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May 8, 2003

Deaf cast member survives 'Survivor'

From: San Francisco Chronicle, CA - May 8, 2003

Woman raised awareness before voted off show

Suzanne Pullen, Chronicle Staff Writer
Thursday, May 8, 2003

Christy Smith was a survivor long before she appeared on "Survivor: Amazon." Smith, a 24-year-old from Colorado, was born with a 90 percent hearing loss. She adapted early on to a hearing world by learning to lip-read and speak.

When she was chosen for the latest round of the hit CBS reality show, which ends Sunday, she used those skills to stay on as a contestant until last week.

Smith became reality TV's first deaf cast member. Although prime-time programs such as "ER," "The West Wing" and "Sue Thomas, F.B.Eye " have featured deaf characters and story lines, "Survivor: Amazon" was a chance to see what deaf people experience without its being scripted.

"My main goal was to provide deaf awareness," said Smith, who works as an adventure guide for deaf children.

The men who joined Smith's tribe were interested in finding out what it was like to be deaf. They had conversations about sign language and other issues in the deaf community, which, she said, were edited out because of time constraints.

"I wasn't viewed as a threat for a while," Smith said in an e-mail interview. "I learned that everyone has fears and limitations, but if you challenge yourself and overlook that, you can (be) surprised what kind of things you can accomplish."

Then last week, Smith found her vote being courted by two rival alliances. When she wavered in her agreement with one devious contestant, he engineered a move against her. Smith became the 11th person voted off "Survivor." She's now on the jury that will decide which of the two remaining tribe members will win $1 million.

Smith was on the show long enough, however, to cause a debate within the deaf community. Many deaf viewers hoped to see her use American Sign Language instead of depending on speech.

When she arrived in camp, Smith spoke to the other contestants, telling them she was deaf but could read lips. Several tribe mates thought she was a liability and believed that she would be voted off very early.

Smith said she was often ignored and left out of tribal decisions and campfire discussions.

"If I wanted to stay in the game, I had to speak," said Smith, a graduate of Gallaudet University in Washington. "Sign language is part of deaf culture, but unfortunately I was not with a group of deaf contestants. I taught some signs, but no one could learn a language in 30 days."

But many viewers, including those at the California School for the Deaf in Fremont, still question her decision.

"When we see a deaf person who is receiving attention, Marlee Matlin or (Miss America) Heather Whitestone, we feel crushed when they do not use their true language, our language," says Christine Kanta, a senior at the school.

School counselor Julie Moore agrees. "I just don't want people to assume that all deaf people can speak or (that deaf people) are ashamed to use sign language."

In retrospect, Christy wishes she had signed more, but she was "so in the hearing world" on the show that she got used to speaking.

"Sign and interacting with deaf people has completed my identity," Smith said. "If it weren't for that, I would be someone else."

Bernard Hurwitz, a hard-of-hearing lawyer whose parents are deaf, said he was taught to use whatever skills he had -- including speech -- to survive. He understands the dilemma Smith faced.

"The danger, I think -- for which Christy cannot be blamed -- lies in thinking that Christy is representative of all deaf people," Hurwitz said.

©2003 San Francisco Chronicle