How Netflix’s Deaf U made me feel heard
Image Courtesy of Netflix
By Jake Yates-Hart
As a rule, I don’t really watch reality television, nor do I care for it very much. I guess it is the snooty TV critic in me; I’m far more interested in watching a show that challenges me intel- lectually, and reality television just does not do that. And Netflix has tried it’s hand at the genre before, with varying degrees of success. However, Nyle DiMarco’s Deaf U, which follows the lives of several D/deaf and hardof-hearing students at an elite university in Washington, D.C., did something for me that very few shows have managed to do. It made me feel seen… or better yet, heard. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been in and out of hospital, and it almost always had something to do with my hearing. I would say I have had at least 10 surgeries to improve my hearing. When I was 11, I was given my first set of hearing aids, but after a year or so, it was declared that I no longer needed them. My hearing had improved, and I begrudgingly let that part of my identity go. Now, nearly a decade and one horrible ear infection later, I have a hearing aid again, and I’m so relieved I do. But it did raise some questions I never really thought about the first time. Namely, where do I fit in? Will I have to keep adjusting to the hearing world, trying to ignore someone’s frustration when I ask them to repeat themselves? Or will I manage to be fluent in British Sign Language, and communicate easily with other hard of-hearing people, if my hearing worsens? Luckily, Deaf U calmed some of those insecurities by shining a large spotlight on the students at Gallaudet University. We see various members of the D/deaf community on the college campus; from D/deaf party animals, to deaf influencers, to even deaf beer fanatics. Each of the seven main cast members provide a meaningful insight into the D/deaf experience, but most importantly of all, they remind the audience that they are just normal people. They are not one-dimensional characters you see in mainstream fictional shows that need ‘saving,’ from the able bodied. They are confident, smart, and proud of being capital-D Deaf. As someone who feels stuck between two worlds sometimes, I particularly enjoyed Rodney and Daequan’s communication, where they would alternate between sign and speech. One of the difficulties I have studying BSL is that I sometimes jumble my sentences, or forget to mouth words altogether. Yet Rodney and Daequan’s choice to combine speech with sign eased those worries, and made me feel I can sign in a way that makes me comfortable and that others can still understand. That said, as the show is set in the U.S., I found myself becoming disgruntled seeing the cast sign certain words that mean something entirely different in BSL. I couldn’t help groaning when I saw Alexa make an ‘r’ shape with her finger and brush it across her nose - in BSL that means ‘sister,’ Alexa, not ‘red!’ Nit-picks aside, I really enjoyed the show on an aesthetic level, too. Each episode begins with the usual ‘A Netflix Original Series’ chyron, but then ‘Netflix’ is replaced with the signed version of the word (albeit, in ASL). The ‘talking heads’ portion of the episodes uses a calming backdrop of one of common rooms on campus, which creates a safe and comforting setting for the viewer, especially when the show explores darker topics. The show’s representation of the D/deaf community is impressive but could be improved upon for next series. Five out of the seven main cast members are white, and one of the only two black men in the ensemble is edited to fit the reality-television-bad-guy trope, which I found uncomfortable, especially when considering that the sortof ‘antagonists’ of the show are not given as much screen time as they should have. That would be the Elite, those who have been signing since birth and come from a long line of non-hearing families, and often criticise those in the community that aren’t fluent in ASL. The clique’s animosity towards kind-hearted vlogger Cheyenna Clearbrook didn’t get nearly enough screen time as it should have, so when that storyline concluded in the series finale, it felt rushed and clunky. Unfortunately, where the show falters is that there aren’t enough episodes to see a natural progression of events. Certain storylines are brushed under the rug to give screen time to the endless romantic subplot that involves nearly all of the friends - I honestly couldn’t tell you who in the love pentagon slept with who. If Netflix picks up Deaf U for a second series, I hope DiMarco intends to explore more important issues that the cast has faced. There is something very powerful about someone who has never heard their own voice, using sign language as their only form of communication to discuss sensitive topics around mental health, domestic abuse and consent. Those are issues Deaf U has explored before, but not nearly as much as they should have. Deaf U truly means a lot to me, it’s just a shame I could only spend a short time watching this amazing group of people navigate the hearing and non-hearing world. Considering DiMarco managed to break down these barriers of communication in only eight episodes, there is definitely hope for another series. After all, series one ends on (somewhat) of a cliff-hanger for the cast as they make big life changes, for better or for worse. Also, for those who have the television on as background noise while studying (like myself), audio description is an option; you’ll be able listen to a narrator explain what the cast are signing while you write that essay you’ve been putting off for weeks. Deaf U is available to stream on Netflix.