It’s Deaf Awareness Week 2021 (3-9 May), and the SW/S Blog is joining the efforts to raise awareness and promote equality. Did you know that in the UK, 1 in 6 adults face deafness or hearing loss? Yet despite being the second most common disability, the invisible nature of deafness makes it easy for the community to be overlooked or forgotten.
Deaf sports, however, have a longstanding history. The first Deaflympics was organised in 1924 (36 years before the first official Paralympic Games) and is considered the second-oldest multi-sport event in history. ‘The Deaflympic Games have been around for a long time and the history we have from that and the pride of that is all part of the community. That is something you can’t erase, it will always be there’, explains Valerie Copenhagen, tennis player and Executive Director of UK Deaf Sport.
Despite its history, in many aspects, the Deaflympics has still not caught up to the status of the Paralympics, let alone the Olympics. ‘Is the sporting scene accepting of athletes with disabilities? In most cases, yes. Is the sporting scene accepting of athletes with deafness as a disability? No’, exclaims swimmer Danielle Joyce when asked about belonging.
Danielle at 25 is a double Deaflympic gold medallist, World Champion, European Champion, 10-times World Record Holder and Scottish Sportswoman of the Year in 2015. Having started swimming as a toddler, she quite literally has spent most of her life in the pool. ‘I feel deafness is overlooked when it comes to being a disability in sport, and don’t think people realise the difficulty that comes with being an athlete and being deaf.’
Her frustration is justified. The Deaflympics GB Team has no government funding, despite the UK being ranked number eight at the all-time Deaflympic medal table. A group of exceptional people, completely sidelined by their own government. ‘Why does the Paralympic team get government funding, media coverage and support, yet the Deaflympic team doesn’t get a single penny?’ Danielle asks, hoping to make sense of it.
The problem is, of course, not the money invested in our Paralympic team but rather lack of support for the deaf athletes in the same GB colours. ‘Funding is important’, Valerie says, ‘because athletes need to get the support that they need, whether it’s coaching one-to-one, or court-time or physio-time or additional support around nutrition. Funding, yes, gets them to the competition.’
But above that, she continues, we must see funding as a long-term safety net rather than a quick fix for the next competition. Something that needs planning years in advance to ensure no missed opportunities. Exposure, recognition and media coverage, which often come hand-in-hand with money, are also important – and currently lacking in deaf sports.
‘It’s so important that people are deaf-aware and are deaf-friendly. We didn’t choose to be deaf so it’s not our fault. So don’t punish us for something we have no control over’, Danielle opens up. ‘People seem to just think the only thing we are slightly disadvantaged at is the starting gun, but there are plenty of other areas where we are at a disadvantage.
‘For example, if you listen to athletes post-race speaking to the media, they frequently talk about the roar of the crowd and the atmosphere, saying that’s what helped bring them home and get through their race. As deaf athletes, we don’t have that. When the going gets tough, it’s us alone with our thoughts. We don’t hear the roar of the crowd, our coach screaming at us. It’s you and you alone out there in the sporting world.’
Deaf and hard of hearing athletes also face problems which perhaps wouldn’t even cross our minds as hearing people. Valerie and her team at UK Deaf Sport have been researching the difficulties of deaf girls and women to better serve their needs.
‘1 in 5 deaf people say that communication is a challenge. Not understanding the coach, instructor, or their peers, if they are in a training environment. Another challenge is finding where the opportunities are. We live in a world where everything should be freely accessible online or through the use of social media but it’s incredibly hard to find out where the opportunities are. We also need to do more about educating and empowering hearing coaches to feel confident and not be afraid and if somebody turns up to their session who uses BSL (British Sign Language) that they could also take part in that session.’
UK Deaf Sport is working hard to solve these problems and gather more information about what the deaf community needs to feel confident staying active. Danielle is the Scottish National Deaf Children Society’s ambassador and a UK Sport ambassador who also writes for the NDCS Blog to educate and empower.
And what can you do to help you ask? Danielle has advice for everyone: ‘Get out there and wear your hearing devices with pride! Teach your friends 5 signs. Learn 5 signs yourself. Post it on your social media. Let the deaf community be heard. Pun intended.’