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Including the deaf

I had a question put to me after my article last week which prompted me to do some research and gather other relevant information. With the Olympics now a memory and the Paralympics coming up in another week or so there are some who are definitely looking forward to catching a glimpse of those games online or via some other cable channel. However, after pointing out the different groups which the Paralympics are divided into, I was asked where the deaf fit in.

With the categories being persons with visual impairments, persons with physical disabilities, amputee athletes, people with cerebral palsy, people with spinal cord injuries and athletes with a physical disability that are not included in the categories mentioned above, you would truly have to ask where persons with a “sensory disability” — deafness — come into play in the Paralympics. The answer to that is they don’t.

The deaf have always found themselves in somewhat of a peculiar situation when it comes to being defined by others. They themselves know exactly who they are and are very proud of it, but how others perceive them has always been a problem and they’ve tried and continue to do so to this day, to show that regardless of what others say and think, they are capable of doing anything they jolly well want to do.

As I’m sure many of you have never heard, allow me to introduce you to the Deaflympics. It may sound foreign but it isn’t; not by a long shot. The Deaflympics is actually an International Olympic Committee sanctioned event just like the Olympics and the Paralympics, and deaf athletes get the opportunity to compete at an elite level. The Deaflympics are held every four years and is the longest running multi-sport event excluding the Olympics themselves. The first games, held in Paris in 1924, were also the first ever international sporting event for athletes with a disability.

In order to qualify for the games, athletes must have a hearing loss of at least 55 db in their “better ear”. Hearing aids, cochlear implants and the like are not allowed to be used in competition, to place all athletes on the same level. Other examples of ways the games vary from hearing competitions are the manner in which they are officiated.

To address the issue of Deaflympians not being able to be guided by sounds, certain sports use alternative methods of commencing the game. For example, the football referees wave a flag instead of blowing a whistle; on the track, races are started by using a light, instead of a starter’s pistol, and it is also customary for spectators not to cheer or clap, but rather to wave — usually with both hands.

It is absolutely clear that the deaf are serious about sports just like any other athlete out there, and as a matter of fact, started the Deaflympics Winter Games in 1949. While these sports have been around for some time, they have been gaining more popularity worldwide and more and more persons have been coming on board as a show of solidarity and support.

There are still many misconceptions about the deaf and which “category” they should fall under as it pertains to disability, and what these games have done is to bring the deaf not only to participate in games which is their primary mission, but form an environment where they are 100 per cent socially accepted and are not seen as either linguistically or intellectually inferior.

I found it rather amusing when looking for athlete pictures of past Deaflympics Games to realise that it wouldn’t make any difference since they are all normal looking pictures of athletes participating in every event since deafness is unseen.

The next staging of the Deaflympics will be in Hungary in 2013 and some of the disciplines which will be showcased will be track and field, bowling, badminton, tennis, wrestling, swimming, beach volleyball, basketball and judo. The Winter Deaflympics will be held in Vancouver in 2015 and there you will see exciting sports such as alpine skiing, snowboarding and ice hockey.

Of course many people have asked why the deaf can’t be included in the “normal” Olympics since there exclusion is based purely on communication. I believe they answered their own question. Communication is vital for anything to be successful and there are no exceptions to the rule when it comes to any international event where hearing is an absolute necessity.

All parties must be able to respond under the same rules and guidelines and no one is given an exemption of any kind. You either qualify by their standards or you don’t.

Fear not though. While there are some deaf athletes who still dream of a chance at being a part of the “recognised” Olympics by either proving that their hearing loss is not profound and can therefore hear whistles, pistols and buzzers since their decibel loss falls within a particular range, they have been showing their prowess in games designed specifically for them.

While I’m in total support of the Deaflympics and all that it stands for, I still see opportunity for those whose hearing loss are not as severe and can use a hearing aid to their benefit once it falls under certain guidelines and stipulations. I’m in total support of inclusion once we find a way for it to work for everyone.

In any event, the staging of the Deaflympics is a symbol of pride and excellence for a community who not only continues to fight for recognition in every aspect of their lives, but who is content to stand alone and prove to the world that together they can accomplish anything!

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