Nyle, but you failed on this one. You even had a chance to bring global attention to Streetcar 82 Brewing Co., a Deaf-owned/operated brewery! But you decided to use it merely as a backdrop for relationship drama.
I give Deaf U 2 out of 5 stars for some limited insight but crappy representation and focus overall.