For years comedian Kathy Buckley could not hear the laughs.
They were out there, somewhere beyond the edge of the stage. They were there from the moment she first stepped before an audience wearing a giant, plastic hand cupped to her ear and asked why modern medical technology could not devise a more sophisticated hearing aid.
She could feel the laughs in her feet, in the vibrations of the stage. But she could not hear them.
Ms. Buckley, billed as the first hearing-impaired comedian to achieve national recognition, heard the laughs yesterday at Anne Arundel Community College, where she was the featured speaker in observance of National Disability Awareness Day. In the audience at the Pascal Center for Performing Arts were people in wheelchairs and a contingent of hearing-impaired people who followed Ms. Buckley's banter through a sign-language interpreter.
And thanks to the computerized hearing aid she has used for more than two years, she could hear them all laugh.
"The first time I heard it, it was a tough show to get through," Ms. Buckley said after her hour-long performance. "I just wanted to stand there and cry."
Ms. Buckley, who has appeared at the Kennedy Center and on national television, has since grown accustomed to hearing laughter. In clubs, concerts halls and college campuses across the country, she has been delighting audiences and delivering an inspirational message for the disabled as well as the able-bodied: "There's only one disability in the whole world and that is your attitude."
Well, all right, there is one other thing: "Being sexually frustrated is my handicap. I haven't had a date in three years. I don't know if it's because I haven't heard the phone ring."
But then, if a guy gets amorous and tries kissing her on the ear, he's liable to get electrocuted.
That's her joke, but who knows. It could happen. Most every other awful event that could strike an individual human soul has befallen Ms. Buckley. And in the tradition of stand-up, she stalks comedy at its tragic roots.
"It took me 13 years of speech therapy to learn how to talk so people can understand me," she told her audience. "Now everyone thinks I'm from New York."
She's not. Born outside Cleveland 39 years ago, Ms. Buckley was diagnosed as mentally retarded when she was a girl. The doctors told her parents she had spinal meningitis and would not grow taller than 5-foot-2, and they said she'd be a "slow learner."
"It took them years to find out I was just hearing impaired," the 6-foot-tall Ms. Buckley told the audience. "And they called me slow."
She learned to speak and to read lips, in part because her family refused to accept her disability and refused to learn sign language. The alienation she felt at home was worse outside, in the world of other children. She would offer them stolen money, stolen candy, anything to win their friendship.
"Musical chairs, there's a game for a deaf child," she cracked. "I'm probably the only 5-year-old who got whiplash watching the stupid needle" on the record player.
The hearing impairment was just the beginning, and it is only the most obvious hurdle Ms. Buckley has had to leap in her quest to accept herself and enjoy her life. She tells her audience she suffered childhood sexual abuse and as a teen-ager attempted suicide.
At 20, Ms. Buckley, who now lives in North Hollywood, Calif., was run over by a Jeep on a beach and spent the next two years in and out of a wheelchair, paralyzed by pain.
"The hardest thing about being deaf and in a wheelchair is you endup reading nose hairs all the time."
At 27, she was diagnosed with cancer and underwent surgery. When doctors recommended a second operation because they suspected more cancer, she refused. It was a matter of taking control of her own life, she said. She's been free of cancer for 10 years now.
She found her calling in comedy more than four years ago in California at a stand-up comedy contest staged as a benefit for people with cerebral palsy. She was always wisecracking, and her friends dared her to try her jokes on an audience. After studying videotapes of comedians, she decided to give it a shot.
In the competition with many more experienced comedians, she finished fourth. She was a hit. They laughed. She could feel it in her feet.