When casting students at Gallaudet University for Netflix’s “Deaf U,” executive producer Nyle DiMarco prioritized inviting diverse voices to represent the community in order to change one-dimensional representation of deafness.
“I was adamant that we incorporate a diverse array of talents in the community — not just about race, [but also] sexual orientation, gender and educational background but language usage as well,” the former “America’s Next Top Model” and “Dancing With the Stars” cast member signed during “The Making of ‘Deaf U'” panel organized by Gallaudet University on Tuesday. “We didn’t want the deaf community essentially to be seen as a monolith. There are so many students who arrive to college with no experience in sign language or deaf culture, and we wanted to really frame that nuance of our community.”
Behind the camera, DiMarco also hopes to open doors for creatives who are deaf and also aspiring to break into the entertainment industry. As the only producer who is deaf on “Deaf U,” he pushed to hire a minimum of 30% of crew members from that community.
The cast and creative team of the show came together during the event to reflect on the experience of filming the “docu-soap” — from casting to organizing daily debriefs on set to produce a reality series with care and respect.
Producer Naimah Holmes echoed DiMarco’s passion for a three-dimensional portrayal of the deaf community, but added that it was a challenge for the creative team to find students who were willing to both spare their time and be vulnerable in front of the camera. She said they didn’t want to force the “handful” of Black women that applied to be a part of Season 1 “into the group based on need for diversity as a token.” With the positive feedback from the first season, she hopes more women of color will apply if a second season is greenlit by Netflix.
A limited time frame to capture the daily lives of Gallaudet students for the first season led to the episodes being concise 20-30 minute blocks. But the producers expressed interest in delivering more content — both with this show and beyond. DiMarco teased another upcoming series he has in the works, saying, “This is just the start. My goal is the same as what we’ve created with ‘Deaf U’ — to empower deaf creatives within the entertainment industry and to continue increasing representation.”
Cast member Alexa Paulay-Simmons recalled how her friends encouraging her to pursue the opportunity when a production staff member reached out to her on campus. She explained that she is grateful for an experience she now calls “free therapy sessions” that allowed her to self-reflect and have a more positive relationship with her father.
Daequan Taylor said that after a short conversation with a producer, he was asked to join the cast for being “so raw and real.”
When asked about his comment, “I have a dream that Black men will be with white women,” Taylor took a moment to apologize for his behavior on the show. “I really, really want to apologize and say I’m sorry to my Black community and everyone who I’ve offended by that statement,” he said. “I know what we’re doing now with Black Lives Matter and the way the world is now — it was the wrong time for that comment to be said and released for the world.”
Watch the panel below.