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May 29, 2003

Seen and heard

From: Alameda Times-Star, CA - May 29, 2003

TV taps
By Susan Young, STAFF WRITER
BRIDGETTA Bourne-Firl's first brush working with television wasn't exactly positive.

Bourne-Firl, who works at the California School for the Deaf in Fremont and is deaf, was asked to do a political campaign ad for an insurance commissioner. The director of the TV ad wanted her to speak aloud.

"I had to explain over and over that it would not be politically correct for me to do such a thing," Bourne-Firl says in an e-mail interview, adding that a paid actor probably would have to follow the director's demands "whether it is realistic or not for a deaf person."

But Bourne-Firl says she's seeing a change in the depiction of deaf people on TV.

"The media is an excellent way to remove misconceptions many people have about the deaf community and about deaf people in general" if done appropriately, Bourne-Firl says. "Many viewers are being enlightened by simply seeing deaf persons being mainstreamed in television shows. These shows have been great in terms of increasing awareness in America."

On the top-rated drama series in the country, CBS' "CSI," lead character Grissom has embarked on a journey of coming to terms with his hearing loss. While other TV series, such as "ER" and "The West Wing," have featured storylines with deaf people, having a main character who is deaf is new to TV.

PAX-TV has a series, "Sue Thomas, FBEye," in which deaf actress Deanne Bray portrays real-life former FBI agent Sue Thomas, whose lip reading abilities aided FBI investigations. And the wildly popular reality series "Survivor" recently had deaf contestant Christy Smith.

"In the past, there have been so many unnatural situations being portrayed on the TV screens," Bourne-Firl says. "However, lately we have seen so much more realistic scenes. This means better lives for millions of Americans who are deaf and hard of hearing."

Smith told reporters that she wanted show how capable deaf people can be, even in a savage environment like the Amazon.

"I did accomplish my goal, which was to promote deaf awareness," Smith said in an e-mail interview. "The interesting (thing is) I learned more about myself in dealing with the 'worst type of environment.' I realized there is more to me than being deaf. I have a great personality behind it."

Smith is one of 28 million people in the United States who have some degree of reduced hearing. Of this number, about 80 percent have irreversible hearing loss, according to government statistics.

While hearing loss is mostly associated with old age, some younger people exposed to an increasingly noisy environment, including loud music, are

experiencing noise-induced hearing loss, according to Gallaudet University's Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center in Washington, D.C.

With so many people affected by hearing loss, Smith and others applaud the efforts being made on television to show deaf people.

"I think it is great that we have some role models out there that go through the similar struggles and can succeed," Smith says. "They are in the public eye. I think it is hard for us to be seen, so when we are seen, I appreciate that (the deaf people) take a risk (to be) a real role model to others."

"Survivor" host Jeff Probst says that it was hard for Smith in the beginning.

"There was this weird dynamic with Christy," says Probst in a recent interview. "Part of that was Christy's fault. She was no walk in the park. She was whiny and felt a little entitled in the beginning. She thought people should help her because she's deaf. Yet she wanted to prove that being deaf wasn't a handicap."

In the end, Smith realized that if she wanted to be treated without favor because she was deaf, she had to take the good with the bad. She was one of the final six contestants when she got voted off.

"I realized there were 16 of us from all walks of life put in a whole new world, and I am proud of every one of us," Smith says. "I am looking forward to developing a real life relationship with my fellow tribemates."

Smith believes that it is important for members of the deaf community to see a variety of characters on TV.

On "CSI," William Petersen plays the loner Grissom. When it was revealed that Grissom's mother was deaf and that he was starting to lose his hearing, it helped the audience better understand the character.

"By having Grissom cope with this, you have a much more interesting character to play," says Petersen, who is hearing, in a recent interview. "We liked the idea of Grissom having a deaf mother, because it explained why he was so comfortable in a silent environment."

About 50 percent of the time, genetic factors are the probable cause of deafness, according to the Laurent Clerc center. Environmental factors such as accidents, constant high noise levels, illness and certain drugs are responsible in the remaining instances.

Grissom now copes with the reality that his hearing loss may cost him his job.

"Grissom hasn't let anyone know about this, because he is still processing what is happening to him," Petersen says. "Since his mother is deaf, he knew there was a real possibility that he could lose his hearing as well. But when it happens, it's not easy for him."

While Grissom works at getting the job done in spite of his hearing loss, it was because of her deafness that Sue Thomas was hired by the FBI.

The real Sue Thomas is so proficient at reading lips, she was able to get information that was otherwise inaccessible to the FBI. When wire taps could not be used, the FBI positioned Thomas in public places where meetings with suspected criminals were taking place. Thomas could read their lips, then testify against them in court.

Bray, who plays Thomas, says she went to the shooting range at the FBI headquarters to be taught how to shoot. She ended up being a better shot than her instructor.

"I didn't have the distractions he had," she says. "I'm much more visual than most people, too."

Bray says that when she first started working with the other actors, who are hearing, it was difficult.

"They would look away when they spoke to me, so I couldn't read their lips," Bray says. "But eventually they became more aware that they needed to face me when they were talking to me."

Bray says her series and the other depictions of deaf people on TV serve an important purpose.

"The more we show all these different people, like Christy on 'Survivor,' and Marlee Matlin as a political analyst on 'West Wing" and criminologist Grissom on 'CSI' and Sue Thomas, the more we are seen as individuals," Bray says. "And when you know us as individuals, it makes our deafness less important."

You can reach Susan Young by calling (925) 416-4820, e-mail at , or fax at (925) 416-4874.

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