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March 13, 2003

'Survivor' contestant splits deaf community

From: The Philadelphia Inquirer, PA - 13 Mar 2003

By Tanya Barrientos
Inquirer Staff Writer

If Christy Smith, the first disabled competitor on Survivor , thinks she's facing adversity in the Brazilian jungle, wait till she gets back home and faces some of her deaf fans.

As the newest and most visible deaf celebrity on TV, Smith, 24, has become a magnet not only for praise, but also scathing criticism.

On one hand, the deaf community is proud of the Colorado native who is a graduate of Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., the world's only liberal-arts college for the deaf.

But on the other, many deaf people are angry that she is not openly displaying more pride in deaf culture. They want her to use sign language when she speaks, and to teach other members of her all-female tribe how to sign.

They are particularly critical of her choosing to read lips and speak instead of insisting on a sign-language interpreter during the Darwinian game show. Those choices are particularly insulting to strong proponents of deaf culture.

"I was so excited when I learned she was going to be on the show," said Kristy Griffin, a youth specialist at the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf in Germantown. Speaking through a sign-language interpreter, the classroom aide said she had looked forward to the first episode.

"Then, whoa! She's not signing, she's speaking. I told my husband that I was sure she'd have a sign interpreter at Tribal Council, so I waited and waited and she didn't. It's so not deaf-friendly."

The show does not allow journalists to interview contestants until they've been voted off. Smith is still in the competition.

The tug-of-war between signing and speaking has long been a sensitive issue in the deaf community. Many deaf-culture advocates believe that hearing-impaired people who read lips and speak are acquiescing to the expectations of the hearing world.

The deaf community is often split between those who embrace a deaf lifestyle - using sign language and considering themselves similar to an ethnic minority - and those who emphasize assimilation into the mainstream.

"Deaf people should be proud of signing," said Fred Turner, 16, a ninth grader at the Pennsylvania school, where both students and teachers have been watching the show closely. "Be proud of being deaf."

"It's almost like she doesn't want people to know she's deaf," said Billy Hartman, also in ninth grade. "I guess I'm kind of hurt."

Some in the deaf community have questioned whether Smith, who signed on her audition tape and during preproduction interviews, was pressured into reading lips by CBS.

"It was completely her decision," said Colleen Sullivan, director of prime-time series at CBS. "We left it up to her on how she wanted to handle it."

But, Sullivan said, the network did not offer to provide a sign-language interpreter for Smith during the competition, which now has six women against six men.

"We had the discussion with her in advance," Sullivan said. "We said, 'Do you think it's fair that you participate without an interpreter?' And she said, 'No, but life isn't fair and I want to do it.' "

On the first episode, Feb. 13, Smith did not tell the others on her team of her deafness until they were encamped. The men are still not aware of her disability.

"She knew she was going to spark controversy," Smith's mother said in a phone interview. "When she's in the deaf world, she doesn't voice at all. I guess on the show she didn't want to stand out because it's about survival, right?"

Raised by hearing parents, Glenda and Bob Smith, in Basalt, Colo., Smith was diagnosed as severely hearing-impaired when she was about 6 months old.

"She was a preemie and so we knew she was in danger of having physical problems," Glenda Smith said. "She's had hearing aids since she was 2 years old. She can hear some sounds, but not much."

As a child, Smith was not exposed to deaf culture and did not use sign language.

"We live in a rural community," her mother said. "We chose at the time to integrate her with lip-reading and speech therapy." But, she said, her daughter grew to feel isolated and unhappy.

"She came home from school one day her sophomore year and said, 'I'm never going back to that school again. You have to decide where to send me.' "

She finished her high school years at the private academy in Washington that is associated with Gallaudet, and went on to college there.

That is where Christy Smith embraced deaf culture.

"I know all this controversy about signing or not signing going on in the deaf community seems stupid to hearing people," Glenda Smith said. "But it's very real."

Judging from the charged messages being exchanged in Internet chat rooms and on Survivor: The Amazon fan Web sites, Smith's participation in the show has fanned flames in both the hearing and deaf worlds.

"Yes, deaf people do have their role in society and can be extraordinary people, but the bottom line, as cruel as it may sound, is that Survivor is about dealing primarily with communication," wrote someone called JaiPeur on a chat site called Survivor Sucks (which is actually for fans of the program). "... It seems to me deaf people might struggle on Survivor."

"You need to show them that you can do it, Deaf!" a chatter called Survivor Tikis replied. "Deaf, you can establish pride for the disabled!"

Some deaf chatters have argued that it would make no sense for Smith to sign on the program because none of the other contestants knows sign language.

Jennifer Peterson, Smith's best friend from college, agrees.

"I tell people, 'What if you were placed in the middle of nowhere, in the woods, with a bunch of hearing people? Would you sign with them? No,' " she said. "But that aside, we're all so proud. Christy being on the show is an amazing milestone for the deaf community... . She's educating the world about an invisible disability."

© 2003 The Philadelphia Inquirer