Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., was the world’s first institution of higher learning devoted to students who are deaf or hearing disabled. It’s probably the only bilingual school where the two official languages are English and American Sign Language, or ASL. Founded as a college during the Lincoln Administration, Gallaudet has provided training to a population that — like all disabled populations — has struggled to find opportunities in the economy and, more broadly, in life.
I feel obliged to point all of this out since Deaf U, a new reality show about students at Gallaudet, will strike you at first as exceedingly trivial, another MTV-style docuseries about sex and drinking among collegiates, except with many more hand gestures than seen at your typical Party U.
Gallaudet grad Nyle DiMarco (no stranger to reality TV himself, having won both America's Next Top Model and Dancing With the Stars) is the creator of Deaf U, which he recently described as a “deep dive” that shows people “just how layered the deaf community truly is,” although I think the program’s overarching interest in its subjects’ sex lives — rather than their academic pursuits and life goals — will strike many as the exact opposite of a deep or layered treatment.
But no mind: Deaf U, with its short (20 minutes or less) episodes, intriguing characters, and fascinating exploration of deaf subculture — albeit one that doesn't exactly cast deaf people in a very favorable light — is a worthwhile drive-by docuseries.
DiMarco has cast the show well, finding interesting leads who reflect both the racial and hearing diversity of the Gallaudet community. Take Daequan Taylor, the show’s designated horndog. “I always knew I was going to college,” he explains — bilingually, in English and ASL at the same time — in the show’s opening moments. “All the beautiful girls and smart girls, they go to college.” He’s not kidding: The ratio of women to men at Gallaudet is seven to three.
But Daequan, it turns out, does have some depth to him, and if you get past his sexual bluster, his placement in this show adds layers to our understanding of what it’s like to be deaf and ambitious in America. He lost hearing by illness when he was six and was completely mainstreamed before entering Gallaudet. “It took me two years here to learn ASL,” he explained at a virtual press conference.
Compare that with Renate Rose, another subject of the show. She’s fourth-generation deaf and hails from a tightly-knit hearing disabled community in suburban Kansas City. She always knew she’d be going to Gallaudet. As the show explains, there is a insider-outsider tension at the school between “deaf royalty” — who come from congenitally hearing-disabled backgrounds, and who speak exclusively in ASL — and everyone else at Gallaudet.
But there are divisions between even those who are deaf by birth. Cheyenna Clearbrook, from Seattle, was fully mainstreamed before coming to Gallaudet. This creates tension with other “elites” at Gallaudet that, over the course of the season, will become unbearable for her.
Created by federal charter, occupying 90 acres in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol, and representing an historically disadvantaged community, Gallaudet and politics have always gone together. Yet the mix has often resulted in the school popping into the national news for the wrong reasons. In the 1980s Gallaudet was virtually shut down by student protests over the decision to name a hearing person the school’s new president. Her name was withdrawn and a deaf president chosen. The murder of a gay student 20 years ago exposed problems with acceptance of LGBTQ students on campus — something DiMarco addresses through Renate’s same-sex relationships.
The third episode’s title, “Am I Not Deaf Enough?”, echoes a later controversy, when yet another proposed Gallaudet president sparked outrage among a small but loud radical group at the school because, like Daequan, she had only started speaking ASL later in life. She wasn’t “deaf enough.”
As I say, this is all explored through the breezy reality-TV template about relationships on campus. But DiMarco hits just enough notes emphasizing the singular nature of Gallaudet culture to keep my interest piqued.
I’d be remiss, though, if I didn’t use this review as an excuse to tip my hat to Netflix, which stands out for its total commitment to serving disabled viewers. And here I’m referring not so much to its offering of subtitles in a multitude of languages for the hearing impaired — though there is that — as to its embrace of audio description for blind and visually disabled viewers, like my wife.
In audio description, a narrator’s voice is inserted at convenient moments during a show (usually when no one else is talking) and describes things that sight-impaired viewers can’t see. Audio description is one of those add-ons that some viewers find annoying and never use, and others among us find annoying when it’s not offered.
Unlike captions, which were developed in the 1970s and eventually were required to be inserted in almost all TV broadcasts, audio descriptions are a later development and entirely optional. Some network shows have them. A fair number of Hulu and Disney+ shows have them. Apple TV+ describes all of its originals, although that’s not saying much. (Here's a master list kept by the American Council of the Blind.)
But Netflix has been describing all of its originals for years — a vast library of more than 1300 titles and tens of thousands of episodes. (If you want to sample it, turn on Audio Description and watch an episode of The Crown. Any episode. It’s sublime.) Netflix wanted the biggest audience so it worked hard developing the best user experience. And that included audio description. In recent years, as screen-watching became more of a background or multi-screen experience, non-disabled millennials have embraced these accessibility features.What infuriates me is that thousands of movies and TV shows have been described over the years. Those descriptions were included as alternate audio tracks when the content came out years ago on DVD. And yet when they show up on a streaming service … no audio descriptions. It’s baffling. It’s dumb. Now compare that to Netflix, which has actually begun paying for descriptions for old movies like Basic Instinct and Cape Fear that didn’t have them in the first place. This is why Netflix has all the money.
Audio description comes in particularly handy watching Deaf U because when any of these kids speak in ASL, you don’t hear them (except for Daequan and a couple other bilinguals), so you have to stare at the subtitles. Turn on the audio description (it’s on the Audio and Subtitles menu), and now someone is reading the subtitles to you. It’s great.
Deaf U drops on Netflix October 9th.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.