Netflix’s Deaf U Proves That There’s No “Right” Way To Be Deaf

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.
Warning: Spoilers ahead for season 1 of Deaf U, now on Netflix.
Netflix’s new docuseries Deaf U, out October 9, provides an unflinching look into the lives of Deaf students who struggle to fit in. The series tackles questions of representation as students at Gallaudet, a private Deaf university, wonder where they belong. 
A moment in episode 2 highlights this tension. A group of young women sit together in a dorm room and watch a YouTube video. The blonde woman on their screen, a classmate named Cheyenna, gives fashion tips. Like any influencer, she attracts controversy. But for Cheyenna and her “haters,” this controversy is personal. Cheyenna and her classmates are Deaf. Even if they agree on autumn wardrobe staples, they disagree on the “right way” to be Deaf. Her classmates critique her for mouthing words in English instead of using American Sign Language (ASL). This disagreement sets the tone for the rest of the season as students like Cheyenna wonder who is “Deaf enough” to fit in at Gallaudet, and who gets left behind? 
Some students feel welcome in the Gallaudet community. Others don’t. Their divergent journeys illustrate how Gallaudet isn’t just a school; it’s a lifestyle. And played out as a reality show, it’s a life full of drama, trauma, and healing. One Elite student, Tessa, threatens Cheyenna about the dangers of “catering” to hearing people: “The Deaf community is so small that once we shun a person … they have nowhere else to go.” Love triangles quickly become love polygons on the small campus. “Elites” bully non-Elite students at parties, shoving lollipops into their mouths and laughing at them.

These interactions, at times, feel highly produced or even choreographed. All eight drama-filled episodes take place in a single semester. But the students also open up about their real, deep, and raw traumas throughout the series. In episodes 1 and 2, many of the students are anxious about expressing their emotions. Many viewers can empathize with how the students’ hidden feelings can bubble up and negatively impact their relationships. But as the series progresses, Alexa communicates with her parents about her abortion. Renate discloses her family history of domestic violence and her struggle with anger management. DQ (short for Daequan) processes his grief about his mother’s death and the pressure he feels to support his family. Almost every student reveals their own personal battle. These vulnerable conversations mark the students’ growth and their bravery.

Deaf U demystifies an often-misunderstood university and community.

Deaf U demystifies an often-misunderstood university and community. Each 20-minute episode hones in on nearly a dozen undergraduate Gallaudet students as they gossip, study, and flirt in Washington, D.C. Dalton throws out his hearing aid to embrace Deaf life, but his friend Rodney “can’t hear shit” without his cochlear implant. Renate celebrates her bisexuality by performing in ASL at poetry slams. DQ and Rodney tire of their white neighbors staring at them, as though unaccustomed to seeing two Black men who know sign language. In another show, these different stories may confuse viewers or make for a messy narrative. Yes, viewers may feel disoriented when they try to keep track of the numerous students and their different lives. But this disorientation emphasizes a valuable point. All Deaf people are different, and at Gallaudet, their different perspectives mingle and sometimes clash. Deaf U teaches us that growing up Deaf (or even defining Deafness) is in itself a messy endeavor. Producers Eric Evangelista, Shannon Evangelista, and Brandon Panaligan, and Nyle DiMarco (a Deaf activist and Gallaudet graduate) embrace this messiness as part of Gallaudet’s story. The creators weave together these diverse identities to honor the real students who are finding their way in the Deaf world, the hearing world, or somewhere in between. 
A portion of the cast, including Alexa and Cheyenna’s best friend Cameron, belong to the “Elites.” On a small campus with 700 femme-identifying and 300 male-identifying undergrads, the Elites consider themselves the most popular students because — per Elite members Tessa and Alexa —  they can sometimes trace their family’s Deafness back four or five generations. The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders reports that this genetic lineage is plausible but incredibly rare; 90% of Deaf people have hearing parents. Cheyenna describes how many of these students know each other long before coming to Gallaudet. And once some of these Elites enroll at the school, they act like they run it. Gallaudet’s Elite students fiercely protect their culture and ASL language, even if that means excluding other students from more mainstream communities.
The show’s title is a pun that plays on Deaf University, a nod to Gallaudet’s reputation as the world’s leading college for Deaf students. But the title also pushes against the Elite’s narrow definition of Deafness by encouraging the cast to express their own Deaf experiences using their own gestures, ASL, spoken words, or other forms of communication. It’s not Deaf U so much as “Deaf You.” Deaf U assures Deaf and hard-of-hearing people that even if they feel like they don’t fit in, they belong in the show’s narrative — and eff anyone who tries to make them feel otherwise.  

For these students and for other members of the Deaf and hard-of-hearing community, the future is what we make it.

Unlike other popular shows that feature disability, like The Good Doctor or Stranger Things, Deaf U appeals to Deaf and hearing viewers by juxtaposing audio and visual sensations. Producers make Deaf U accessible by incorporating visual cues like a colorful animated title sequence that includes the ASL letters for Deaf U and sharp lens quality. The camera operators focus on the students’ faces and hands during interviews to help viewers read the cast member’s lips or understand their ASL. However, producers also incorporate English captions and music throughout each episode to appeal to people who prefer auditory media. These design choices show how, for Gallaudet students and viewers alike, the hearing and Deaf worlds are not so clear-cut. 
Students in Deaf U make difficult choices as they navigate their bodies, Gallaudet, and the D.C. area. Some students wear hearing aids or socialize with hearing friends. Their peers may prefer to frequent businesses run by Deaf employees and avoid the hearing world almost entirely. DiMarco and other producers present these experiences without judgment, showing that there is no one “right” way to live as a Deaf person. Instead, the creators intersect footage of each student with time lapses of Gallaudet’s campus and D.C. scenery. These transition moments demonstrate that all Deaf people, not only Elites, build Gallaudet’s campus just as much as the college’s architecture. 
After eight episodes, do the students find the feeling of belonging they’re looking for? Not really. The first season of Deaf U ends without a clear resolution. Alexa has returned to her old boyfriend but is uncertain of their future together. Cheyenna considers returning home to the hearing world. The creators embrace these growing pains. None of the cast members has a “happily ever after” ending. Some viewers may find this conclusion is unfulfilling. But the final shot of Alexa driving into the night leaves season 2 open to a world of possibilities. For these students and for other members of the Deaf and hard-of-hearing community, the future is what we make it. This tentative sense of hope is a fitting end for a revolutionary show. 

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