Survivor: The Amazon - Heated Debate About Christyby Dale Sherman -- 03/19/2003
Since the new season of Survivor has started, there has been a lot of heated debate about one particular contestant - Christy. What is it about her that makes her such a hotbed for discussion? Because she is hard-of-hearing (or, HOH, which is commonly used more often today), yet is attempting to participate in the "game" without special treatment. No special privileges to set her apart (and before anyone scoffs, keep reading as to what I mean by this), Christy is participating on the same level as everyone else in the show.
To do so has riled people up on both sides of the fence. Some people feel defensive in that Christy is even on the show, stating that she has an unfair advantage because of her "handicap," which makes everyone have to work harder for her benefit. On the other side are those in the deaf community who lash out at Christy for not using sign-language, or for even suggesting that she is "deaf," as she has the ability to hear some sounds (and therefore not technically deaf).
I've never been a follower of Survivor. The show has always been on at a time where I've had classes or other weekly events, so I just never got hooked on it the way many people have. In fact, I didn't even know about Christy's hearing problem until I was told about it after the first episode aired. Since then I've been trying to stay on top of what is happening on the show through the many articles here at RealityNewsOnline, as I am very curious as to how Christy does on the show. You see, I also have lived on both sides of the fence. I am a HOH person who every day has to overcome the "obstacles" that my handicap gives me. In doing so, I have gained success in the "hearing" world.
If I may, I would like to give you some information about myself in hopes that it may help to put my feelings about Christy's situation in some perspective. My own hearing problem developed when I was three years old. Typical story for many - I had a high fever due to illness, which led to nerve-deafness. Although I lost all of my hearing in my right ear and 80% in my left, I managed to function for some time as a child until my mother realized that I had trouble understanding her if she turned away from me. Evidently I had picked up lip-reading on my own without even being aware I was doing so.
When it came time for me to begin school, some people in authority at the public school system suggested to my mother and father that I would do better in a deaf school. Some even suggested a school for the mentally-handicapped would be better for me (one has to keep in mind that this was back in the late 1960s/early 1970s, when individuals with any type of disability were still considered "mentally challenged" instead of just physically challenged). My parents never agreed with such thinking for one simple reason - life is not a deaf school. If I was to learn how to live and work within a hearing society, I would have to go to a school that was part of that society. I may have learned quite a great deal in a deaf school (for example, I regret to this day that I've never learned sign-language), but going to public school did afford me a greater understanding of how people in general feel and react to those who are hearing-impaired.
Deafness is a strange handicap in a way, as it is not a visible sign that people can instantaneously pick up on, as even hearing-aids can be camouflaged in this day. Thus, people do not immediately recognize when a person cannot hear, and may deem some actions by a deaf or near-deaf person to be rude. To give a clearer example, if you see a person in a wheelchair, you know not to ask them to run downstairs and get the tools; or, if you see a person with a seeing-eye dog, you know that they may not be able to read a sign across the road. On the other hand, if someone does not respond to a question or asks to repeat something, they are deemed "slow-witted" or obnoxious. I've had people get angry because I have to ask them to repeat something to me again when I could not understand what they said the first time. I've had situations where people believed I was ignoring them on purpose because I would not respond to their questions. I've even been nearly arrested for drunk-driving, even though I have never touched alcohol in my life, when I asked the officer who pulled me over for driving through his small town at three in the morning to repeat a question three times. All of this behavior came about because it was assumed that I could properly hear.
Nor does the knowledge that I am hearing-impaired always help. I was called "retarded" due to my hearing problem in a grade school teacher in front of the class. I've had a professor in college tell me that I should not have any problems understanding him in class because "a blind girl did well in class last year." I was even officially told that the reason I did not get a promotion I was more than qualified for at a former place of work was because they "knew I wouldn't be able to hear the phone." No other reason was given; in fact, they told me that I would have been perfect for the job if only I "could hear."
Because of incidents where I know people want to dismiss the hearing-impaired, I have a great lack of sympathy for those who accuse Christy of "using her handicap" to gain an advantage over the others. It is the same mentality that suggests wheelchair-bound individuals are "lucky" to have parking spots so close to the stores, little realizing that many of those same people have to live in those chairs the rest of their lives. There is nothing fortunate about having a disability; the only good side of such things is what the individuals themselves do in order to rise above them.
Nor do I have much sympathy for some of the players who keep repeating that they dislike Christy but not because of her handicap, when it is clear on the show that they are extremely bothered by her handicap and wish she would just go away. Meanwhile, after moving into the new "tribe," Christy has had a new group of people who are willing to spend an additional half-a-second when talking with her in order to make sure she understands them. No special equipment was needed, no interpreters, no forced participations - just people working together to help each other.
Of course, there are always cases of individuals who go out of their way to use their misfortunes to take advantage of situations, but I think it is wonderful that Christy has taken the effort to show the tribes and viewers at home that having a hearing-impairment does not limit someone from having an active life. She can do anything that these other individuals can, as long as she can compensate for the hearing-disability. There are those who insist Christy is at a disadvantage because she cannot read lips in the dark. But, really, how often does that affect anything with the game they are playing? Is every "alliance" made in the dark? If she cannot read lips from across the fire, does that mean she cannot communicate at all with the person sitting next to her? Besides, as seen in another episode of the series, she managed to catch up on what had occurred during the night by simply asking someone. One minor problem dealing with lip-reading at night should not be the end of her time in the camp.
The only thing that does bother me about the whole lip-reading brouhaha is that they make the function sound like a miracle for Christy to use. Having read lips all my life, I can say truthfully that lip-reading is not the end-all for deaf individuals when it comes to understanding speech. There's much more to it than that, and I think the producers of this show are playing up the image of lip-reading in a way that does little justice to what a deaf person has to go through in order to understand what a hearing person is saying. There is much, much more to what needs to be done than this one ability.
As to the outcry that Christy should have a sign-language interpreter with her, my question would be, why? Christy had asked that no one in the "tribe" tell the other team that she is deaf. A sign-language interpreter would certainly be the death of the secret she is trying to keep from the others. Now that this need has disappeared (with her induction into a new tribe with some of the men), it is also apparent that it is not necessary for her to play the game, nor does she appear to have major problems in understanding the others. More importantly, the main goal of the show is about "survival" of a group in the jungle without many provisions. In a real life situation of survival, communication between Christy and the others would be established simply because everyone's survival depends on it, deafness is just a factor in the equation. Rather like in real life, actually.
Saying that, I've found over the years that there are two tough lessons the physically-handicapped have to learn in life if they want to function in normal society. Oddly enough, I believe that they are also lessons people without a physical handicap must learn at some point in life as well, only it is not as readily apparent to them.
1) You can do things yourself, and nothing is impossible if you set your mind to it. It may sound clichéd, but then again, we get clichés because they tend to be true. Christy is proving that just because she is HOH, it does not mean she cannot do anything. The downside from the original tribe she was in is just the same as in the real world - in that people not handicapped in a traditional sense tend to treat those who are either as young children who must be handled delicately and supervised at all times, or with resentment that such individuals somehow have a secret advantage over others (as if a blind person will instantly become gain "hyper-senses" and turn into a blind superhero like Daredevil). This leads to people believing that because Christy is near-deaf, she cannot function as part of the group; the only difference is whether those thoughts are with good or bad intentions. For some, they see her as being unable to function within the group; for others, she appears to be getting "special privileges" that the others do not receive. Where these "special privileges" are, however, I have no idea. Nor is Christy asking for any other favors than ones that simply help her better serve the tribe(s) anyway. Which leads to the second lesson to be learned:
2) Sometimes you do need the help of others. Although nearly anything is possible for someone who is deaf or HOH, sooner or later you realize that you need to be able to depend on others to help you with certain things. For example, at work I advise people to email me instead of calling me on the phone, because I can give them a quicker answer that way. At graduate school, I sometimes use a note-taker for a class so that I do not miss any of the professor's teachings. When reviewing a musical piece for an article or book I am writing, I sometimes ask my wife or a friend to give me their descriptions of the piece as I know that I may not catch some things in the music due to my hearing. Does this mean I need someone to hold my hand and/or do everything for me in order to function? Of course not. Yet, as a HOH individual, I have to realize that I will not be able to hear things as others will, and sometimes things that involve having greater hearing-capabilities than I have cannot be avoided.
As to Christy, the goal of the show, of course, is survival. The tribe has to learn to work with Christy's near-deafness so that they can communicate with her and make sure they do things as a group in order to persevere. Some seem to resent that they have to do things differently with her than they would with a "hearing" person. Nor do they understand that she comes from a different culture than they do. There was a bit of an uproar over the second episode when Christy told the group that she was tired of having to work on creating the shelter by herself. It was shocking to the others (who appeared, at least by the editing on the show, to simply be lying around and not doing anything as productive as Christy was), because it was so abrupt. Yet, in the deaf community, it would not have seemed so out of the blue, as you tend to be more forthright when communication is done in sign. The simplest answer to the bad feelings would have been to simply ask Christy why she felt that way and what could be done to get past the problem. Instead, the attitude of many of the other women was one of resentment that they had to put up with Christy's talk, yet none ever bothered to try to actually work with her about it. Why? Obviously because they didn't want to bother trying to work with Christy.
On the other side of that, Christy needs to reinforce to the others that they have to talk to her in a certain way in order for her to understand. Perhaps even teach them some sign-language so they can communicate better (after all, they probably do have some free time in order to have such lessons). It is certainly not simply a one-way street, although I think Christy understands this more than the others in the tribe. Ironically, once she was with the new group, things appeared to be headed this way, although there is still talk of Christy being voted out.
In reflection on the show so far, I think it is a case of the communities reacting to something where the sole one to really say anything is the person who this situation actively involves. Some hearing people think Christy should not be there because she has "special rights" over the others. Some in the deaf community feel that she is not being treated right because she deserves special rights over the others. Some in the deaf community even feel that Christy is taking advantage of the situation because she is not truly "deaf" (after all, she can hear some sounds with her hearing-aid). Either way, the only one that can actively say if she thinks she is being treated fairly is Christy herself.
While I applaud her for her earnestness to be on the show, I still have something nagging about me about the situation Christy has fallen into. One of the main components of Survivor since the very first season is that of people building "alliances" and stabbing each other in the back. It is supposed to be one of the "fun" factors of the show (and actually is one of the reasons I do not particularly like the program). Everyone in the "tribe" was set to perform the show with that in mind . . . and here comes Christy to throw a wrench into the works by forcing them to actually have to work together. I think Christy has upset more people's plans than anything the producers of the show could have thrown their way and they are resentful because of that. There are other factors involved, of course, but Christy has forced the "tribe" to interact in a way the people never expected, and it has given a new dynamic to the mix that hasn't been seen on the series so far.
But isn't that what happens in real life when those of different abilities and backgrounds come to work together? Maybe this Survivor really isn't that far off from real life after all.
You can e-mail Dale about this column or his other projects at firstname.lastname@example.org. His book, The Urban Legends of Rock and Roll: You Never Can Tell, is finally out! You can click here to buy that one and any of Dale's other books.
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