'Deaf U' Spotlights Diversity of Deaf Culture and Reality of Being a Teenager

By TT Stern-Enzi | Dec. 15, 2020

As a working media critic during quarantine, there has not been a lack of content to cover. While we haven’t been able to head into movie theaters as we normally would for major studio releases, independent distributors have picked up the slack – in many ways inspiring the mid-majors of the industry as well as the growing number of streaming services to unveil titles via video on demand. This has granted audiences even more access to films they might not have made the effort to check on in local arthouses or multiplexes.

On the streaming front, Netflix and their compatriots were perfectly suited to these strange new times, with a supply of new series – both reality-based and original narrative stories – ready-made for binge watching. And Netflix, in particular, has devoted programming to POC, the LGBTQ+ community, and people with disabilities. 

I found myself drawn to the 8-episode reality series “Deaf U,” which premiered on Oct. 8, because it’s setting (life on the campus of Gallaudet University) had already flashed on the Over-the-Rhine International Film Festival’s radar thanks to director Mimi D’Autremont’s short documentary “Anyone Like Me.” The short examined the experiences of a deaf football player adjusting to deaf culture and attempting to navigate tricky relationship waters. It opened a door into a world rarely seen, especially so intimately from within, but “Deaf U” knocks the door off its hinges.

The series looks and feels like exactly what it should be, a fascinating and sometimes soapy reality show full of dating issues, social media complications, and faux confessional-styled revelations from a collection of students trying to figure out what life is all about. So often, shows and films (especially documentaries) seek to create the impression that folks with disabilities don’t experience the same trials and tribulations as everyone else. There’s a focus on perceived innocence and desire to protect that limits experiences. But what I sometimes, and I believe the evolving reality-streaming audience, seek is a show that celebrates the unreal drama of dating (“Love at First Sight” or “Dating Around”) or the fantastic collision of difference (food and travel shows like “Ugly Delicious” or “Somebody Feed Phil”). “Deaf U spotlights not only the diversity of deaf culture, but a welcome willingness to show its participants as flawed, gloriously intriguing human beings.