Sport31st July 2014

Hearing Loss, Sport and Integration

Discussing the Mainstream, Paralympics and Deaf Sport Conundrum

by Sarah Lawrence

Despite the 'Silent Games' being introduced a long time ago in recognition that deaf people face both physical difficulty around balance and hearing and a lack of access to coaching due to communication difficulties, little progress has been made in many countries around valuing and supporting Deaf sport. There are exceptions, such as in Russia where significant finances are made available for sporting success, but these are the exception, not the rule.

For me, the lack of investment means that Deaf people still face barriers to their inclusion, either through the cost of participation, or because of problems with communication, with the legacy of barriers to entry meaning there are far too few deaf coaches across a wide spread of sports. For clarity, I don't think that Deaf coaches are a requirement for deaf sporting success and participation, effective communication is, but more deaf coaches would make it easier to get our deaf youngsters involved, confident that their communication needs will be met.

As a deaf youngster I was pretty confident and was prepared to throw myself energetically into any physical challenge. Like many Deaf people I was determined not to let my deafness hold me back. Despite my positive attitude and sporting ability I was never able to find a sport or sports club that greeted me with open arms and helped me go from social competitor to a competitive one. As such I never fitted into the mainstream, despite my best efforts. It was not until I got involved with my local Deaf Club that I remember taking part in lots of different competitive activities, including indoor games, and travelling all over the country to other Deaf clubs. That was a great time in my life, meeting new people and learning the different signing dialects through those travels. That really was an opportunity for Deaf youngsters and young adults to get involved in a wide range of activities and take part in Deaf life.

I also learned about Deaf sport through my Deaf Club and went on to join the Wales Deaf Golf Association in 2001. I consider the development of Deaf sports clubs and teams around the country to be a positive one. None is well supported financially and they usually exist because of the tremendous efforts of a small number of volunteers. In recent times, many of those national and local clubs have tried to professionalise what they do so that they can develop further and provide even better opportunities for Deaf people to enjoy competitive sport including competing on the international stage. However, the problem with trying to attract financial support is that the money will usually follow success. Rarely is sponsorship or investment provided purely for altruistic reasons.

For me, this is a difficult time for Deaf sport and one that requires careful and thoughtful stewardship. My concerns are two fold. The first is that there is only a finite amount of money that will be available, and this raises the ugly head of one Deaf sport trying to outdo another in trying to secure that funding. In comparison to the investment in the mainstream and Paralympic sports, the amounts available are woeful and any attitude to divide and conquer will surely lead to some sports losing out and sporting opportunities being lost.

My second concern surrounds the level of deafness to maintain Deaf sport being exactly that, providing opportunities for Deaf people because they struggle to secure sporting opportunities in the mainstream. We are used to the international standard of a minimum of 55-decibel loss in the best ear. The vast majority of Deaf sports are maintaining this standard. However, in my own sport of golf there are murmurings around trying to reduce this to bring in a greater number of players. For me, this is the wrong solution for the problem around the number of participants. What we need to do is find a way to promote our sports to all qualifying individuals, opening pathways for children to follow, access to deaf aware coaching and running 'come and try' sessions.

I recently met a lady who has been Deaf since birth. I am guessing at her age but I would estimate she is 55. She is a very talented golfer still playing to single figures. This lady was brought up in a hearing world, had a successful career in a hearing world and socialises in a hearing world. She faces the same issues I do on the golf course, but her life's path has meant she has had no exposure to Deaf Clubs, Deaf life or Deaf culture at all. This is great of course, but it means she was totally unaware that Deaf sports exist. She did not know England have a very successful Deaf Golf Association and that there are Deaf World Golf Championships. We need to do more to raise awareness across the board.

Whilst golf are considering making changes to the qualifying criteria, some sports such as rugby have already done so. To play for Wales or England Deaf Rugby, the requirement is for a player to have a minimum of an average of 50-decibel loss of hearing. This means that some players have perfect hearing in one ear and 50-decibel loss in the other. Go to watch an international between these two teams and you will see players talking very normally to each other with communication causing very little difficulty. Rugby at this level attracts very few Deaf signing players and the officials no longer need to use a white flag to indicate a break in play, the whistle works perfectly well.

Speaking to some of the first players to play Deaf rugby in the UK, they consider the pursuit of greater numbers and of course on-field success is quickly making Deaf rugby closed to Deaf BSL users, those players facing many of the same communication barriers that they face in trying to join mainstream rugby teams. In speaking to some of the players involved today, they have no connection to Deaf life or Deaf culture and many do not consider themselves Deaf, except when it comes to the opportunity to represent their country by playing for the national Deaf team.

For me, this also presents a wider problem when it comes to the whole debate on Deaf sport and whether it should be accommodated under separate competition within such things as the Olympics, Commonwealth, European and World championships. If the deaf rugby stars can walk off the field and have an easy voice interview with the media about the game, what does that say to people who do not understand that rugby has different Deaf qualifying criteria to most other sport.

For me, it is critical that Deaf people hold the most influential and decision-making positions in overseeing Deaf sports. We need to avoid ill-informed decisions being taken by well-meaning people who do not know why Deaf sport started in the first place, or understand extent of the physical and social barriers. Deaf sport must be available to all, with the ability to communicate with all Deaf people being of central importance. If Deaf sports teams start to discriminate against Deaf people, we really have lost the plot, and some Deaf people think we are very close to that with some sports already.

Article by Sarah Lawrence

posted in Deaf Sport / Sport

31st July 2014