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Netflix’s ‘Deaf U’ Wants to Break Boundaries and Showcase Deaf Culture

Producer Nyle DiMarco, a Galludet University alumnus, wanted to show the diversity of experience at the school.

Nyle DiMarco arrives at the MTV Video Music Awards at Radio City Music Hall on Monday, Aug. 20, 2018, in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

Nyle DiMarco

Charles Sykes/Invision/AP

It’s interesting to be a disabled journalist covering shows about disability; in a junket format like what the TCAs, it often exposes just why shows like “Deaf U” are so vital. Many journalists asked more about the technical elements of shooting a series than anything that could be construed about disability specifically.

And “Deaf U” is a series that shouldn’t be put out of audiences’ minds. The reality series, produced by deaf advocate and actor Nyle DiMarco, follows a group of students attending Gallaudet University, a private college catering to the deaf and hard of hearing. For DiMarco, the goal of the series is to show deaf people as humans, from all walks of life. Too often, DiMarco explained, the hearing community looks at the deaf community as a monolith, with one experience. “There truly is no right way to being deaf,” DiMarco said.

DiMarco, who is fourth generation deaf in his family, explained that his first memories were hearing about Gallaudet as the first deaf university, and after attending the school, he became committed to illustrating the diversity and layers of the community. One of those layers being the ethnic makeup of its students which, according to DiMarco, is half BIPOC.

Gallaudet University in Washington, Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2019. Driven by different spiritual traditions, students and faculty alike participate in forms of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism that cater to the non-hearing, complete with worship services and even activism rooted in the dual experiences of being deaf and a person of faith. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Gallaudet University

AP

And that’s certainly represented in the students assembled to star in the series. “I wanted to take this opportunity to show what I can offer to the world,” said Renate Rose, who ended up graduating Gallaudet with a degree in government. When asked what drew her to the project specifically, Rose cited that having a show about deaf people on Netflix, which goes out to millions of people, certainly tipped her hand. For Cheyenna Clearbrook, she said she was drawn to the series because she doesn’t see a comparison in other shows out now with regards to the deaf community.

“If I go on the show I could break boundaries for everyone,” especially towards showing deaf culture, said Clearbrook. For both Clearbrook and Rose, they had deaf backgrounds, with the former actually spending a year in a deaf school. “Often more than not [though] I’d be with a hearing community,” she said. For Clearbrook, going to Gallaudet and seeing a whole community of deaf people was a transition.

The production worked closely with the university, both in terms of making sure professors were okay with filming in classes as well as keeping the students on-task. “We were working on it about a year, from beginning to end,” said student Daequan Taylor. The participants all tried to film during their free time, after studies were completed, said Clearbrook. “Our community and our friends…were all cool with it,” said Rose. For Taylor, it was his last semester as a graduating senior, so it was his busiest. “Plus, I think at the time, I had 45 different responsibilities, so many different little jobs I was doing around campus,” Taylor said.

Taylor is pointed out by DiMarco as particularly fascinating because Taylor had no deaf background. “I was born hearing, but at the age of six I got really sick,” Taylor says. He ended up breaking a bone in his left ear during a seizure and the bone grew back over his eardrum, causing him to be deaf. “But my whole life I grew up speaking with everyone. I never signed,” said Taylor. It took him two years to learn ASL after he started attending Gallaudet.

Taylor feels he’s representing Gallaudet but can’t say he represents all of it, not being fully deaf himself. “I get to bring in a new deaf culture,” he said. “I’m sticking up for a new generation and a different history, culture, ethnic group.” For Rose, she feels more confident representing herself alongside the university.

“We’re just like normal people but in a way we have a unique difference,” Taylor said. “One thing I think people will learn is that deaf people can do what you all do. The only thing we can’t do is hear, and that’s all. We do have our own college; we do have our own culture….the culture is so rich,” said student Rodney Burford.

“Deaf U” will be available on Netflix in October.

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