Netflix’s reality docuseries “Deaf U” reveals a lot about deaf culture that may come as a surprise to most people in the hearing world.
One particular subset within Gallaudet University’s diverse body of deaf and hard-of-hearing students is referred to as “The Elite.”
Who makes up this smaller, more exclusive group within the school’s deaf community? And what’s the reason for all of the tension between one of the show’s stars, Cheyenna Clearbrook — a deaf Gallaudet student, YouTuber and Instagram personality who grew up surrounded by a predominantly hearing culture — and so many of the “Elite” girls on campus?
We asked deaf activist, model, former Gallaudet student, and “Deaf U” executive producer Nyle DiMarco to shed some light on what’s really going on within this tight-knit group.
“The quote-unquote ‘Elite’ group would typically be someone who maybe grew up in a multigenerational deaf family or went to a deaf school; grew up culturally deaf,” DiMarco told TheWrap. “The bottom line essentially means they had access to language and education at an early age, which surprisingly is incredibly rare for deaf kids out there.”
Then DiMarco dropped a shocking statistic: “95% of deaf kids in our community are born to hearing parents who don’t sign or who aren’t really culturally aware.”
The reality star and winner of “America’s Next Top Model” and “Dancing With the Stars” gave some background on his own childhood — and why he views the class distinction as “a form of systemic oppression.”
“I was very fortunate that I was born in a multigenerational deaf family that provided me the ability to arrive to Gallaudet confident with language, with education, with a great background and ready to learn. But for so many other students who didn’t have access to deaf culture or came in without a signing background, it was really a double whammy for them,” he said. “Not only did they have to focus on pursuing their degree, but at the same time, they had to focus on learning culture and a new language. Going through that struggle, oftentimes, people view that as not fair in comparison to the ‘Elite.’ So it is, in many ways, a form of systemic oppression, and I wanted to really reflect that in the course of the show.”
He also weighed in on Clearbrook’s heartfelt Instagram post apologizing for a comment she made on the show questioning whether she’s “deaf enough.”
“I think that Cheyenna’s experience is valid,” DiMarco said. “It’s key that we shift our discussion and not weaponize a term to say that people aren’t “deaf enough,” and rely strictly on cultural fluency or language fluency. The vast majority of our community faces that struggle,” he said.
What the “Elites” are really focused on, DiMarco said, is preserving deaf language, culture and traditions.
“I think it is key that we project those emotions back to the system itself, which is an honest system all in all. It’s important that we back one another to fight the system and not each other, to envision a future for deaf kids.”
Watch our full video-interview with DiMarco here.
“Deaf U” is now streaming on Netflix.