MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Let's go back to pre-COVID times for a minute. You're a college student, and you want to take a break from the grind by going out for a few drinks or maybe getting a mani-pedi with your BFFs. But the seats only allow you to sit next to each other rather than face each other. No big deal, right? Well, it kind of is if you are deaf or hard of hearing and if you use American Sign Language, or ASL to communicate, where you use your hands, and facial expressions are important.
And those are just a few of the subtleties revealed to those outside of the deaf community in the new Netflix reality series "Deaf U." It follows a group of students at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., which is known as the only university in the world where students can live and learn in American Sign Language and English. But students still have to navigate a world that isn't necessarily built for them.
The creator of the series is Nyle DiMarco, the model, actor and activist who won both "America's Next Top Model" and "Dancing With The Stars" - the first deaf contestant to do so. And he is here with us now to tell us more. And through the miracle of technology, he and I are talking to each other, and you're going to hear the voice of his interpreter, Grey Van Pelt.
Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.
NYLE DIMARCO: (Through interpreter) Of course. It's my pleasure. Thanks so much for having me today.
MARTIN: As I just noted, you've been on reality television - kind of a star. You're a model, a dancer, clearly an activist. How did the idea of making a show about your alma mater come to you?
DIMARCO: (Through interpreter) It's pretty interesting. It goes back to my own experience being on reality television. I always felt that the image that was kind of made of me on screen was very one-dimensional. I was always asked specifically about my deafness, about my identity sorts of struggles but never about the things that I liked or disliked or really anything that would have offered more to who I was.
There was nothing really about the culture, right? And the idea for the show really came with the realization that we could use this to reframe the deaf community and offer an entrance into our world, which is so rich in culture and so layered and diverse.
MARTIN: Well, one of the things that I noticed - like, I've you seen any show about college life, then you're going to, you know, recognize the types - the athletes, the influencers, you know...
MARTIN: ...Activists. But you also introduce us to another divide at Gallaudet between the so-called elite capital-D Deaf from well-known deaf families and then, as you've described elsewhere, lowercase-d deaf - those who don't come from these well-known deaf families. Why did you feel it was important to kind of highlight this other divide?
DIMARCO: (Through interpreter) You know, myself as somebody who views elites as a group, I see it can be a positive thing in the preserving of sign language, our culture. You know, it's about passing down those legacies and those traditions that make our culture so rich. There certainly are lowercase-d people who might see elites as someone who's had an unfair advantage, right, whether it's their educational background, their confidence, their identity, their language fluency.
Coming into Gallaudet for them, often, you know, they face a challenge - that they have to not only focus on and getting a degree but also focus on learning a new language and a new culture. But there are so many layers to that divide between elites and perhaps lowercase-d deaf, and it's something that's really key for our community. It's very complicated, but it's a discussion that we're starting to have.
MARTIN: One of the characters, a football player named Rodney - he likes to think of himself as somewhere in the middle of this divide. He has cochlear implants so he can hear, and he also signs. And I just want to play a clip. This is Rodney's father.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DEAF U")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Do you feel like you're in between or, like, caught in the middle?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Rodney) How I want to put this? I adapt, so I'm in the Rodney community.
DIMARCO: (Through interpreter) In essence, what he is saying to some degree is that he gives himself a license to be [expletive] (laughter). Yeah, Rodney's family is so incredible. He's one of my absolute favorite on the show.
And one thing that I really love about him is that he really, you know, showcases and embodies that there is no one right way to be deaf, right? He's already fluent in American Sign Language, and so he has access to both. He's able to function in a hearing world and in a deaf world with ASL and English, versus a lot of other students who come into Gallaudet without sign language.
You know, they're facing a struggle of looking to find a place to fit in. Rodney's already got it figured out, and so you can see through the show he's, like, I'm good. It's one of the things I love about him.
MARTIN: Well, I'll tell you that one of the things that I really liked about this exchange, though - it mirrors some conversations that I think we have about race in this country, too. Rodney is also African American, and he also exists in this space of trying to figure out, like, what does it mean to be that right now? What do I want to be the truth of me, and who gets to decide that?
DIMARCO: (Through interpreter) I think at the core of it, it - you know, it comes from growing up specifically in a culture and having access to the language. You know, I do think that Rodney is incredibly confident, and, you know, he knows exactly where his intersectionality lies.
MARTIN: I do want I mention that you've been a forward-facing deaf advocate. Part of your work in this area meant hiring deaf crew members and creatives. I want to highlight that because that's not something that one would necessarily know watching the series. But why was that important?
DIMARCO: (Through interpreter) As someone who is deaf, you know, I know that if you really want an authentic story, it has to happen behind the camera. You know, deaf eyes really capture the culture best, and we actually made it a requirement that we had to hire deaf people. We wanted to ensure that at minimum, we had 30% of a deaf crew behind the scenes working, and we ended up with 50%, which was incredible. And it's the first time it's ever been done in history.
You know, we're working so that later, we have a little Hollywood empire where we're able to develop our own TV shows and our movies and our content that really reflect deaf culture and an authentic experience. And this, essentially, was the start. I'm so thrilled about it.
MARTIN: That was Nyle DiMarco, creator of the new Netflix series "Deaf U." It is available now. And I just want to mention that we've been hearing him through the voice of his interpreter.
Nyle DiMarco, thanks so much for talking to us.
DIMARCO: (Through interpreter) Of course. This was such a pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.
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