Deaf U: What Diversity in the Deaf and Hard-of-hearing Community Looks Like

“We have so much diversity and so much beauty within our community.”
— Nyle Di Marco, Deaf U Executive Producer

Deaf U just dropped on Netflix over the weekend and let me tell you, it’s everything you needed to get through this tumultuous time. Take a break from the pandemic and politics to binge this incredible show!

Deaf U' Cast - Meet the Cast of Netflix's 'Deaf U'

Other than the oh-so-juicy college drama, Deaf U really showcases the diversity of the deaf community, particularly that which exists at an institution that is specifically oriented for students who are deaf or hard-of-hearing.

When asked about the genesis of Deaf U, producer Nyle DiMarco highlighted the diversity that he wanted Deaf U to illustrate:

“People outside our community really don’t understand the Deaf world, maybe they’ve never ever met someone who is Deaf, so there’s a unique level of fascination. We have so much diversity and so much beauty within our community. We are not a monolith, we have complicated layers”

A Paradigm Shift in Identity Representation

This is a key moment in deaf representation on screen. In the past, deaf and hard-of-hearing characters have been times and times shown rather vulnerable and helpless (check out Katherine Foss’ in-depth work to learn more). Things started to change recently, with attempts to illuminate deafness in a more positive, empowering light. We’re thinking of shows like Switched at Birth and This Close. They show the inner workings of American Deaf (capital D) culture and American Sign Language.

However, the emphasis on American Deaf culture often doesn’t encapsulate the diverse reality of how people across the world experience deafness and hearing loss. In reality, deafness is a spectrum and exists within different intersections of identities and communities. Depending on the cultural context and upbringing, some people may identify with American Deaf culture and using exclusively sign language, some people may prefer only to speak, and some people may just land somewhere “in between”. For a majority of deaf people, they don’t have control over their upbringing, so their communication styles and cultural identity may differ for a myriad of reasons and that’s okay.

Excuse Me. You Said Deaf Elite?

In Deaf U, the concept of Deaf Elite is brought to mainstream media for the first time. Something that may not be known to most hearing viewers, Deaf Elite are those who grew up in Deaf families and have a rich understanding of Deaf culture and American Sign Language. In Deaf U, Alexa and her friends have strong ties to the Deaf community and almost try to dictate what it means to be Deaf. Viewers see the implications this has on the other students who didn’t grow up culturally Deaf.

Deaf U emphasizes that there isn’t one way to be deaf, nor is there a “right way” of being deaf. Even in a university that’s seen as the cultural Deaf hub of the world, there are vast differences in the way that each of the students grew up. Deafness doesn’t exist in a singularity. There’s vast layers of complexities that shape how deaf people navigate the Deaf and hearing world. The fact that it’s so readily available on Netflix will inform the world about the beauty and diversity of the deaf community and change how people think about deafness.

Diverse Identities Bring Diverse Accessibility Needs

Something that Deaf U doesn’t really show is what a fully accessible college campus looks like (amongst other things, ahem- where are the deaf women of color?). As someone who spent time studying at Gallaudet, it was incredible to see what true accessibility efforts looked like on campus. It was standard for classes and events to be conducted in sign language, but the reality is that is only one way to provide access. Not everyone grew up immersed in Deaf culture and learning sign language. And more than that, not everyone was solely Deaf. There were also a lot of folks who were DeafBlind or Deaf+.

With a diversity of communication styles and intersecting cultures meant there also had to be a diverse approach to accommodations. When it comes to supporting Deaf and hard-of-hearing folks, there is no one-size-fits-all prescription for accessibility. Depending on who was in the audience, this meant that events and classes at Gallaudet had combinations of ASL-English interpreters, Pro-Tactile Sign Language interpreters, live captions, CART, and sometimes even International Sign interpreters. It was incredible to see what kind of accommodations could be made possible.

It’s important that we talk about accessibility, especially out of the Gallaudet space. Not every educational institution or workplace has implemented five different forms of accessibility measures in place. But that’s not always necessary! If you’re in a position in which you have say over accessibility, it’s important to do some homework on what kinds of accommodations are appropriate and fit best. If you’re not, then take this as an opportunity to inform decision-makers on the diversity of deaf life and the different kinds of accommodations that exist.

With a diversity of communication styles and intersecting cultures meant there also had to be a diverse approach to accommodations.

At Ava’s core, we embrace the diversity of communication styles that come from unique upbringings. Two of our co-founders grew up in completely different environments: one from a hearing, non-signing family, the other a CODA from a culturally Deaf family. With the invaluable insight from these backgrounds, we recognize that accommodations can look different for everyone.

Deaf U makes a great first step at highlighting the diversity in the deaf world on a surface level, but it’s important that we go beyond that and look at exactly how we address and accommodate all kinds of needs in the deaf community.

*The term “deaf community” is used here to describe folks across the d/Deaf and hard-of-hearing community. This is meant to encompass folks who identify with Deaf culture and sign language, as well as those who may not.