Deaf U Review

A week ago, “Deaf U” was released on Netflix. A reality docuseries executive produced by Nyle DiMarco — admittedly not one of my favorite people — the show centers around a group of Deaf students at Gallaudet University.

I was sure it would be the next docuseries viral hit. After all, the media loves Nyle and the drama of American Sign Language (ASL). I was nervous to watch, because I knew much of the content would piss me off. But how would I be able to educate people (if needed) without watching? Plus, there are only eight episodes under 20 minutes each, so binging would be easy.

My curiosity won out. I watched, so you don’t have to.

As someone posted on Facebook, “Did I miss something? I watched several episodes of Deaf U. It appeared to be more about sex, partying, drinking, and bullying.”

Nope. That’s the show in a nutshell. It’s a huge missed opportunity to showcase what life is like in a deaf bubble like Gallaudet (the country’s only private university for deaf and hard of hearing students). The concept of Deaf Space, for example, wasn’t really touched upon, other than showing a group of students at a bar rearranging the seating so they could all communicate.

I was relieved to see two cast members who spoke as well as signed. One of them even has a cochlear implant. Ironically, he often interpreted for a classmate when they went out to clubs.

The downsides to being reliant on sign language were shown but may have been too subtle. There were a few scenes of people having to type out their food or drink orders on the phone or write them down on paper.

The bullying that’s so prevalent in the show is real when it comes to Deaf Culture. “Elite” Deaf people, who come from Deaf families and are native signers, treat anyone else as less than. It was surprising that people like Cheyenna weren’t aware of this. Did she not do her due diligence?

Gallaudet is so small, it’s practically incestuous. Gossip is a huge problem there. Everyone on the show is majorly f**ked up. Make of that what you will.

While it’s great that there’s a university that exists for people who are Deaf, is it to their detriment? I’ll never forget how one of my middle school teachers assumed I was going to Gallaudet, despite the fact that I was mainstreamed, spoke, and read lips. I was actually insulted. It can be nice to be in a bubble, but it’s not real life.

To further cement this point, people who rely on ASL often have poor English and literacy skills. Gallaudet coddles them. If you don’t believe me, take a look at some statistics a friend unearthed. Only 20 percent of the 2010 cohort finished their Bachelors in four years; 46 percent did it in eight. Two years later, the graduation rate was still low at 47 percent. It dipped again in 2014, with only 19 percent graduating in four years and 44 percent in six years.

But back to the show. There’s no closure in the last episode; I had to go online to find out updates. Then I had some fun looking up reactions on Twitter. I’m not the only one unimpressed. One main complaint from people in the Deaf community is the lack of Black Deaf female representation. I also discovered that the show was supposedly filmed in a month. It shows. If you haven’t already guessed, this hasn’t become a viral hit like I feared.

Nyle is on record as saying he made “Deaf U” to prove that Deaf Culture exists, because “people don’t believe me.” Is it wrong that I’m kind of glad he’s experiencing some backlash? He also says he’s trying to show that there’s “no one right way to be deaf.” But his actions don’t follow.

His next Netflix project, “Audible,” follows a Deaf boy at his alma mater high school – Maryland School for the Deaf. As Nyle describes this Netflix docuseries, “It’s a really interesting opportunity to see what it’s like for a deaf kid to go to a deaf school and play football with all of his buddies, then go home and not have access to language. His parents don’t sign. And that truly is the authentic story of the deaf community in America.”

As a hearing parent of a deaf child posted on Facebook, “[‘Audible’ is] absolutely the experience of many kids who go to signing Deaf boarding schools, but it risks further misrepresenting the statistics for parents who don’t sign by implying that most can’t communicate with their child rather than admitting that many don’t need to sign because their children listen and speak proficiently.”

In fact, more than 90 percent of deaf children are born to hearing parents. Why wouldn’t they want them to (literally) speak their language and be able to function independently in society? We exist. And we don’t need “Deaf U” to prove it.

Zoey’s Extraordinary Silence

ASL performance of Rachel Platten's "Fight Song"

Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist is being lauded for showcasing deaf talent and representation in its most recent episode, “Zoey’s Extraordinary Silence.” But as is typical for the medium, it was a biased, unrealistic portrayal.

If you’re hearing and watched the ninth episode this season – which aired April 6, 2020 – you likely recognized the song as soon as the instrumental began and maybe even remembered some of the lyrics. If you’re deaf and know ASL, you knew what the characters were “singing.”

Yes, the sign language-only performance of Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song” without lyrics or subtitles was dramatic and moving, and it’s great that actual deaf people were playing deaf people. But the fact is, the media gravitates toward American Sign Language, or ASL, because it’s so visual.

But if you’re deaf like me, raised to lipread and speak, you were completely out of the loop. How’s that for irony? 

When I looked up the lyrics, they added an extra dimension to the performance. “Can you hear my voice this time? This is my fight song…”

Well, this is my fight song. 

In the episode, Zoey’s father’s caregiver Howie’s daughter (you follow?) Abigail is deaf. When she visits Zoey at her workplace, Zoey’s colleague conveniently knows sign language and is able to interpret (otherwise they would have had to resort to cruder methods). About her dad, she signs, “Ever since I was little, he’s always tried to shelter me from the world and make me better, whether it was cochlear implants, hearing aids, or speech therapy. But when nothing fixed me, he was devastated.” 

She adds, “He always made me feel like something was wrong with me. Then I went to college and met people who didn’t view their deafness as a weakness.”

I know parents like Howie exist. Thankfully, I know many more parents who are like mine. I was accepted, raised to be independent in society, and never made to feel like I was broken or needed to be fixed. 

Since my congenital deafness was diagnosed at 14 months of age, I’ve worn hearing aids. As an adult, I got a cochlear implant, so now I have one of each. I had daily speech therapy from my diagnosis through high school. 

Deaf Culture activists shy away from what they call a medical model of deafness, or reinforcing limitations rather than abilities. They think this perspective emphasizes the “loss” of hearing and strives to make the person be “normal.” This philosophy – which they associate with someone like me — is so far from my reality, it’s laughable. Even with my cochlear implant and hearing aid, I’m deaf. I still can’t appreciate music or understand what’s said on the phone. I’m reminded of my limitations every single day. But because of my parents and teachers, I’ve been able to reach my full potential. I would have had more limitations had I not been taught to lipread and speak.

Unfortunately, viewers who don’t know much about hearing loss wouldn’t know that people like me exist. In fact, 90 percent of children who are deaf are born to hearing parents, the vast majority of whom don’t know ASL – just like the rest of the world. In a family report of primary communication modality, the National Center for Hearing Assessment and Management found that 49 percent of families use listening and spoken language only, while only 3 percent use ASL only. The other percentages involve various combinations.

With advances like cochlear implants, listening and spoken language outcomes are even brighter – especially if implanted by age one. Kids are on par with their hearing peers when it comes to language, and don’t have the limitations older folks like me do.

The struggle between Howie and Abigail is that he’s scared to let her make her own choices and venture out into the world. Perhaps if he had given Abigail the right tools, he wouldn’t feel this way.

A deaf friend of mine who is an audiologist echoed my thoughts when she complained about the episode: “Just once, can we just have a TV show with someone who is deaf, wears CIs or hearing aids, and is happy to be able to speak? I am so tired of TV and movies playing into the same old tropes. We can’t keep feeling like we’re in the 1960s. The d/Deaf community is so diverse and it’s sad that we always get just one viewpoint.”

Can you hear my voice this time?

Bumper Stickers

I never thought I’d have a car covered in bumper stickers. I don’t…yet. While I have five, I don’t own a stick figure family or the annoying “MY KID’S AN HONOR STUDENT.” You’re welcome.

Years ago, my husband and I displayed stickers from our respective universities on one car’s side windows. Our other car had the HRC logo on a back passenger window. We were trying to be unassuming.

Then the 2016 election happened. And I no longer gave a shit.

I know putting a bumper sticker on my car isn’t going to change minds. But it makes me feel like I’m doing SOMETHING. Even if it’s just announcing to the world that I’m not happy with the current regime.

Think about it. There’s something about a captive audience. You’re waiting at the the light and have to keep an eye on the car in front of you. If the message is succinct, it’ll be seen regardless. Like the one I have on my back bumper that says “RESIST.”

Move On is where I’ve gotten most (or all?) of my stickers. And they’re free! Every once in a while, I’ll get an email about a new sticker. Since I’m often on my computer, I’m able submit my request immediately before stock runs out.

One of my favorites is the one that quotes Michelle Obama: “WE NEED AN ADULT IN THE White House.” I have yet to see that on another car, which makes mine even more special.

My BLUE WAVE 2018 car magnet will hopefully be replaced by BLUE WAVE 2020 (get on that please, people!) and/or one that has the Democratic candidate’s name on it. As soon as we know who that person is, you can bet I’ll have him/her represented!

I’m sure I’ve been on the receiving end of people who aren’t happy with my statements, but again, I don’t give a shit. They show my support for basic human decency, for a world that’s going up in flames (literally). And it’s always rewarding when strangers express their solidarity. I even had someone ring my doorbell a few months ago just to tell me that she’d seen my car around the neighborhood. She told herself she had to meet the person who had such great stickers. We talked about volunteering for organizations like the League of Women Voters and our shared hope that our efforts will prove fruitful.

Then today, while I was putting groceries in my trunk, a stranger approached me with the “SPREAD KINDNESS BUILD COMMUNITY” magnet. She gave it to me, saying she liked my stickers and found this magnet in Virginia. She wanted me to add it to my collection, and gave me a happy thumbs up as I drove away.

Of course, I don’t put anything permanent on my car. If it’s a sticker, it’s vinyl, the kind that’s easily removable. Otherwise, it’s a car magnet, which comes right off. Hopefully after the 2020 election, I can remove Michelle’s quote. By then, my daughter will be a college student; we can display some college spirit. I’d much rather do that than have to worry about the fate of our country.

Seriously — the news is so demoralizing these days. It’s always reassuring to know that we’re not alone in this fight.

ASL classes

A journalist contacted me recently, asking if he could get my perspective as a deaf journalist about the news media’s coverage of the deaf community.

“For the interview, we could video chat and use Google docs to do a written interview,” he wrote. “I’m also learning ASL but I don’t know enough to conduct an interview in sign just yet.”

How did he think the video chat would work?!

When I responded, I explained that the topic was complex because there are different deaf communities, of which many aren’t aware. I also told him I don’t know ASL, if that was any indication.

He said in his ASL class, a large aspect of the curriculum is learning about deaf culture and the deaf community, which he’s found fascinating. “Do you use a different signing language?” he asked. “I was not aware there were others used in the US.”

I don’t know how many classes he’s had so far, but there’s a disconnect because ASL stands for American Sign Language. As in, the only one used in the US. If you go to another country, you’re shit out of luck.

In my next email to him, I told him that ASL classes focus on Deaf Culture, are inherently biased, and often promulgate false information. The deaf community is actually comprised of two separate communities – the Deaf community and the deaf community, or as some refer to it, the speaking deaf community.

“That you automatically assumed that I sign, even if it’s not ASL, is a perfect example,” I wrote. “ASL is American Sign Language. There are deaf people who sign and many of us who don’t. People automatically assume I sign just because I’m deaf, but I was raised to speak and read lips. I have many friends who had auditory-verbal therapy, which means they can hear/understand without lipreading.”

To his credit, he said he hoped I didn’t find his assumptions offensive. “My teacher does exactly as you said many ASL teachers do, which is propagate the idea that all deaf people sign,” he added. “My professor actually tells us that deaf people prefer ASL to learning to speak and lipread, which is clearly not true. I apologize for automatically categorizing you as someone who uses visual language.” He said if he hadn’t offended me, he still wanted to send me some questions. I said ok.

This isn’t the first time I’ve had to deal with the ramifications of ASL classes. Sure, it’s in the teachers’ best interests to make it sound like more people use ASL. But all teachers have a responsibility to be accurate. Part of the problem lies within Deaf Culture, unfortunately; threatened by the advent of technology like cochlear implants, and the decreasing numbers of people who sign, they believe in the propaganda.

In this kind of situation, I always think about parents of a newly diagnosed deaf child. If they’ve taken an ASL class or know someone who has, they won’t realize all the options available to them. How can you truly make the best choice for your family in this case? Keep in mind, 90% of all children born deaf have hearing parents. If parents choose cochlear implants and oral education, then the child can be part of the family’s culture and community. When they’re raised with sign, they are effectively shut off from many members of their family. I’m part of a deaf community too, just not the capital-D Deaf community.

This is why, as a deaf journalist, I feel a responsibility to speak out when I see misconceptions and misinformation about deafness. They provoke in me such a visceral reaction, and I’m in a unique position to educate.

The journalist learning ASL sure got a lot more than he bargained for when he contacted me!

The Princess and the…alarm clock?

BUZZ! BUZZ! BUZZ! BUZZ!

One advantage to being deaf is that when I take my cochlear implant and hearing aid off, I can’t hear a damn thing. On the flip side, this means I can’t hear an alarm clock.

This is when having a hearing husband comes in handy! Literally. A gentle nudge by my partner is the best way to wake up. Hear THAT, Folgers?

But what if he’s out of town or I am? Then it’s time to bring out my special alarm clock that vibrates. This is the one I used to have; it clipped onto my pillow case and worked great. It lasted a long time before it broke and isn’t made anymore.

Luckily one of my deaf friends had asked the hive mind for a portable alarm clock recommendation. I ended up purchasing this one: It has no clip, the settings in minuscule print, and even the vibration is annoying. Instead of vibrating at five second intervals, it goes off every second.

Every. Second.

BUZZ! BUZZ! BUZZ! BUZZ!

Let me tell you, this is NOT a pleasant way to wake up. In fact, when I need to use it, for some reason I can’t sleep at all. Even if I’m super duper tired. Like my body is rebelling: “That damn clock! We’ll wake you up naturally by not letting you sleep at all!”

Is this the deaf version of The Princess and the Pea?