Nyle DiMarco didn’t see much of his own experience on TV when he was growing up.
“There has never been a show that really gives a deep dive into the deaf community or the deaf cultural experience,” the actor, model and activist says.
DiMarco, 31, who has won “Dancing With the Stars” and “America’s Next Top Model,” sets out to change how deaf people are portrayed on TV as a producer of “Deaf U,” Netflix’s new reality series (now streaming). Set at Gallaudet University, a prestigious Washington, D.C., college for people who are deaf and hard of hearing, the series is no afterschool special, but rather a juicy, addictive series about a tight-knit community of students from different backgrounds.
Speaking to USA TODAY on a video chat with a translator, DiMarco explained why the series is so important, how he found his magnetic young stars and his own experiences at Gallaudet.
Where did you get the idea for this series?
Nyle DiMarco: It goes all the way back to my college days when I was a student at Gallaudet University with my friends. We often would talk about how badly we needed our own reality TV show about the Gallaudet experience. … When we went out on spring break one year, there was a whole audience of hearing people who were really interested and wanted to learn more about our culture and essentially how to do the sign language. They always wanted to party with us.
Some of the students featured have grown up in the deaf community, and some have never experienced that before they arrive at Gallaudet.
DiMarco: Yes. I remember when I was first introduced to the casting (department), everyone wanted to look for big D deaf people, which meant that they shared a very strong cultural deaf identity and had gone to deaf school. Most capital D deaf people are very confident. They’re very energetic, they have really interesting personalities compared to people who might identify as little “d” deaf, who aren’t really a part of deaf culture. But I wanted to tell their story as well, and I wanted to see the comparisons.
I wasn’t by any means gauging whose experience was better. I wanted to really portray that there is no one right way to be deaf.
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Two cast members, Daequan and Rodney, are Black men who don’t come from the deaf community, and they talk about that a lot during the series. Were you looking for that experience specifically?
DiMarco: Once we really built the cast and I had a chance to meet with all of them, (some) were very unsure about it. They knew that it was going to be on Netflix, but they weren’t sure if this was something that would really tell their story. … They were worried that the show could potentially cause them some harm in the future.
And then we had Daequan. Originally, he responded and said, “no, I’m not deaf enough.” And when I asked him what that meant, “deaf enough,” (Daequan) said, “well, you know, a lot of people would assume that you’re deaf enough and that your story is a lot more important” (referring to DiMarco). But Daequan’s story really was key.
The romantic relationships on the show are so engaging, especially for anyone who really loves reality TV. Was it always going to be about romance or did it happen because the cast is made up of college kids who naturally are attracted to each other?
DiMarco: I always wanted a little bit of romance involved, but I wanted to make sure that we were also including LGBTQ+ representation because that’s such a major part of our community. Growing up, hearing people would always ask, “How do deaf people date? What does that even look like?” And I thought, all right, well, now is the time you’re going to get (to see) it.
We wanted to make sure that the show didn’t come off (as a) public service announcement. We wanted to see people go through romantic relationships or friendships. We wanted to see that universal experience that hearing people also go through in college.
The series brings out a side of the district D.C. you don’t often see in political shows.
DiMarco: D.C. is an incredibly deaf-friendly city. I always felt very normal and comfortable living there, because so many people had already met deaf people and had an experience with our community. There are a lot of people in D.C. who do know some sign language, and it feels like a city that deaf people kind of own.
And funny enough, growing up in D.C., I always thought it stood for “deaf community.” The Washington Deaf Community just made sense.