Going Out and Discovering the World

Ocean and mountains
For Christy Smith, Costa Rica is the site that sparked, and continues to recharge, her connection with international deaf communities.

In many ways, Christy Smith is the ultimate survivor.

She was born premature and weighed just two pounds at birth. When she pulled her breathing tube out as a baby, she became deaf. Later, she became the first Deaf person on reality TV when she starred on the Amazon edition of CBS’ popular reality TV show Survivor. She lasted thirty-three out of thirty-nine days before she was ousted and finished sixth.

Christy is more than just a survivor. She’s also an adventurer, a world traveler, and an advocate for Deaf communities everywhere.

"We all 'get it': we get the oppression, the frustrating upbringing, feeling like we're in the minority. That experience gave me a thirst for connecting with deaf people internationally."

After she graduated from Gallaudet University, Christy traveled to Costa Rica, where she lived with members of the Deaf community and engaged them in team-building activities. "It was a program offered through Gallaudet for Spanish majors, and although I was not a Spanish major, somehow I was in the right place at the right time to get to go!"

Though Christy grew up traveling, she cherishes her time in Costa Rica as her first deaf international experience. "That deaf connection - being able to communicate with deaf people internationally - is special. Learning how to sign in their language was so much easier than learning how to speak or lipread their languages."

Besides just a means to communicate more effectively, sharing a deaf identity also meant that Christy could quickly connect with her international hosts through shared experiences. "We all 'get it': we get the oppression, the frustrating upbringing, feeling like we're in the minority. That experience gave me a thirst for connecting with deaf people internationally."

Christy’s Tips for Deaf travelers:
1. Learn that country’s sign language.
2. Refrain from signing in ASL.
3. Respect the culture of the country. For example, “No hugging in Japan. None. Zip. Do not do that.”

To quench that thirst, Christy co-founded Discovering Deaf Worlds with friend and American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter David Justice, who is hearing. Their goal was to spend a year meeting Deaf communities around the world.

“We brainstormed, talked about traveling to about 30 countries, then we agreed we were going to do it,” she says. She went home, sold her stuff, and left her job. They had enough money for about three months of travel in New Zealand, Australia, and Japan, and they hoped to stretch that money out for a year.

During their year abroad, they focused on Asia and the Pacific, visiting eight countries, including India, Nepal, Laos and China. Some of their projects included making a documentary about a home for disabled children in Calcutta, trekking the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal with a Deaf guide, and going to the Australian Deaf Games.

Christy returned to the U.S. with a strong desire to work with international deaf communities. When asked what memories stood out most from her year abroad, she didn’t mention the Great Wall, the Himalayas or any number of other sites she had the chance to visit.

“I get flashback of different faces of people we met,” she says. “I think of the deaf people we met that didn’t know their names.” She said that meeting deaf adults who’d never learned language made a profound impact on her, “which is why I went on to get a Masters so I can understand how deaf education works.”

She wanted to know if it was still possible to educate deaf adults who had been deprived of language all their lives. She got her Master’s studies in Secondary Education at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

And, Discovering Deaf Worlds is still going strong. A board of directors and volunteer staff has expanded the organization. The organization is working to increase global deaf awareness, provide resources and project development to deaf communities in developing countries and organize Discovering Deaf Worlds journeys, which provide unique opportunities to combine travel with learning about a host country’s Deaf community.

“I am so deeply grateful for co-founding the organization,” Christy says of Discovering Deaf Worlds. “What a great gift to create something that started with a vision to travel the world and discover deaf communities.”

Christy Smith is a Deaf women who is originally from Aspen, Colorado. She is the co-founder of Discovering Deaf Worlds, a non-profit organization that connects deaf communities worldwide. Christy was also a delegate on MIUSA's U.S./Jordan Young Women with Disabilities Leadership Exchange Program.