Netflix’s ‘Deaf U’ gives Kansas student quite an education

Renate Rose of Olathe demonstrates what she calls “deaf people problems.”

She can cuddle with her girlfriend or she can communicate through sign language. But they can’t do both at the same time the way a hearing couple could.

It’s one of many moments in the new Netflix docuseries “Deaf U” that present a scenario hearing viewers may never have contemplated. Still, the goal of the eight-episode series, according to model/actor/executive producer Nyle DiMarco, is to show similarities between deaf and hearing communities while also exploring differences within the deaf community.

“We go through the same things in life. We live, oftentimes, in parallel, and you’ll see that through this show,” he said through an American Sign Language interpreter during an August Netflix press event. “I think the hearing community often looks at deaf people and the deaf experience as monochromatic or a monolith, and that simply isn’t true. … We all bring something different to the table and there truly is no right way to being deaf. That’s a major takeaway.”

“Deaf U,” debuting Oct. 9, follows students over a semester at Gallaudet University — the “Deaf U” of the show’s title — in Washington, D.C.

“Gallaudet was a bubble for me because in D.C. it’s completely a different lifestyle than in Kansas,” says Rose. “In Kansas, it’s a very suburban area. There are farms. … So, coming here it was like, wow, what a realization, people drive fast and they’re living on the go. I’m used to that country, laid-back life.”

A 2015 graduate of Kansas School for the Deaf in Olathe, Rose says she grew up in a relatively small deaf community.

“Everyone knows everybody,” Rose says. “We grow up together. So it was really amazing to travel into Gallaudet and see such a huge deaf community with so much diversity. It was really eye-opening for me.”

She heard about Netflix recruiting for the docuseries that became “Deaf U” and she applied to be part of it. She was filmed during the fall 2019 semester.

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Renate Rose of Olathe, left, shown with girlfriend Tayla at Gallaudet University, talks about the “deaf people problems” that hearing people might never have considered. The makers of the series created a detailed description of this photo to help make it accessible to more people. It has been slightly edited to follow The Star’s guidelines: Renate Rose is a white female who has dark curly hair and is wearing glasses and a red T-shirt. She sits on a lawn at Gallaudet with greenery around her. She is holding hands with her girlfriend. On the ground there is a backpack, a computer and a purple blanket. Her girlfriend has blond hair, glasses and is wearing jeans and a long-sleeved white T-shirt with stripes. Netflix

Rose, who describes herself as pansexual, is shown in the series with girlfriend Tayla (they’re still together), and toward the end of the season cameras follow Rose to appointments with a therapist as she describes struggles in her family growing up.

“I’ve been in therapy since I was a small child so a therapist isn’t really new to me,” Rose says in a follow-up interview through an interpreter via Zoom in early September. “In college it wasn’t easy for me to maintain my therapy. It was on and off and there were various therapists. I thought it was really good to show that part of me. It’s not easy to find a therapist and be vulnerable. So that was really important, and that was a healthy process for me.”

“Deaf U” also shows Rose’s friendship with Cheyenna Clearbrook, a social media influencer from Seattle. Some cast members disparage Clearbrook seemingly for her online videos. Clearbrook, who is from a deaf family but was mainstreamed and did not spend much time in a deaf school prior to Gallaudet, calls those critics “the deaf elite.”

“She grew up more in the mainstream, and I grew up more in the deaf world,” Rose says. “I went to a deaf school, I was more involved in the deaf world and she was code switching between the two. Even though we’re both part of the same community, we’ve had different experiences and journeys and privileges. It’s a really hot topic and has been for some time.”

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The eight episodes of “Deaf U” follow students at Gallaudet University for a semester, including, from left, Renate Rose of Olathe, Alexa Paulay-Simmons, Cheyenna Clearbrook, Daequan Taylor and Rodney Buford. The makers of the series created a detailed description of this photo to help make it accessible to more people. It has been slightly edited to follow The Star’s guidelines: Renate wears her brown hair back in a ponytail. She is wearing glasses and a multicolor sweater. Alexa has long blond hair, she is wearing a jean jacket and she is smiling. Cheyenna has purple hair pulled back in a ponytail. She is wearing a black shirt, a jean jacket and green pants. She is looking at Rodney. Daequan smiles and wears a black shirt, jean jacket and jeans. Rodney wears a gray hooded sweatshirt while signing. Netflix

Rose says that to her, the “deaf elite” are mostly people who attend schools for the deaf and socialize in deaf circles. Often these people are from bigger cities that include more deaf people.

“In rural areas, it’s harder to socialize and share information,” Rose says, acknowledging her own privilege. “I come from a deaf family, come from deaf schools, I’m fluent in both writing English and ASL. I am fortunate to have motivation and the desire to learn and opportunities I maybe wouldn’t have gotten if I didn’t have the background I do.”

Rose graduated from Gallaudet in May after studying government, international studies and communications. She’s working at a nonprofit in D.C. temporarily while taking graduate school courses through Eastern Illinois University in communications and leadership, a program she expects to complete in 2022. After that, Rose hopes to return to the Kansas City area with a goal of “investing back into my community.

“I’ve always felt really happy to be home in Kansas,” she says. “It has a special place in my heart and I want to be able to give back because most of my life has been spent in Kansas. So many great people raised me there, so many good influences made me who I am. I want to give back and encourage more deaf youth to advance as well.”

In the meantime, she hopes “Deaf U” will help answer questions hearing viewers may have about the deaf community. The series goes beyond “deaf people problems” to depict the ways technological advances help with communication.

“Deaf U” shows cast members frequently conversing in sign language during video chat sessions, a revolutionary upgrade from the old TTY service used for decades in the U.S.

“Even in my own childhood I can remember how different it was compared to today,” Rose says. “It’s definitely a generational difference. It’s really fascinating how technology has helped our world and brought more accessibility. It’s an amazing tool.”

Freelance writer Rob Owen: [email protected] or on Facebook and Twitter as RobOwenTV.

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