AMERICA'S FIRST HEARING - IMPAIRED COMEDIENNE
by Stan Griffin
When Kathy Buckley was a little girl, she and her family watched TV together. If her parents and brothers laughed, she laughed. If they cried, she cried--just to fit in. She had no idea why they were reacting because Kathy was deaf. One night she saw Red Skelton performing as "Freddie the Freeloader," and she laughed all by herself. For the first time, she was relating to a performer who wasn't speaking. She said later: "In a way, Red Skelton was the first to teach me the value of communication--not of words, but of what the heart has to say." Meeting Skelton a number of years later, she told him this story; and they shared a hug " .. so our hearts could meet as one ..."
Kathy's high school health-science teacher gave her some good advice: "Learn to use what you DO have instead of worrying about what you DON'T!" At that point in her life, she had experienced more than her share of problems:
Her hearing loss was not discovered until she was in the second grade.
She had a speech impediment that gave her problems communicating with others.
She was told that she was mentally retarded and even spent time in a special school.
She grew to a height of six feet by the time she was in the sixth grade.
And there was more to come!!
Until she was eight years old, Kathy's deafness had not been disagnosed or explained to her. She thought everyone heard low rumblings and "wah-wah" noises and had no idea how words were supposed to sound. Not aware of just what her problem was, Kathy had to cope on her own. Very early in her life, she picked up lipreading. She watched other people and copied the way they acted.
In kindergarten and first grade, Kathy was described as "disruptive" and a "low achiever." Her speech impediment was labeled "lazy tongue." Her voice was nasal; and she dragged her words, occasionally blurting out combinations.
No one knows for certain what caused Katy's condition. She was an RH negative baby and needed a complete blood transfusion within 15 minutes of birth. A twelve-hour delay in that transfusion might have affected her hearing. Or it could have been the case of aseptic meningitis she contracted at the age of five.
Once her parents finally became aware of her hearing difficulties, they sent her to the Cleveland Hearing and Speech Center. (The family home was in northern Ohio.) There she was tested and received her first hearing aid: a 1961 Zenith Diplomat. It was heavy, bulky, and produced very LOUD sounds. She didn't like it so it was rarely used.
Kathy attended the Westfield/Dunbar School in East Cleveland. For a short time, she attended classes with students who were deaf, others who were mentally retarded, and some who had physical disabilities (blindness, loss of limbs, etc.)
Entering Westfield in the third grade, Kathy was taught to speak by Miss Daily, the first teacher who was a positive influence in her life. She spent the fourth grade at York Elementary. There were only a few students with hearing aids. Kathy tried to hide hers so she wouldn't "stick out like a sore thumb." Often she would simply leave it at home, relying on her lipreading.
Entering the sixth grade, Kathy had "shot up" to a height of six feet. Some of her nicknames were: "Buck," "Buckwheat," "Daddy Long Legs," and "Jolly Green Giant."
In high school, the health-science teacher got her involved with the school yearbook--first as photographer and finally in her senior year as editor! This did a lot for her self-confidence.
Kathy had begun doing modeling for the Gold Circle stores before she graduated. She continued that work until a car accident left her with severe cuts to the face which needed 32 stitches. She was in and out of the hospital with fainting spells and headaches, even spending some time in a mental institution. (A friend's mother worked there and "smuggled" her out, saying "You don't belong here!")
Kathy resumed her modeling career at Gold Circle and moved into an apartment house where there were several elderly ladies. Once they got to know her, they all became "adopted grandmothers."
A trip to Lake Erie in 1974 turned deadly. While Kathy was sunbathing on the beach, a jeep driven by the lifeguard struck and ran over her. The resulting injuries were extremely serious. In fact, while she was in an ambulance headed for a hospital, one of the attendants thought she was dead!
Kathy's nose was broken. She had a number of internal injuries, and nerves in her lower back and legs were damaged. For a time, she was affected by "mental somatic paralysis." One doctor told her that she might never walk again. Over a period of 1 1/2 years, she spent a lot of time in hospitals (and in wheelchairs) for treatment and rehabilitation. For a while, she had some numbness in her legs as well as tingling and burning. After a lot of work, she was able to walk and resume driving, too.
In 1976 Kathy had another car accident. She had gone back to her job at Gold Circle and was on her way to work when the car drove off a bridge into a creek. Kathy spent a number of weeks in traction, and she was taking a large amount of medication. She reached a point when she feared addiction, so she stopped taking everything. As she put it: "It was up to me to save myself."
Kathy moved to Los Angeles, California in 1978. There she got Social Security disability (SSD) by "playing deaf and dumb." Some jobs she worked at were warehouse manager, waitress, and at an auto shop. She lost jobs because of difficulty in understanding instructions.
With a large insurance settlement from her encounter with that jeep, Kathy enrolled in a school for fashion designers. She completed the course and even won their award for best designer the year of her graduation. Kathy was able to get several jobs, but holding them was not so easy.
At this point, Kathy got another shock. She was diagnosed with cervical cancer. A year of tests, treatment, and an operation. followed. Returning for a six-month checkup, her doctor said he needed to operate one more time. After considerable thought, she decided not to have any more operations. As she put it: "I decided to take that incredible gift called choice and start taking charge of my own life. I changed my diet. I changed my attitude about myself ... and I forgave the people who hurt me ..." Kathy was bolstered by words of her Uncle Frank: "Fear knocked on my door. Faith opened it. No one was there." As of 2001, Kathy is still cancer-free.
Kathy next took a job at an aerobics center and then became an exercise therapist for Vita-Fit, a medical and chiropractic clinic. To get money for massage therapist training, she went to the California Department of Vocational Rehabilitation. One requirement was that she take a hearing test. It showed that she didn't hear normally, she was intelligent--not retarded--and was officially pronounced hearing impaired!
Another requirement of C.D.V.R. subsidies was that she must be fitted for a hearing aid--and WEAR it! Technology had made rapid advances since the 1960s, and her new one amazed her! She was able to hear things that she had never heard before. She didn't try to hide this one!
Kathy got her massage therapist license; and as she worked with clients, she began to see how laughter could help improve their lives. More and more she incorporated her sense of humor into her work with positive results.
Kathy had a long-standing dream of becoming an actress. Success in the massage sessions gave her the courage to pursue that dream. She entered a comedy contest, "Stand-Up Comics
Take A Stand," held to raise money for children with cerebral palsy.
To prepare herself, Kathy rented comedy videos, performed routines in living rooms for family and friends, and even enrolled in a comedy class. She learned to edit stories to reach the punchline quicker and tried to get comfortable in front of a microphone.
When Kathy performed, she "brought the house down" and won, which sent her to the semi-finals and then to the finals. (This event was organized like a sports tournament.) At the end, she finished fourth out of 80 experienced comics. This high placement inspired her to make a career out of stand-up comedy.
Kathy began with appearances in local clubs and graduated to bookings all over the country. Once she got rolling, she was "on the road" for 11 months of the year. Her first "headline spot" was in Las Vegas at "Bally's Catch A Rising Star."
Kathy's television appearances began with a program called "Funny People." She did big comedy club shows that were taped and sold to cable channels. A landmark in her career was the night she was on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno." She also was a guest on "Live with Regis and Kathie Lee," "Entertainment Tonight," and "Good Morning, America." Kathy has also appeared in a dramatic role on the series "Touched By An Angel."
By the 1990s, comedy clubs were not as popular. Kathy got a position with Milt Wright and Associates. Their program, "Windmills," educated employers about " ... disability issues with a goal of getting past attitude barriers (that) made it difficult for people with disabilities to get hired ... " Eventually she began to use stories of her own life as she combined education with comedy.
Kathy left Wright Associates but continued to give motivational workshops on her own. She became more and more involved with organizations for people with disabilities, especially children's rights.
Here are some elements of Kathy's message: "Everyone can choose to LIVE, not just exist ... Focus on the good and let go of the bad ... Everything bad has limits, as does everything good ... Get with it--enjoy! ... Kids should stand up for themselves ..."
Kathy next joined the faculty of "Life Mastery Program." Some of her fellow teachers were Tony Robbins, General Norman Schwarzkopf, and Deepak Chopra. She conducted workshops in places all over the country.
An Emmy-winning TV documentary, "I Can Hear the Laughter" appeared in 1991. It was about Kathy's life. She has been nominated for American Comedy Awards five times.
In 1997 Kathy and some of her friends created a one-woman show, hoping that HBO would let her perform it on TV. It was called: "Don't Buck With Me." When that fell through, they booked a theater and gave performances for several months. The show won four awards: a Los Angeles Ovation Award for Best Writing (These are much like the Emmys in New York), Drama-Logue Awards for Best Writing and Best Performance, and the Media Access Award for Best Play of the Year. Later the same show with the name "Now Hear This!" was produced off-Broadway in New York City (1999) and ran for three months with "rave" reviews.
Kathy continues to be an activist for people with disabilities. In 1997 she was recognized by the City of Hope as their role model of the year.
Kathy gives God a lot of credit for what she has been able to do because " ... He put many extraordinary people in (my) path ..." It's her view that " ... What you are is God's gift to you-- what you make of yourself is your gift to God ..." and " ...Faith is having the patience to wait, knowing that all things will be done in His time ..."
In 2001 Kathy appeared in a PBS Special: "Kathy Buckley: No Labels, No Limits." Also this year a book written by Kathy was published: "If You Could Hear What I See: Lessons About Life, Luck, and the Choices We Make."
From the beginning of her life, Kathy accepted labels placed on her by adults: "retarded"; "low achiever"; "disruptive." Finally realizing she had choices in her life, she has now created her own "designer" labels: actress, comedienne, playwright, motivational speaker, and author.
Kathy Buckley is without doubt living her life "to the hilt"--and loving it!!