Deaflympics bring awareness
February 14, 2007
As the 16th annual Deaflympics wrapped up a week of competition on Saturday, they hoped they did more than just ski a few good runs and make a few new friends.
With the Games in the States for the first time since 1975, the return of deaf competition was also a chance to bring deaf awareness to the forefront.
Deaf athletes don’t perceive their hearing loss to be a disability in the same way as the blind, since it doesn’t affect how they perform physically. Therefore, they don’t participate in the Paralympics. The distinction makes sense, although they don’t share the same television coverage, national exposure and financial support the Paralympians enjoy. Deaflympic athlete Austin Nelson thinks better exposure would help the organization all around.
"I think it should be more known around the country," Nelson said. "The athletes are good."
In fact, many of them spend much of their time with highly competitive hearing teams. The Deaflympics provide them the rare opportunity to enjoy their sport within their community.
And that community is a large part of the Deaflympics. Deafness is more than a physical challenge, it is a culture, said countless athletes. Walking into any of the Salt Lake or Park City venues made that assertion very clear. A hearing person could not have the same experience or sharing the same camaraderie.
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"The difference is the same as any two cultures," said Will Garrow, the snowboarding coach for the American team.
And like any culture, there are many different types of people within it. Lisa Tempesta, United States Deaf Skiing and Snowboarding Association director of snowboarding, says that the hearing impaired were raised within or out of the "culturally deaf experience." Born hard of hearing herself, but surrounded by deaf siblings, she has been a part of both worlds, but identifies herself as not being culturally deaf, because she prefers to communicate verbally. When she lost her hearing completely in early adulthood she chose the cochlear implant to restore most of her hearing and continued functioning mostly by spoken communication.
The choice to use the cochlear implant, a hearing device that corrects the hearing deaf people do have, is only used by some, mostly those who have a desire or need to communicate fully in the hearing world. But Tempesta explains for others, especially those born deaf, the addition of strange sounds is scary, basically replacing something that deaf people never missed in the first place.
"The first time I was like, ‘What was that sound?’" Tempesta said about chewing and sniffling noises.
Others think that the communication between deaf and hearing should be a mutual effort.
For Nelson, a college student and skier at the University of Denver, communication is far more difficult at the Deaflympics than in the hearing world. The bronze medallist in the super G barely makes the cut of 55 decibels worth of hearing loss needed to qualify for the Games. With hearing aids, he is and has always been, a member of the hearing community. In his second Deaflympics he often becomes an outsider looking in among his deaf teammates.
"It’s very different," Nelson said. "The deaf culture thinks hearing people have the disability. They see it as the only thing they can’t do is hear."
He says on the hill the biggest difference is a lack of radio communication. When he skis with the university club team, coaches tell him how to improve or attack the hill in his helmet. At the Deaflympics, he must rely on sign language a language he doesn’t know very well.
But the Deaflympics are still a special experience for Nelson. He enjoys the support of the deaf community as they shake their hands in the air in applause after a good run and the opportunity to ski for his country is priceless.
"It makes me proud skiing for the U.S.," Nelson said. "It’s a once-in-a-lifetime deal."
Although each participating nation brings their own version of sign language, much like the hearing world, there is an international sign language, with universal signs everyone can understand. Nelson says that makes communication within the deaf world a lot easier than in the hearing world.
It’s much the same for Matt Gustafson, a snowboarder from Minneapolis, who is hearing impaired. His coach, Will Garrow can hear, which makes his adjustment less challenging than that of Nelson.
"I’m not submerged in the deaf community," he admits.
And switching over is not common or easy. With some hearing, it is much easier for both young men to just remain in the hearing world, rather than take on another identity and being as a deaf person. As a snowboarder, Gustafson values being able to hear the snow to make key turns and try difficult tricks.
Garrow has embraced an entirely different experience. He can hear, but was one of the first to participate in the hearing undergraduate program at Galludet University, a historically-deaf institution. He says he identifies far better with the deaf culture and is fluent in American Sign Language.
"It’s its own language. It’s a language that’s accessible to everyone," Garrow said.
He said deaf culture is different at its core, because the center of being is different. They are completely reliant on sight. Lights flash when the phone rings, homes are set up to keep everything in front of the owner’s line of sight and hand-held text messaging devices are used rather than cell phones.
He says that his experiences at Galludet and beyond have taught him how misunderstood the deaf community has been. He says for many decades, the deaf were seen as people that needed to be fixed.
Even now, many of them say there is a fear of people that can’t hear.
"Don’t be afraid of deaf people," said Nicole Brill, a member of the U.S. women’s alpine team. "A lot of people see us as being different and are not sure of what to do. Don’t be afraid of us."
But like many minority groups, he says that this discrimination helped the deaf to develop their own language, culture and distinct identity.
"Deaf people are proud of how they can live life and overcome challenge easily," Nelson added.
Kelley Duran, winner of multiple alpine medals, says it goes beyond that.
"We’re glad to be deaf," she says. "We’re part of a community."
Garrow also hopes that as deaf awareness grows, that people recognize deaf contributions. He cites sign language, a different look into the way the human mind works and how relationships are built as unique perspectives the deaf community.
"They’re equal on every basis," Garrow said. "I look at what they provided to society."
But within all the different types of deaf and hearing impaired people, they all must function in a hearing world.
Duran says that most of the time she must live in the hearing world, even though she is profoundly deaf, and a chance to be in the majority is very exciting for her.
"When I race in the hearing world, I’m not that involved with the racers. It’s pretty hard," said the Vermont native.
For her the best part is the coaching. In the hearing world she doesn’t get a lot of feedback, but with deaf coaches the praise and criticism is nonstop.
Brill shares the sentiment. Her weekends in her home state of Nevada are spent skiing with her hearing Masters team, so the opportunity to work with deaf people is very valuable.
"With the deaf team, you’re more part of the team," Brill said. You are more involved with what’s going on. I feel like I’m more involved in the deaf sport than the hearing sport."
She says in her Masters’ experiences she is often asking for help and relying on people and needs more patience from her coaches and teammates.
Ryan Kelly, a summer Deaflympian says that he never misses a Deaflympics for the rare opportunity to communicate freely.
"It is now a must for me to attend the Deaflympics," said Kelly in a statement written on his handheld text messaging system. "I feel there’s almost no communication barrier. You don’t need an interpreter like in the hearing Olympics. It’s like one big family, even though we live apart."
Cheryl Hager, general manger for the U.S. Hockey Team, said that deaf hockey provides a whole different look at deaf athletes. On the ice, hockey culture, she says, supersedes everything. She hopes that all hockey fans recognize them as hockey players, pure and simple, and judge them based on their ability.
The deaf team plays positional hockey, so every knows where they are supposed to be and players use an interpreter on the bench. They all skate on hearing teams in their daily lives, but have been playing together for the past three years at certain times throughout the year to prepare for the Games at the Stan Mikita Hockey School for the Hearing Impaired in Chicago, Ill. She says the extra preparation allows the team to learn how to be aware of one another and learn to communicate.
"On a team, it’s more difficult," Hager explained.
Tempesta says that as the Deaflympics continue to move forward and the technology improves, some decisions will have to be made to bridge the gaps between the hard of hearing, profoundly deaf and those using technology to improve their hearing
"The Deaflympics, the people who founded the organization, are deaf people that use sign language as the main for of communication," Tempesta said. "Total communication is exciting and at the same time controversial."