Deafness in Sport by Jennifer Wilson

I was born profoundly deaf, and enjoy life as much as the next person. I do think it is fascinating that the country is becoming seemingly more accessible with their curricular and non-curricular activities, whether sporty or not (even though I do not consider myself a sporty person, or attend any sports events).


But in my view, there is still much work to be done. Perhaps the reason I do not participate in sporting events and clubs is because, although I seem reasonably confident as a deaf person on the outside, I still fear marginalisation and belittling. There have been times where I have tried to get involved with a society, only to be told I must be placed in a section designed for people who have limited knowledge of that particular activity (even if I do have knowledge!!), or worse isolation, because either I would distract other students, due to my deafness OR I am – apparently – incapable of understanding simple instruction.

This brings me to realise that people sometimes treat disability as if it is black and white. Where deafness is concerned, people assume that we ALL must be BSL users and therefore unable to communicate using speech. This is not the case; deafness is very complex, as there are many different varieties of deafness, and deaf people use many different methods of communication. Yes, a lot of deaf people use BSL/SSE as their main form of communication, but not all of them do. People assume we must join a ‘deaf only’ group, and we simply must be a BSL user because we are deaf. Everyone is different. Some people may have used the same language since they started communicating, some people may have switched to a different communication method at some point in their lives. This does not make them unable to communicate, it just means they PREFER to communicate in a certain way. It is up to us how we want to communicate, and we do try our hardest to make things easier for you to communicate with us. Please try and meet us halfway.

However, in the rare event that I have been able to join in with the so-called ‘normal’ people in sporting events, belittling still rears its ugly head. Either the instructor will shout out to everyone that there is a deaf person in the group, and to treat me with respect, or they will ask me in front of everyone how I want them to communicate with me. (Cue feeling smaller than a dust mite). I’m all for being treated with respect, but I do not want people to be “especially nice” to be just because my ears do not work! Without meaning to be crude, how would a ‘normal’ person feel when participating in their favourite hobbies, if they were treated every day as if they are about to die?

Whatever happened to customer confidentiality? Disabled people are perfectly capable of feelings, and consider being asked in detail (without permission) about our disability in front of a massive group, (especially with people we have never met) quite as rude and embarrassing as asking someone how they got that massive scar on their forehead, or why they are so cross-eyed, pointing their deformity out for the world to know. The best action to take would be for the organiser/instructor to e-mail and ask beforehand, or take the deaf person aside, and ask them what their preferred method of communication or help (if needed) would be. Deaf people do NOT wish for “special treatment”, no matter how kind people think they are being. It would be much less marginalising for organisers, instructors and fellow students to treat us just the same as everybody else. If we want the other students to be aware of our disability, we will either ask the instructor to tell them, or tell them ourselves.

This brings me to another more complex problem, regarding other students. If they decide to be accepting and offer their help, fantastic! But more often than not, other peoples’ help can prove to be more of a hindrance. People get so absorbed and fascinated in helping us to communicate, that they actually answer questions for us without our knowledge! This is condescending, if not downright dangerous. Think of it this way – would you answer for a ‘normal’ person, if they were about to sleepwalk into a busy road? Would you answer for a ‘normal’ person, when asked what they wanted for lunch, then accidentally order them something they are allergic to? The point being, although we may need some extra time or help for communication, we are perfectly capable of independent thought, and are able to make our own decisions, and would much rather be able to answer for ourselves.

It would be extremely beneficial for sporting companies and the general population if more awareness was raised about disability, by organising compulsory disability awareness training, and organising more than a select few methods of communication. Some companies only offer telephone communication, which can be difficult and also make deaf people lose their independence. Would you want to be forty years old and have to ask your six-year-old child to phone the leisure centre and ask what time the swimming pool is open?

I am aware that some companies do offer e-mail as a method of communication. The problem with that is that people do not sit at their computer for hours, just waiting for an e-mail. Another potentially problematic part of this is that, if a deaf person was awaiting important information or class times, they would not receive this information until it is regrettably too late.

Companies and societies that claim to be disability/deaf aware do need to take a good hard look at how they are approaching the problem. If they are unsure of whether they are doing the right thing, they do need to find a way to contact deaf people, and ask them how they would want to be treated. Relying on information from an uninformed source can have disastrous consequences in the sense that they have thought up the information for themselves, rather than asked someone who is deaf what the best action to take would be.

Overall – ASK US – NOT other people. We do not get offended when people ask us how we want to be treated or what help we need (if any), but we DO get offended when people ask others for our opinion. Remember, everyone is unique.