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February 13, 2003

Saunders: Deaf 'Survivor' already wins

From: Rocky Mountain News, CO - 13 Feb 2003

Like millions of other viewers, Glenda and Bob Smith will be watching tonight's premiere of Survivor: The Amazon.

But they'll have a different perspective.

They'll be focusing on their 24-year-old daughter Christy, deaf since birth, competing as Survivor's first handicapped contestant.

"We don't know what to expect on the screen," Glenda Smith said from her Basalt home. "Christy, of course, can't tell us. Those are the rules.

"But we already know she'll emerge as winner in the way she conducts herself. That's the kind of a person she is -- competitive, friendly and thoroughly honest."

Christy, who has been working as an adventure guide for youngsters at the Aspen Camp for the Deaf, won't be sitting with her parents reacting to what happens on the screen. She's visiting friends in California.

"A lot of people were surprised Christy wanted to compete on Survivor or that she was even chosen," Glenda Smith said. "We were not. Christy has been doing special things all her life."

Christy is part of the eight-woman team (Jaburu) competing against eight males (the Tambaqui team) -- the first time the popular CBS reality series has set up a survivor battle of the sexes.

Christy's father, a ski instructor at Aspen, suggested to Christy she apply for Survivor.

"We watch Survivor a lot and Bob figured this was something Christy would really enjoy from a competitive perspective," Glenda Smith said. "And Christy agreed."

Christy's parents are aware that some are cynical about her Survivor role, believing Christy is simply a pawn in a network chess game.

Having a handicapped person on Survivor should add interest -- and audience ratings -- to the series during Thursday, a tough, competitive network night.

"Such commentary doesn't really bother us -- or Christy," Glenda Smith said. "Christy wanted to show viewers that having a handicap does not restrict anyone from living life to its fullest. She has chosen the deaf community over the hearing community as a way of life," her mother said.

"Jeff Probst (Survivor host) has noted it would have been an act of discrimination not to have considered Christy for a role on Survivor. I agree."

Christy, in layman's terms, is 90 percent deaf as a result of problems encountered when she was born three months premature at Colorado General Hospital (now called CU Medical Center). When using hearing aids, Christy's hearing capacity rises to about 50 percent, according to her parents. She communicates mostly through lip-reading.

"We wanted to give Christy a chance to live a full life," Glenda Smith said. "She began speech therapy at an early age, which helped her emotionally and gave her a sense of security."

Christy's early school years were spent in the Aspen area before she moved to Washington, D.C., where she spent her junior and senior high school years at Gallaudet, a school for the deaf. She then continued her education at the famous Gallaudet University, getting a degree in sociology with emphasis in criminology.

Since graduation, Christy has spent most of her time working with handicapped kids at the Aspen camp.

"Christy wants to be a role model for youngsters, showing them that deafness does not have all the handicaps that past generations have indicated," her mother said. "She's living testimony to that."

Christy, arriving home from her Amazon experience shortly before the Christmas holidays, has been living a normal life, spending a lot of time on the Aspen slopes.

"She hasn't changed. Christy still has that twinkle in her eye," Glenda Smith said. "The experience was good for her."

Glenda and the 15 other contestants -- all aiming for the $1 million prize -- were deposited in Brazil's Amazon rain forest, near the Rio Negro River, an area inhabited by piranhas, crocodiles, jaguars and anacondas. The contestants were there during the region's most rainy, humid season.

"Christy may not win a million dollars," her mother says. "But she'll win the admiration of those around her. And she'll be an inspiration for hearing-impaired people around the country."

TODAY'S NOSTALGIA: On Feb. 13, 1978, NBC aired the second part of King, a three-night miniseries dramatizing the life of the civil rights leader. Paul Winfield played Martin Luther King and Cicely Tyson portrayed his wife.

2003 © The E.W. Scripps Co.