Deaf U pushes deaf culture into the mainstream by focusing on deaf perspectives

The Netflix show is an important first step but can be improved with greater representation and critiques of hearing culture

The docu-drama series examines the everyday experiences of deaf students at college. Courtesy of Netflix

By: Serena Bains, Staff Writer

New eight-episode Netflix series Deaf U was released on October 9. The series follows the lives of deaf students at Gallaudet University and acts as an introduction to the deaf community for hearing folk. 

The series is executively produced by Nyle DiMarco, a prominent deaf activist, actor, and model. DiMarco regularly pushes for greater deaf representation in media and committed to hiring a minimum of 30% of the crew from the deaf community. He stated that he wanted the show to be an opportunity for deaf people to break into the entertainment industry, while increasing representation.

The show is a college drama, where students who are deaf or hard of hearing go through the ups and downs of dating, identity, and academics, while navigating the challenges and benefits of the deaf community. Gallaudet University, where the show is set, is the world’s only university where all of the programs are accommodated to the needs of deaf or hard of hearing students.

As someone who, though disabled, is part of the hearing community, I appreciate how the show provides insights into the deaf community which is largely unrepresented in mainstream media. Deaf U effectively shows how the deaf community is small and tight knit, but is also not a monolith. Members of the community who can trace back many generations of non-hearing relatives, whose first language is American Sign Language (ASL), and who largely grew up in deaf culture are considered to be the “elite” of the community. People with cochran implants (CI), who can speak a language other than ASL fluently, those who don’t sign all the time, and those who mouth words, can be seen as privileged or “not deaf enough” as well. 

While showing some of the perceived privileged members of the deaf community, the show also speaks to the inaccessibility that deaf people face in a world where hearing culture is the norm. Deaf people have to move furniture or items to ensure that everyone’s signing is visible, showing how built infrastructure is not deaf friendly. Some cannot communicate when their hands are occupied with a different task such as hugging someone or getting a manicure. 

While the show is a much needed portrayal of the deaf community, it does not portray all members of the deaf community. For example, while there are Black men in the show, there are no Black women in the series, nor are there any people who appear to be physically disabled. Deaf U, however, does represent other intersections of identity, with cast members such as Renate who is queer and deals with depression and anxiety. 

Another fault of the show is that in many aspects it remains surface level. Though the levity in the show is needed at times as it does delve into difficult topics like abortion and unstable family structure, the eight episodes, each only 20-minutes long, leave something to be desired. It misses the opportunity to explicitly focus on the inaccessibility of hearing culture from the perspective of deaf people. It is not a perspective present in the mainstream and the show missed the opportunity to be one of the first series to make hearing people reflect on the privileges they have. 

While Deaf U could improve its representation of the various individuals within the deaf community, it goes without question that the show is a much needed first step. Disabilities are largely underrepresented in media, especially of those who are deaf or hard of hearing. The series communicates deaf culture to a hearing audience through ASL, captioning, and spoken language. The importance of deaf culture and the nuances of it could be better understood though with a more in-depth continuation of the series. Although a second season has not been confirmed, the show would benefit from delving deeper into deaf culture and it’s interactions with the ableism of the status quo.