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February 17, 2003

Survivor from the start

From: Modesto Bee, CA - 17 Feb 2003


Twenty-four years ago, Christy Smith started life as a survivor.

Born three months early to Glenda and Bob Smith, she weighed less than 2 pounds, so small that "they cut a Styrofoam coffee cup and stuck her in there," recalls her father. "She slept in there and everything."

One day, the tiny baby pulled out her air tube and went into cardiac arrest. The aftermath cost her 90 percent of her hearing, he said, but nothing else.

She grew up healthy in her native Colorado, where her father has been a ski instructor for 30 years, was on skis herself by 3 and became a cheerleader at Aspen High School, which she attended for two years before transferring to the Model Secondary School for the Deaf on the Washington, D.C., campus of Gallaudet University. She later earned a degree in sociology and criminology at Gallaudet.

CBS' "Survivor: Amazon" kicked off Thursday with 15 hearing contestants and one, Christy Smith, who can read lips and speak clearly, but who, when her competitors' backs are turned to her, won't know what they're saying to her -- or about her.

Though there has been a deaf Miss America, Heather White-stone, a deaf Oscar winner, Marlee Matlin ("Children of a Lesser God") and a hard-of-hearing lead in a TV drama, Deanna Bray of Pax's "Sue Thomas F.B.Eye," the advent of the first deaf "Survivor" contestant is stirring interest in the deaf community, according to Bray, who said last month that shortly after CBS' announcement, she'd begun receiving e-mail from friends who were excited about seeing Smith.

"I'm going to watch it every Thursday," said Bray, who reads lips and wears a hearing aid to amplify the residual hearing she has in her left ear. "I'm rooting for her."

With an average of 21.2 million having tuned in each week for "Survivor: Thailand," it's likely that Smith, if she manages to last in the game that this time pits men against women, will easily outstrip Bray as the most famous deaf series regular on TV. ("Sue Thomas," though Pax's highest-rated show, draws slightly less than 2 million viewers at 9 p.m. Sundays.)

Breaking sound barrier

"I honestly do believe that this could possibly be the year of the sound barrier being forever broken in Hollywood," said Sue Thomas, the real-life inspiration for Bray's show, about a deaf FBI agent whose lip-reading makes her an expert in surveillance.

Along with the Pax series, Thomas said, "Survivor" will "open so many doors. I feel our time has finally come, and you're going to see more and more of us."

No minority group is monolithic, and the deaf community is no exception. Many, for instance, dislike the term "hearing-impaired" for implying a disability where they see only a difference. Not all speak or lip-read, and while both Bray and Smith are essentially bilingual, fluent in both spoken English and American Sign Language, their onscreen roles necessarily involve the former more than the latter -- Bray's because she plays a woman who speaks and interacts with hearing colleagues, Smith's because she'll be the only deaf person on the show.

B.J. Blocker is executive director of the Aspen (Colo.) Camp School for the Deaf, which Smith attended as a child and teen and where she later worked, teaching sign-language classes and leading youngsters in a variety of outdoor activities meant to build teamwork and self-esteem.

Though proud of Smith and what she's already achieved, Blocker worries that her appearance on "Survivor" may be misinterpreted by some, recalling the criticism generated by Matlin's attempts to improve her speech and broaden her range as an actress.

"There could be criticism because (Smith) grew up oral," Blocker said.

Though she was one of the first outside Smith's family to know that Smith had applied to "Survivor" -- and had to sign a confidentiality agreement early in the interview process -- Blocker said she had some misgivings even as she encouraged Smith to pursue her goals.

"I was concerned about her vulnerability," she said. "She has this great drive, and she's such a wonderful, caring person, and I was concerned whether exposure on a television program might make her look bad. She's such a winner and such a survivor in the world already."

That's what made Bob Smith, a "Survivor" fan whose daughter, he said, watches little TV, think that Christy and the unscripted hit were made for each other.

"She's a survivor," he said of his middle child, who's sandwiched between two brothers. "Because she was a preemie baby and she got through that, she got through everything, and she's always wanted to get the deaf culture out there, and I thought that would be a great way to do it."

Both Bob Smith and Blocker agreed that Christy -- who's not allowed to give interviews till her final episode airs -- is less interested in the show's $1 million prize than in the opportunity to bring awareness of deaf culture and encourage deaf and hard-of-hearing youngsters to realize their capabilities.

"She wants to get kids off their duff," said her father, adding that he doesn't "think of Christy as handicapped."

Though he said his wife had learned some sign, he knows none. "We just treated her like any other kid."

On the outside

Blocker, who was also Smith's speech therapist in elementary school -- where her teachers wore FM units that amplified their voices to a device the youngster wore -- said that while Smith has "really good speech, which is amazing for her level of hearing loss," she "knows what it's like to be left out" by people who are talking in a way that doesn't include her.

Camps like Aspen -- where Smith, according to her father, learned to sign well enough to be accepted into a high school where classes were taught in American Sign Language -- emphasize inclusion of children with a wide range of abilities, Blocker said.

"Our philosophy is acceptance and inclusion and helping everyone reach their potential," she said, "so I wonder how Christy was able to deal with" the emphasis on competition and elimination on "Survivor."

Still, "here she is, a deaf woman, working in a very hearing community. It happens to be the 'Survivor' community but how she's able to function I hope will motivate other deaf and hard-of-hearing children."

Copyright © 2003 The Modesto Bee.