If you haven’t heard of Kathy Buckley, then drop whatever you’re doing and Google her. Watch her on YouTube, find her on Amazon. You won’t be disappointed. Known as America’s first deaf comedienne, she’s wickedly funny and highly inspirational. But she’s more than just a comic; her humor is infused with a higher purpose: to teach us that anything is possible when our hearts and minds work in tandem. Although she eschews labels, we’re going to throw out a few to give you some scope of her accomplishments: she’s a popular motivational speaker, a five-time American Comedy Award nominee for best stand-up female comedienne, an actress and a best-selling author.
Buckley clearly excels at overcoming obstacles: Born HR negative, she had spinal meningitis as a toddler and subsequent hearing loss that went undiagnosed until she was in grade school; In her late teens, she was run over by a lifeguard jeep while sunbathing on the beach, a recovery that took five years, and some years thereafter, she survived cancer. Recently, ABILITY Magazine caught up with her to chat about her speaking engagements and her passionate dedication to an after-school program for deaf and hard of hearing students.
Chet Cooper: Kathy, what have you been doing since we first met?
Buckley: (laughs) Well, for the last several years, I’ve been getting myself a little facial, showering, eating (laughs)—all the things that are essential for living. (laughs) Actually, I’ve been traveling the country. I went to Sweden, Denmark, Fiji, and Norway. I’ve been all over the world, pretty much. A lot of places I don’t care to go to, but, you know—
Cooper: And this is all for motivational speaking?
Buckley: Yes, motivational speaking.
Cooper: What’s your message? Who’s your audience?
Buckley: The audience is always different. If I’m hired to speak to a hospital or something medical-related, I’ll teach more about bedside manners. Sometimes I think doctors are more deaf than their patients. I’ve spoken to lawyers, and I just did this thing in Alabama for miners.
Cooper: Did you speak to young people?
Buckley: (laughs) That’s what I thought they meant. They said it’d be about 800 miners, and I go, “Oh, I love working with young people.” And he goes, “No, no, no. They go under the ground.” I’m going, “Why are the kids under the ground? That’s wrong!” (laughs) But yeah, 800 miners. I’m from the old days, Bonanza, where the mine was that little hole in the wall with the wood. But these guys, they had an opening 20 feet by 30 feet so they could get their equipment in. And they go about a 1000 feet under the ground. It was amazing to watch the videos they had. They would teach me. Because I was nervous. I really didn’t know what I was going to say to 800 men, you know? So somebody said, “Just go up there and pretend they’re all naked.” And I said, “That’s what I want to do, go on stage and drool! No!”
So, I invited five of the men out to dinner the night before I had to speak to get some information. The ironic thing is, as I was watching them talk, no one was listening to each other as they were sharing their journeys. So, when I went the next morning to give my talk, I did this whole thing on communication. I noticed that men—and nothing personal—but what was happening was they were assuming what the boss was telling them to do and just going along with what they thought was being said. So I taught them how to repeat what they’re hearing so they’re getting accurate information.
It was awesome. I got such a high being there. It was an amazing event. So yeah, I’ve been traveling all over the place doing motivational speaking. I have an after-school program that I’m very passionate about called No Limits for Deaf Children and Families. We also have an after-school program called The City, one in Las Vegas and one in Oxnard, CA. We have groups for children who are deaf and hard of hearing. I’m a little busy! And then I clean the house.
Cooper : Awesome. You put on a hard hat?
Buckley: No. My head’s hard. I don’t need a hard hat for this head.
Cooper: So you have these kids you’re involved with. Tell me more about No Limits and what it entails.
Buckley: It’s amazing. I’ve been with them for 21 years. It started out as a theater group right here in LA because kids who were deaf in LA Unified School District were getting 15 minutes of speech therapy a week, in a group of kids, and when you do that, nobody’s learning the language. They were passing kids who were deaf along in school and graduating them with a fourth-grade reading level. They weren’t getting a proper education. They weren’t learning how to communicate. Nowadays, we have technology, such as the technology of cochlear implants and digital hearing aids. It’s almost impossible for a person not to have spoken language with the proper therapy. So Dr. Michelle Christie, the founder of No Limits, created the after-school program. It gives them personal one-on-one therapy, so a child gets about three to four hours a week of one-on-one therapy for speech and language development. And then we also have parent groups every Saturday where we educate the parents on how to be advocates, to be a voice for their children when they go to the schools, and know what their needs are according to the ADA law. We have a lot going on with my babies.
It’s so cool because we work with low-income families. Our kids come to us at five years old. A five-year-old hearing child has a vocabulary of 5,000 words. A child with a hearing impairment comes to us at five years old, and they don’t even know their names yet. You have to catch them up to their age group. What people don’t understand is, if you give them a cochlear implant but don’t give them the therapy to recognize sounds, all they’ll hear is white noise, because that part of the brain has atrophied for five years. Our job is to exercise it, get it up and going again. It’s just amazing to watch the process.
The great part for me is, I get to see when they first say their name or their first “Mom” or “Dad.” That’s the first time in five years that they’re actually making a connection with their family. All of a sudden, the mom hears the child’s voice for the first time, when they should have heard it when they were, like, one years old. So the connection is amazing to watch.
We also take care of their siblings. When you’re working with low-income families, they have to take two or three buses to get to the program. They can’t leave their siblings at home, so we also have a special room for them where we provide tutors and counseling. Sometimes the siblings feel left out. They don’t get to have their life because everything’s being arranged to accommodate the sibling with special needs. So now it’s become a little community. In the deaf world and the American Sign Language (ASL) world, there’s a culture. But there’s not a culture for kids in the middle. Even for me, hearing people see me as deaf because I wear hearing aids and have a speech impediment. People who are deaf see me as hearing because I use my voice. There’s no safe place in the middle.
Cooper: Your voice that you’re using, I remember Miss America, Heather—
Buckley: Heather Whitestone.
Cooper: —how when she used her voice, she was criticized and beaten up by people within that advocacy group who didn’t want her. The thought is that if you’re deaf and you have the voice and you can speak, you’re no longer considered ASL deaf.
Buckley: Right! And the sad thing is, it really shouldn’t make a difference. It’s really just the hearing loss. When it comes to deafness, it’s about communication. How are you going to choose to communicate? I don’t care if you sign, mime or write it. All I care is that you respect people’s choices and how they choose to communicate. It’s not for you to tell me that I’m not “deaf enough.” You get a lot of that: “You’re not deaf enough.” I say, “Well, apparently I’m tall enough. I’m taller than most people.” But it’s that you don’t judge people. It’s not for me to say to somebody, “You’re not seeing good enough.” It’s not my place. Just respect people’s choices in how they communicate. Deafness is a culture.
A lot of my kids at my school, as they get older, learn sign language. They learn it because they’re confused. They don’t know which world they belong in. But it’s great. It’s just a matter of picking up a second language for them.
But if you’re going to have a $100,000 surgery of equipment in your head, the least you can do is learn how to talk. You know what I mean? These kids, my God, the technology! They hear better than hearing people, I think. It’s amazing. And before you know it, you would never know they had a hearing loss because of their speech. It’s so clear and articulate. It’s amazing what the technology’s going through.
Cooper: I mentioned earlier that you sound like a New Yorker.
Buckley: I know. I sound like I’m from New York, with a bad attitude. So get over it! (laughs)
Cooper: It sounds like a great program you’re working with. Do you know Ashley Fiolek? She’s the fastest woman in motocross.
Cooper: She’s been writing a column for ABILITY Magazine for about 10 years. When we first met her, she was a teenager, and hadn’t had much experience in writing. Her writing includes a lot of exclamation points and a lot of symbols —
Buckley: I’m the same way, I admit. I call it “deaf writing.” I’m serious, especially if you’re raised with ASL, because like, if I told you in English, “My bicycle is broken,” in ASL it’s “Bike my broke.” So it’s backwards. It’s kind of like Spanish. So you really can’t write English if you do ASL. You have to learn English. But I have a problem with the same thing. In ASL, everything’s visual. If I say “sit,” “stand,” “dance,” the signing is all visual. We don’t have “he” or “she.” We point to the person, or we sign their name. So we don’t have “if,” “but,” “when,” “where.” We just flow in our sentences because we know it’s supposed to be there somewhere.
I wrote my book and it was all one big paragraph. I didn’t know when it was supposed to end. (laughs) And they said, “Man, what the hell is she trying to say now?”
Cooper : She’s saying “bike”!
Buckley: (laughs) I hate writing. But I do it.
Cooper: And yet you’re writing a book?
Buckley: I’m writing my other book, With a Lift. Yup, that’s what I’m doing.
Cooper: How far are you into the writing?
Buckley: I’ve got all my chapters. I’m doing outlines on what I want to put in each chapter. I’m working on all that. It’s pretty good.
Cooper: You had said something to me, years and years ago, about the first time you heard laughter, that you would feel vibrations on stage during stand-up—
Buckley: When I first started out, the quality of hearing aids was nothing like they are today. I would play off people’s faces, and I would wear tennis shoes, so I could feel the vibration off the stage. That way I could do my timing. And then, when I got another pair of hearing aids, I was at another comedy club when I heard the laughter. At first, I was like, “That’s loud!” But no, I stood there, and I almost started crying, because I realized that I was receiving acceptance at the same time. You talk and you get a reward back from your audience. But I never go on stage to make people laugh. I really go on stage to share, and if they should laugh, that’s a gift that’s given back.
Cooper: I haven’t tried doing stand-up.
Buckley: Yeah, they’d probably tell you to lie down.
Cooper: I thought you had gotten a cochlear implant?
Buckley: No. Almost every year, for a while, I was getting new ones. And, literally, every year there’s something new they can do, except do windows. The technology is really good. I don’t know how to explain the gratitude I feel about the technology, because I get to watch my kids go from absolutely nothing to talking within 10 weeks. It’s hard work, but they’re amazing.
Cooper: How many years have you been involved in the program?
Buckley: 21 years.
Cooper: So that means you’ve seen those students go on to regular colleges?
Buckley: Every one of my kids. We have a 100 percent rate of high school graduation and on to college and college graduates. We are the only program that works with school-age kids. Most people, for deaf services, work with them from about three to five years of age, but after that they’re on their own. They may send them into public schools. Even the government thinks, “OK, they got hearing devices. They’re fixed.” No. It’s work! Some insurance companies don’t pay for hearing aids because they consider it cosmetic, and the government won’t pay for all kinds of education. They pay for deaf signing, because deaf and signing go together. So our kids are really lost in the middle.
When we fund raise for No Limits, we put on walkathons, galas—anything we can. We have a large waiting list of people waiting to get in, but we can only take in X amount, according to our income.
Cooper: What do you think about Gallaudet University?
Buckley: Gallaudet is the school for people who are deaf and for ASL deaf students. I remember speaking at Rochester Institute and a young man asked, “What do you call yourself? Deaf? Hard of hearing? Hearing-impaired?” I said, “Kathy.” Why do I have to put a label on myself? I don’t go around saying I have brown hair. I don’t say I am six foot tall. I’m Kathy. That’s my first name. I’m not going to associate myself with my challenges—or my successes. Even when people say, “I’m a comedian.” I’m not a comedian. I’m a person who performs comedy. But I’m still Kathy first. I don’t like labels. I don’t like, “You are this, this, and this.” Then you’ve got to live up to those labels.
But when I was there, they looked at me like, “Oh.” They didn’t realize because it’s “I’m deaf, I’m proud.” I don’t say, “I’m Kathy, I have brown eyes. I’m proud.” I’m proud when I do something nice for somebody. That makes me feel good, that I would have the heart to see that somebody else needs help. To me, that’s the kind of stuff I’m proud of, when I show a good heart.