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Blog Articles by: Marta Belsky

Living Loud: Kitty O’Neil – The Fastest Woman in the World, Stuntwoman, and Racer

Deaf Culture   |  Sunday, March 24, 2019

By Marta Belsky

This article is by Marta Belsky. Marta is a third generation ASL user. She has been teaching ASL for 30 years and enjoys sharing her native language with new users.

This article is part of our "Living Loud" series, which highlights famous people who are deaf or hard of hearing and their impact in the world.

Kitty O'Neal
Kitty O'Neil in 1976 with the rocket-powered SMI Motivator vehicle she used to set the land-speed record for women - a record she still holds today. (Photo Credit: Ky Michaelson)

Known as "the fastest woman in the world," Kitty O’Neil was born in Corpus Christi, Texas on March 24, 1946. She became deaf at the age of 4 months. She had a variety of illnesses including measles, mumps and the chicken pox - one or all of which led to her becoming profoundly deaf.

Despite her early illnesses, she became a phenomenal athlete. She said, "My mother pushed me to read lips… but she didn’t push me in sports – I did that myself. Because I was deaf, I had a very positive mental attitude. You have to show people you can do anything."

She fell in love with swimming and diving. She finished in twelfth place in the U.S. team trials for the Olympics in Tokyo, where she specialized in diving. Her Olympic dream came to a quick stop in 1964 when she became ill with spinal meningitis. She was told the illness would likely paralyze her. She survived spinal meningitis, only to battle two rounds of cancer by her 28th birthday. However, O’Neil wasn’t one to be defeated. "When I was 18, I was told I couldn’t get a job because I was deaf. But I said someday I’m going to be famous in sports to show them I can do anything." She lived up to her vow.

“ I’m not afraid of anything.
     - Kitty O’Neil

After regaining her health, she turned her attention to racing and performing stunts. She was small, at 5ft 2in tall and just 97 pounds, but she said her size made her light and quick and better to withstand impact. Most importantly, she was fearless. "I’m not afraid of anything," she said.

In 1976, at the age of 30, O’Neil was the first woman to be accepted into Stunts Unlimited, an organization of Hollywood’s top stunt people. She did stunts in TV shows and movies like Quincy, Baretta, The Bionic Woman, Smokey and the Bandit II, The Blues Brothers, and Airport ’77.

Kitty O'Neal
Falling 127 feet as Wonder Woman in 1979, O’Neil set a women’s high-fall record. (Photo Credit: IMBd)

Some considered her to be like a real-world Wonder Woman and in 1979 she performed her most famous Hollywood stunt as a double for Wonder Woman. She plunged headfirst down 127 feet from the 12-story Valley Hilton in Sherman Oaks, California onto an inflatable air bag set up on the hotel's pool deck. "If I hadn't hit the center of the bag, I probably would have been killed," she told The Washington Post. With the fall, she set a women’s high-fall record, however, she would later beat her own record with a 180 foot fall from a helicopter.

Kitty O'Neal
Mattel created a Kitty O’Neil action figure in 1978.

In 1978 Mattel created a Kitty O’Neil action figure and in 1979 a television film was made about her life called Silent Victory: The Kitty O’Neil Story. Stockard Channing stared as O’Neil and, of course, O’Neil did her own stunts. She later commented that about half of the movie was true.

Kitty O'Neal
Kitty O'Neil at the Eureka Pioneer Museum in Eureka, South Dakota. (Photo Credit: IMBd)

From racing boats, cars, dune buggies, motorcycles, a three-wheeled machine, and even holding a record for the fastest speed while waterskiing, she set 22 speed records on land and water during her career.

She died November 2, 2018, at the age of 72 in Eureka, South Dakota. The local Museum in Eureka showcases memorabilia from her career as a stuntwoman and racer. She is still the fastest woman driver ever and continues to hold the land-speed record today.

See It Signed - Example Sentence

See this example sentence about Kitty O'Neil signed:

Kitty O'Neil Example

English Sentence: Did you see the movie about the life of Kitty O’Neil, a deaf stuntwoman and racer?
ASL Gloss: YOU FINISH SEE MOVIE ABOUT DEAF WOMAN HERSELF FAMOUS S-T-U-N-T WOMAN AND CAR RACER. HER NAME K-I-T-T-Y O’-N-E-I-L.
 

Become a Member of Signing Savvy to see more example sentences signed, including example sentences related to Deaf Culture.

Resources

  1. Barnes, Mike (2018, November 5). Kitty O'Neil, Famed Hollywood Stuntwoman and Daredevil, Dies at 72. The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved from https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/kitty-oneil-dead-hollywood-stuntwoman-daredevil-was-72-1158193

  2. History.com Editors (2009, November 13). Deaf stuntwoman Kitty O’Neil sets women’s land-speed record. History.com. A&E Television Networks. Retrieved from https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/deaf-stuntwoman-kitty-oneil-sets-womens-land-speed-record

  3. Hutchinson, Pamela (2018, November 7). Kitty O'Neil: the incredible story of the fastest woman in the world. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/film/2018/nov/07/kitty-oneil-fastest-woman-in-the-world-obituary

  4. Kelly, Kate (2011, March 7). Kitty O’Neil (1947-2018), Stuntwoman. America Comes Alive. Retrieved from https://americacomesalive.com/2011/03/07/kitty-oneil-stuntwoman/

  5. Wikipedia contributors. (2019, February 25). Kitty O'Neil. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kitty_O%27Neil

 

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About the Author

Marta Belsky Marta Belsky is a third generation ASL user. She has been teaching ASL for 30 years and enjoys sharing her native language with new users. Marta is on the Lansing Community College Interpreter Training Program Advisory Board and has also been a board member for the Michigan Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf and the Michigan Chapter of American Sign Language Teachers Association.

More about Marta  |  Articles by Marta

Living Loud: Phyllis Frelich - Actress, Innovator, Tony Award Winner

Living Loud: Phyllis Frelich - Actress, Innovator, Tony Award Winner

Deaf Culture   |  Sunday, March 10, 2019

By Marta Belsky

This article is by Marta Belsky. Marta is a third generation ASL user. She has been teaching ASL for 30 years and enjoys sharing her native language with new users.

This article is part of our "Living Loud" series, which highlights famous people who are deaf or hard of hearing and their impact in the world.

Phyllis Frelich
Phyllis Frelich was crowned homecoming queen in 1958 at the North Dakota School for the Deaf. (Photo Credit: North Dakota School for the Deaf Legacy of the Frelich Family)

Phyllis Frelich was born on February 29, 1944 (on Leap Day) in Devils Lake, North Dakota and was the oldest of her 9 siblings. Like both of her parents and all of her siblings, she was deaf and attended the North Dakota School for the Deaf. Her parents Philip and Esther were leading members of the Deaf community. They were actively involved with events at the North Dakota School for the Deaf and in the local Deaf community, and also both served as state officers for the North Dakota Association of the Deaf. She was a cheerleader and Homecoming Queen at the North Dakota School for the Deaf.

A Love for Acting

When Phyllis showed a dramatic flair in school in North Dakota in the 1950’s, there wasn’t a lot of opportunity or call for Deaf actors. When she went to Gallaudet College (now called Gallaudet University), there was no drama or theatre degree offered, she was discouraged from pursuing acting, and was told repeatedly there wasn’t a future in acting for deaf performers, so she got a degree in Library Science.

Her graduation gift, however, was connecting with others who had talent, imagination, and desire, including the group who founded the National Theater for the Deaf in 1967. This led to her first TV role on NBC’s nationally syndicated Theater of the Deaf, which was the first television show with deaf actors using sign language rather than mime.

Phyllis Frelich acting
Frelich starred as Sarah Norman in 887 performances over more than two years while Children of a Lesser God was on Broadway. It was the longest running play in the Longacre Theatre. (Photo Credit: Playbill: What 41 Shows Ran the Longest in Each Broadway Theatre?

Phyllis Frelich
Frelich with co-star John Rubenstein with their Tony Awards in 1980. (Photo Credit: North Dakota School for the Deaf Legacy of the Frelich Family)

Her theatre work reached a zenith in 1980, when she played the leading female role in the Broadway production of Children of a Lesser God, written by Mark Medoff. It was about the romantic relationship between a deaf student and her teacher and it has been said that Medoff was largely inspired by the relationship of Phyllis and her hearing husband when he wrote the play. The play won the Tony award for Best Play, and Frelich became the first Deaf person to win a Tony award, for Best Actress. She was also nominated for an Emmy Award for her performance in the 1985 television movie Love Is Never Silent.

She made several television guest appearances, on shows including Barney Miller, ER, L.A. Law, and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. She performed the ASL interpretation of Jewel's rendition of the national anthem at Super Bowl XXXII.

She toured all over the world with the National Theater of the Deaf as well as with Deaf West, where she performed in shows like "Big River" and "The House of Bernarda Alba." She also took on gender-switching performances in "The Gin Game" (playing Weller Martin) and "Equus" (playing Dr. Dysart).

Activist and Trailblazer

“ We are a cultural minority. We feel we are different by language, not by physical disability.
     - Phyllis Frelich

Frelich didn’t take a back seat or give up when she was told there weren’t opportunities for deaf performers. Instead, she led the way, trailblazing a path for others, and became an activist for the rights of deaf actors. Frelich said she did not consider deafness a handicap and explained, “We are a cultural minority. We feel we are different by language, not by physical disability.”

Phyllis Frelich
This portrait of Frelich was painted by Vern Skaug and is displayed in the North Dakota Rough Rider Hall of Fame in Bismarck, ND. She was presented with the Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider Award by the Governor of North Dakota in 1981. (Photo Credit: North Dakota School for the Deaf Legacy of the Frelich Family)

Though she and others paved the way for deaf actors and actresses, Frelich said “There are fewer stereotypes about deaf people than there used to be but Hollywood still tends to believe that deaf characters are either angry and bitter and/or victims; maybe that’s why deaf actresses work more than deaf actors, at least on TV. They’re women, they’re deaf, they’re victims. What we need are more deaf writers writing about our experiences truthfully.”

Phyllis Frelich died April 10, 2014, at the age of 70. Her obituary in the Washington Post called her “one of the most prominent deaf actresses of her generation,” citing not only her awards but also her work as the first deaf member to serve on the board of directors of the Screen Actors Guild and her advocacy for the rights of deaf actors.

See It Signed - Example Sentence

See this example sentence about Phyllis Frelich signed:

Phyllis Frelich Example

ASL Gloss: P-H-Y-L-L-I-S F-R-E-L-I-C-H HERSELF DEAF ACTRESS FAMOUS WHY? WIN T-O-N-Y AWARD FOR PLAY “CHILDREN O-F A L-E-S-S-E-R GOD.”

English Example: Phyllis Frelich was a deaf actress and famous for winning the 1980 Best Actress Tony Award for the play "Children of a Lesser God."

Become a Member of Signing Savvy to see more example sentences signed, including example sentences related to Deaf Culture.

Resources

  1. Bakken, Lilia. North Dakota School for the Deaf Legacy of the Frelich Family. North Dakota School for the Deaf Resource Center for Deaf and Hard of Hearing. Retrieved from: https://www.nd.gov/ndsd/sites/ndsd/files/documents/history/docs/Frelich%20Legacy%20Finished.pdf

  2. Horwitz, Simi (2004, May 14). Medoff's Muse: Phyllis Frelich. Backstage. Retrieved from: https://www.backstage.com/magazine/article/medoffs-muse-phyllis-frelich-39589/

  3. McDonough, Megan (2014, April 14). Phyllis Frelich, deaf actress who won Tony for 'Children of a Lesser God,' Dies at 70. Washington Post. Retrieved from: http://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/phyllis-frelich-deaf-actress-who-won-tony-for-children-of-a-lesser-god-dies-at-70/2014/04/14/46fd6cf0-c3e2-11e3-bcec-b71ee10e9bc3_story.html

  4. National Theatre of the Deaf Performance Log. National Theatre of the Deaf (NTD). http://www.ntd.org/ntd_past-performances.html

  5. Phyllis Frelich. Internet Broadway Database. The Broadway League. https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/phyllis-frelich-41308

  6. Phyllis Frelich. Internet Movie Database. IMDb.com, Inc. http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0293992/ 

 

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About the Author

Marta Belsky Marta Belsky is a third generation ASL user. She has been teaching ASL for 30 years and enjoys sharing her native language with new users. Marta is on the Lansing Community College Interpreter Training Program Advisory Board and has also been a board member for the Michigan Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf and the Michigan Chapter of American Sign Language Teachers Association.

More about Marta  |  Articles by Marta

Living Loud: Mandy Harvey – Singer, Ambassador, and Author

Living Loud: Mandy Harvey – Singer, Ambassador, and Author

Deaf Culture   |  Sunday, January 27, 2019

By Marta Belsky

This article is by Marta Belsky. Marta is a third generation ASL user. She has been teaching ASL for 30 years and enjoys sharing her native language with new users.

This article is part of our "Living Loud" series, which highlights famous people who are deaf or hard of hearing and their impact in the world.

Mandy Harvey
Mandy Harvey (Photo Credit: Noam Galai, Retreived from Episode 5: Interview with Deaf Singer Mandy Harvey)

Mandy Harvey was born hearing, but her life took an unexpected turn when she became deaf at the age of eighteen. As a child, Harvey was passionate about music and when she began college she decided to follow her dream to pursue Music Education. However, when Harvey lost her hearing she also lost music, a huge part of her identity. In the ten years since Harvey became deaf, she has overcome emotional and spiritual obstacles and found new ways to pursue her dreams. In 2017, Harvey shocked the world with her singing on the television show America’s Got Talent and has since written a book about her experiences in life. She has inspired millions of people with her story and her music.

Growing Up: A Passion for Music

Mandy Harvey was born in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1988 and her family moved to Colorado when she was a young girl. Throughout her childhood and into her teenage years she was passionate about music. She participated in church choir starting at the age of four, and continued in music through high school. In high school, Harvey was in five school choirs, singing with a wide vocal range from tenor to high soprano parts. In an interview with Justin Miller for the Real Talk TV Show, Harvey described herself as a "strong voice in the choir, but not one to ever put [herself] in the spotlight." Although, she wasn’t much of a soloist in high school, her passion led her to pursue Vocal Music Education in college. She specifically wanted to teach jazz because of the emotion she would be able to create in others.2 Harvey attended Colorado State University. During her first semester, she began to realize that she was having trouble hearing.3

In Denial About Deafness

Harvey was born with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome which is a connective tissue disorder that caused her hearing to deteriorate during her first year in college.1 At first, when she noticed a change in her ability to hear, Harvey wrote it off as an ear infection or a perforated ear drum. She didn’t want to believe the severity of the problem. Harvey had her hearing tested and the results showed by that time she had already lost 30 decibels of her hearing. Frequent doctor visits over the course of the next nine months showed a steady decrease in her hearing. By Christmas of that year, Harvey had lost 55-60 decibels, making her legally deaf. She was fitted with hearing aids. Harvey still held on to the hope that her music dreams could remain intact. However, the realization of her deafness hit her hard and fast one day in her Music Theory class.2

The class was set up to take a test in which the students had to listen to the piano notes and record what was being played. Harvey was poised with pencil in hand waiting to begin the test, when she looked around and saw that all the other students were writing on their papers. Harvey sat there, unable to hear the test that was being given and one by one the students stood up and walked out of the classroom, leaving her sitting alone.2

Harvey dropped the Music Education program, changed majors, and took different classes. Harvey described the time as a "whirlwind" because of how fast things were changing and she had not yet felt the true impact of the situation. She said she was "still holding on to hope."2 During that transition time, she was walking on a sidewalk and she was hit by a bike. The biker was coming up behind her and had been calling out to her that he was passing on the left, but when she didn’t hear him she got hit and her hearing aid was crushed. This was when the realization truly hit her that her hearing loss was real and permanent. "I lost myself that day," Harvey said in the interview.2

Finding Hope: Discovering ASL, the Deaf Community, and Rediscovering Music

After her first year of college, Harvey moved back home. She said, "I would say it felt like I fell down a really dark well."2 She couldn’t see any brightness in her future and she didn’t know who she was anymore. "I had fed into all of the voices that were around me, which were saying that if you can’t hear, you can’t do music, and I allowed them to convince me that that was true and so I gave up on music. I didn’t even sing in the shower for a year and a half."4 Her own identity was intertwined with her life of being a musician and so when that was taken away from her, she felt all was lost.

This darkness took over Harvey’s life for quite a while, but gradually she pulled out of it. She began taking American Sign Language classes, and her sister even skipped her senior year of high school so that they could take classes together. Finding a way to communicate was a crucial step for Harvey to reform her life. She then started to get involved with the Deaf community, made friends, and found people with similar stories to her own. This is what gave her the confidence to allow music back into her life.2

Harvey’s father wanted her to play guitar with him, and she agreed to try. They were able to push aside their inability to communicate with one another and just play together. When Harvey’s father suggested they try to learn a new song, she didn’t think she would be able to, but they pulled up the sheet music anyway. By humming into a small guitar tuner, Harvey was able to see if she was hitting the correct pitches. Learning the song was a long process, but when she sang it through, it brought her father to tears. Harvey didn’t believe him when he said it was good so she recorded the song and sent it to a voice coach, someone she knew would be honest. The voice coach responded that she thought the song had been recorded before Harvey lost her hearing. When the voice coach learned the recording was recent, she insisted that Harvey come back and begin taking voice lessons again.2

Mandy Harvey on America's Got Talent show.
Mandy Harvey on America's Got Talent (Photo Credit: NBC, America's Got Talent, Season 12 (2017). Retreived from Mandy Harvey: Deaf Singer Earns Simon's Golden Buzzer With Original Song - America's Got Talent 2017)

Harvey soon found herself with a slot performing in a local jazz club. She developed her own techniques in being a musician. Harvey takes off her shoes so that she can feel the beat vibrating through the floor. At first, before she became comfortable, she stood at the piano using her hands to feel the vibrations, but gradually she stepped away from the piano.2 She used visual tuners to help her know she was in key and would put her hand on her throat to find where the vibration was the strongest for each note. She would do scales and run through patterns again and again. She can also feel the vibrations of her ukulele when holding it against her body. 4

Her singing career began to flourish, leading to multiple albums, and a tour.1 In 2017, Harvey was a competitor in season 12 of the America’s Got Talent television show. She wowed America and the judges and took 4th place in the competition.

Controversy: Promoting Oralism vs. Deaf Can Movement

During the competition, there was some controversy in the Deaf community because Harvey was "promoting a hearing activity," and she still continues to receive some backlash from certain individuals. They accuse her of promoting oralism and she has even received death threats.Harvey says it’s a very small group of loud voices that are critical and most of the deaf people she has met love what she’s doing.4

Harvey explains she understands the criticism is rooted in an effort to protect Deaf culture. "The Deaf community has been so oppressed for such a long time, and it hasn’t been until recently that we’ve even acknowledged that sign language is a language. In fact, I’m pretty sure only 44 states even accept it as a foreign language, which is ridiculous. But, to have a language, to be proud of your culture, it’s survival. And it’s important." So because she talks and she sings, some criticize her for doing hearing activities, and view it as shunning the deaf community and saying they need to also talk or sing. However, that is not Harvey’s point of view at all.4

“ Deaf [people] can do anything that they want to do, they can do any job. They can do any activity, they can sing, they can paint, they can climb mountains, they can have kids, they can be teachers, they can be CEOs of major companies. It doesn’t matter.
     - Mandy Harvey
Singer, Ambassador, & Author

When her hearing loss progressed, she felt loss, like she didn’t belong in either the Deaf or the hearing worlds. She says it was learning American Sign Language that really opened the door for communication for her and being part of the Deaf community, feeling a sense of belonging. Harvey says, "There’s so many different forms of being deaf… being deaf doesn’t mean that you can’t speak, being deaf doesn’t mean that you don’t like music, being deaf doesn’t mean that you have to live in one small bubble."4

She also explains this philosophy is part of the "Deaf Can" movement that has been going on for the last 15 years. The movement advocates, "deaf can do anything that they want to do, they can do any job. They can do any activity, they can sing, they can paint, they can climb mountains, they can have kids, they can be teachers, they can be CEOs of major companies. It doesn’t matter."4

Following her Passion


Mandy Harvey's book: Sensing the Rhythm: Finding my Voice in a World Without Sound

Harvey’s dedication to following her passion has inspired countless people around America and the world. She continues to sing and encourage others. She is an Ambassador for No Barriers USA, where she travels the country to encourage others, heighten awareness, and challenge stereotypes.5

She now has a book called Sensing the Rhythm: Finding my Voice in a World Without Sound which is about life lessons she has learned. “What story do you think God is trying to tell through your life?” Harvey was asked in an interview with Real Talk TV Show. She responded, "I think that it’s pretty simple, that bad things happen and chaos is all around us, but we have to just keep walking down the path, just keep going forward. That you have such a limited amount of time on Earth and it’s messy and it’s broken and you’re surrounded by people who are also messy and broken and we’re supposed to encourage each other, hold each other up."

Books:

Music:

Resources

  1. Rose, B. (2017, November 15). The singer sent death threats from the ‘deaf community’. BBC News. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/news/disability-41850498

  2. [TheRealtalktvshow] (2017, February 17). Mandy Harvey Interview [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mUb61GAr8dg

  3. Winners of the VSA International Young Soloists Competition: 2011 Award Recipients. The Kennedy Center. Retrieved from http://education.kennedy-center.org/education/vsa/programs/soloists_past_recipients.cfm?soloist=soloists2011

  4. Ruderman, Jay. (2018, December 3). Episode 5: Interview with Deaf Singer Mandy Harvey [Audio Podcast, with transcript]. All Inclusive with Jay Ruderman (a podcast on inclusion, innovation and social justice). Ruderman Family Foundation. Podcast retrieved from http://rudermanfoundation.org/podcast/episode-5-interview-with-deaf-singer-mandy-harvey/

  5. Harvey, Mandy. Speaking - Mandy Harvey. Mandy Harvey website. Retrieved from https://mandyharveymusic.com/speaking/

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About the Author

Marta Belsky Marta Belsky is a third generation ASL user. She has been teaching ASL for 30 years and enjoys sharing her native language with new users. Marta is on the Lansing Community College Interpreter Training Program Advisory Board and has also been a board member for the Michigan Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf and the Michigan Chapter of American Sign Language Teachers Association.

More about Marta  |  Articles by Marta

Living Loud: LeRoy Colombo – First Deaf Lifeguard and Life Saving Record Holder

Living Loud: LeRoy Colombo – First Deaf Lifeguard and Life Saving Record Holder

Deaf Culture   |  Saturday, December 29, 2018

By Marta Belsky

This article is by Marta Belsky. Marta is a third generation ASL user. She has been teaching ASL for 30 years and enjoys sharing her native language with new users.

When he was seven years old, LeRoy Colombo contracted spinal meningitis, which left him deaf and paralyzed from the waist down. His brothers encouraged him to swim, a therapy which resulted in his ability to walk again. Even so, he felt more at home in the water, and found his life’s purpose as a swimmer.

Life Saver and Water Whiz

At the Texas School for the Deaf in Austin, he broke several swimming records for speed and distance. When he was twelve, he saved a child from drowning, which became the first of many lives he saved. He was also one of the first people to surf in Galveston, Texas. In 1923, Colombo joined the Galveston Toboggan Surf Club, which required members to swim for three straight hours without outside support or floating.

Boys at the swimming hole in 1922
Boys at the swimming hole in 1922. (Photo Credit: Jean F. Andrews., Retreived from Deaf in Prison Blog)

“He saved more people than I ever heard of or knew. He was one of the greatest lifeguards that ever lived. I know where he saved three people at one time, and once, four. He could sense anything going on in the water and see it before anyone else could. He’s a legend in the city of Galveston.”
     - D.K. Lack
Galveston Police Chief

He climbed into the lifeguard station perch in Galveston when he was 18, and worked there for over 40 years. He is included in the 1976 Guinness Book of World Records for saving 907 people, although the total number of saves is over 1,000. One of the most dramatic rescues involved diving under burning oil from a tugboat that had burst into flames to save the lives of two crewmen.

Galveston Police Chief D.K. Lack said, “He saved more people than I ever heard of or knew. He was one of the greatest lifeguards that ever lived. I know where he saved three people at one time, and once, four. He could sense anything going on in the water and see it before anyone else could. He’s a legend in the city of Galveston” (The Deaf American, 1974, p. 23).

In addition to life-saving, Colombo enjoyed endurance racing. In 1927, he swam in a race across the Gulf of Mexico – a fifteen-mile swim. Only he and his brother finished, as the others dropped out from jellyfish stings and exhaustion. Colombo’s time was 11.5 hours, over three hours ahead of his brother. He won all the distance races held in the Gulf of Mexico between 1929 and 1939.

LeRoy Colombo on the beach
LeRoy Columbo on the beach during the peak of his lifeguarding career. (Photo Credit: Jean F. Andrews., Retreived from Deaf in Prison Blog)

Proved Deaf People Can Be Great Lifeguards

After his hearing lost, Columbo struggled in local public school. He learned sign language and continued swimming in the indoor pool at the Texas School for the Deaf in Austin. He lived during a time of great prejudice towards deaf people and faced both poverty and discrimination. None of his hearing family or any of the hearing lifeguards that he worked with learned sign language. Yet, he didn’t let other people’s opinions or lack of support dictate what he could do. He loved the water and he loved saving lives.

One of Colombo’s greatest contributions, however, was as a living example that deaf people could work as lifeguards. He is cited in literature used in disputes about Deaf people becoming lifeguards, even though there is still discrimination based on fears a deaf lifeguard could not hear cries for help. Today, The American Red Cross allows Deaf people to hold this position, but the YMCA does not.

Others argue it was Colombo’s deafness that helped him to be such an acute and successful lifeguard. Some researchers have found deaf people have enhanced visual attention, visual perception, and motion detection skills. One hypothesis is Colombo wasn’t as distracted by the sounds of noisy seagulls, the crashing surf, or people laughing and shouting on the beach. He used his prowess and knowledge of the water, currents and riptides, to quickly recognize people in distress.

LeRoy Colombo on the beach
HIstorical marker in honor of Leroy Colombo in Galveston, Texas. (Photo Credit: Jean F. Andrews., Retreived from Deaf in Prison Blog)

Legacy

He retired from being a lifeguard at 62 because of a heart condition, but continued swimming in the Gulf of Mexico a mile a day in both summer and winter for 6 more years, up until a few weeks before he died at the age of 68.

Flags in many parts of Texas were lowered to half-mast when he died, he was honored in the Texas legislature with a resolution and moment of silence, and a plaque was erected in his honor at the Galveston beach where he patrolled for over forty years. Colombo is remembered today in an annual 5K LeRoy Colombo race held each summer in Galveston. In 2002, Colombo was inducted into the Texas School for the Deaf Athletic Hall of Fame. In 2006, a Texas legislature act enabled the unveiling of The Leroy Colombo Swim Center during the Texas School for the Deaf’s 115th birthday celebration. Some still say he was the "World’s Greatest Lifeguard."

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About the Author

Marta Belsky Marta Belsky is a third generation ASL user. She has been teaching ASL for 30 years and enjoys sharing her native language with new users. Marta is on the Lansing Community College Interpreter Training Program Advisory Board and has also been a board member for the Michigan Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf and the Michigan Chapter of American Sign Language Teachers Association.

More about Marta  |  Articles by Marta

Living Loud: Charles

Living Loud: Charles "CJ" Jones – Comedian, Actor, Producer, and Director

Deaf Culture   |  Tuesday, October 2, 2018

By Marta Belsky

This article is by Marta Belsky. Marta is a third generation ASL user. She has been teaching ASL for 30 years and enjoys sharing her native language with new users.

CJ Jones and Ansel Elgort in Baby Driver
CJ Jones and Ansel Elgort in "Baby Driver" (2017) (Photo Credit: Sony Pictures, Photo by Wilson Webb - © 2017 TriStar Pictures, Inc. and MRC II Distribution Company L.P., Retreived from IBDb)

Named Charles Paul Jones at birth, Jones, who prefers to go by CJ, claims that his life is all about "who I am, not what I am." He does not want his deafness to be his claim to fame. His journey in the world of comedy is fast becoming his legacy. You may recognize him from the 2017 summer hit "Baby Driver," which made CJ the first black, deaf actor in an international blockbuster. To both the deaf and hearing worlds, CJ Jones brings hope and compassion for our future.

The Flourishing Student

CJ is the son of Deaf parents and has 6 hearing siblings. His parents and all of his brothers and sisters used American Sign Language. At the early age of seven, CJ contracted spinal meningitis. This major illness left CJ with a profound hearing loss. To further his education, CJ transferred to Missouri School for the Deaf (MSD), moving away from his entire family. His deaf father, Clarence, fought the Missouri school system to get CJ a place in the all deaf school when they were told CJ’s residual hearing was too good to qualify for MSD. CJ said his dad, "showed a lot of love and support, encouraging us to have the best education." CJ excelled in the communication rich environment at MSD, which taught in his native American Sign Language. After graduating high school, CJ continued his education by enrolling at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID) in Rochester, New York. He immediately joined and then later toured for two years with NTID’s National Theater for the Deaf, which started him on his way to popularity and becoming nationally known for his hilarious and heart-warming comedy routines.

The Traveling Comedian

CJ Jones One-Man Comedy Show
CJ Jones One-Man Comedy Show

CJ remembers while he was growing up, he was always a comedian, making everyone laugh and feel at ease no matter who and where they were in life. Now as an adult, traveling around the world, he says things are still the same. He likes making people smile. His good-natured ways and high-spirited personality has set him up for a profession in entertainment. People, both deaf and hearing, are drawn to his fast-paced humor and quick-witted performances, poking fun, and using his graciousness and passion for communicating through humor and American Sign Language.

The Restless Entertainer

CJ Jones in See What I’m Saying
CJ Jones in “See What I’m Saying: The Deaf Entertainers Documentary" (2009) (Photo Credit: IMDb, See What I’m Saying: The Deaf Entertainers Documentary)

CJ has been in the business of entertaining for the past thirty-five years, spreading his message that being different does not mean being less worthwhile. He developed 3 one-man shows and is the only Deaf African American comedian that has traveled all over the world. He is also one of only four Deaf performers showcased in the 2009 documentary "See What I’m Saying: The Deaf Entertainers Documentary." He appeared in PBS’s "Through Deaf Eyes" and has had roles in several television shows, including Cold Case, A Different World, Frasier, and Sesame Street. He co-wrote and directed all six of the children’s fairytales in the "Once Upon A Sign" television series. Undoubtedly, these television roles were his best promotional roles. Movies are another claim to CJ Jones’ fame with roles in "Baby Driver," HULU’s "Castle Rock" and the upcoming 2020, Avatar Sequels.

“I think I have made an impact on the deaf community through my humor, experience, and share my success by overcoming obstacles and discrimination. I can prove that anything is possible. It has nothing to do with being deaf or black or any disability and color, it has to do with passion to do greater things in life!”
     - CJ Jones

The Inspirational Role Model

When looking at his life, CJ is himself amazed at all he has accomplished in his sixty-eight years. From childhood of being black and deaf, he has never had a problem expressing himself and turned that ability into a profession of outstanding success. He is adamant about American Sign Language being his connection to his profession and communicating to the world. He is proud of the fact he has performed in thousands of schools, theaters, and universities.

This quote from CJ says it all, "I think I have made an impact on the deaf community through my humor, experience, and share my success by overcoming obstacles and discrimination. I can prove that anything is possible. It has nothing to do with being deaf or black or any disability and color, it has to do with passion to do greater things in life!"

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About the Author

Marta Belsky Marta Belsky is a third generation ASL user. She has been teaching ASL for 30 years and enjoys sharing her native language with new users. Marta is on the Lansing Community College Interpreter Training Program Advisory Board and has also been a board member for the Michigan Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf and the Michigan Chapter of American Sign Language Teachers Association.

More about Marta  |  Articles by Marta

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