The crack of a bat, the bouncing of a ball, and a cheering crowd—all are examples of fundamental sounds that give life to sports. But what if hearing isn't an option for young athletes?
About three of every 1,000 children in the United States are born with a detectable level of hearing loss in one or both ears,1 making the issue of inclusivity more relevant than ever. Speech and communication problems for children with hearing impairment prevent their inclusion in social activities, including sports.2
Participation in sports has been proven to increase the quality of life of people with disabilities. Multiple studies have also shown that sports lower the stress levels of deaf or hard-of-hearing adolescents.3 In terms of physical benefits, hard-of-hearing children who participate in sports have significantly better dynamic balance and motor skills.4 Among these athletes is high school varsity player Noah Syer, who was born with hearing loss. While growing up in an active family, Syer started taking an interest in sports at the age of 4. He is the shortstop of his high school's baseball team and runs cross-country. For years, Syer experienced discomfort with his hearing aids while playing sports.
“When I was younger, my hearing aids were much bigger that I'd have to take them out to put on the helmet,” said Syer. “Now, they're much smaller, so it's easier to put the helmet over. But for cross-country [running], I take them out, or else they'll fall out of my ears.”
Fortunately for Syer and other young athletes with hearing loss, recent research and technological advancements promise to address the challenges they face, both socially and physically.
Sporting competitions give people the opportunity to connect with teammates, especially when teams travel for tournaments or games.4 This strengthens their self-identity and enhances their self-esteem. When working with young patients with hearing loss who are engaged in sports, audiologists play an important role in helping these young athletes work on their self-advocacy skills. This includes helping athletes feel comfortable speaking with their coaches and teammates about their hearing loss and what they need for better communication during games and practices. Hearing care professionals can also work with team coaches on awareness and education.
“Most coaches are experts in their sport, but they would benefit from additional knowledge on how to work with an athlete who has hearing loss and what those athletes may need to help with communication,” noted Julie Norin, AuD, a licensed audiologist and the director of audiology at the Hearing and Speech Agency (HASA). “Schools could work with educational audiologists to arrange an in-service to educate coaches on hearing loss and various techniques that may provide them with the tools they need to better communicate with their athletes.”
Advising coaches to use multiple channels to get their message across is another way to include children with hearing loss in sports, according to an ASHA article by Erin Stauder, PhD. The article, titled “Including Youth with Communication Disabilities in Sports,” recommends creating alliances with those in the sports community to start the conversation on inclusivity.5
Luckily for Syer, his teammates and coaches offer a strong support system both on and off the field. “I think I'm just like a normal teenager,” said Syer. “It's not a thing that people really just notice. Sometimes people will ask about it, but only if they've known me for long enough. Other than that, my teammates don't really notice them.”
REACHING OUT TO THE COMMUNITY
Even with hearing devices, young athletes with hearing loss still experience significant challenges while playing. They may not hear their coaches giving directions from the sidelines or referees calling plays from farther down the field. Norin recommends encouraging athletes to remind their coaches and teammates to speak clearly and to confirm that the referees are aware that there is an athlete who has hearing loss.
With the growing number of hard-of-hearing or deaf children participating in sports, various resources for patients have also come into play. If a patient lives in or near a city or fair-sized town, more opportunities for sports participation are available.
For example, the Iowa Baseball Camp for the Deaf (IBCD), a sports camp sponsored by the Iowa Cubs and other donors, teaches hard-of-hearing and deaf children the fundamentals of baseball through a free half-day camp. Iowa Cubs players have also made guest appearances at the camp in the past several years. The Southwest Deaf Optimist Club (SWDOC) and the Arizona Desert Fire Basketball (AZDF) were organized to enhance the basketball skills of deaf kids and create a positive environment for young people.
“There are many ways to compensate for hearing loss and accommodate hearing devices during athletic play,” said Norin. “It's always important for anyone with hearing loss to advocate for their needs, especially when playing sports, but it's also important for patients who are interested in participating in sports to work closely with their audiologist to develop a plan that will work best for their individual situation.”
EMBRACING NEW TECHNOLOGY
To successfully play in team sports, an athlete must be able to communicate with fellow players and take directions from coaches and referees. A multitude of relatively inexpensive sensory devices have been developed to assist hard-of-hearing athletes. For instance, a device for hockey players places a blue light in the hockey helmet near the dominant eye. When the light, controlled by the referee, flickers, it serves as a signal that the play is over or that the player needs to step off the ice.6 Another form of an assistive device is a wrist- or armband that vibrates when given the signal from the transmitter. The transmitter can be used by both coaches and referees.
With the right adjustments and recommendations, audiologists can help their patient get off the bench and onto the field. Depending on the sport that the patient plays, a new hearing aid may be a viable option. Hearing aids with a higher ingress protection (IP) are better protected against water, dirt, and sand. For sports such as football or baseball where a helmet may press uncomfortably on their BTE/RIC hearing aid, audiologists can work with the patients and their parents to alter the helmet's design. If a patient is playing a contact sport, audiologists can recommend using a clip that attaches to the hearing aid and their clothing to prevent the hearing aid from falling out.7
To combat sweat and moisture, audiologists can recommend that the athlete use a hearing aid dryer kit, which acts as a mini-dehumidifier and pulls moisture out of the hearing device electronically or using desiccant packs. The athlete would remove his or her hearing device and its battery and place the device in a hearing aid dryer overnight. Using an electric or non-electric hearing aid dryer can help preserve the battery and life span of the young athlete's hearing aid. Headbands are also useful for keeping excess sweat from saturating the hearing aid.
Keeping up with the latest and most useful technology can be difficult. However, Tina Childress, AuD, notes in the article, “Today's Tech Helps People with Hearing Loss,” that audiologists can access a vast number of resources right from their smartphone.8 Many online communities and forums are intended for professionals to ask questions and collaborate. Social media is another great resource for reaching out to other professionals or follow manufacturers to keep up-to-date on the latest news.
“Technology changes constantly,” Childress wrote. “But making the effort to keep up with what's out there means you better serve your students or patients for a variety of needs.”
New discoveries are being made constantly, reshaping the way young athletes take part in sports and succeed in doing so. Over the years, many professional athletes have been successful in managing their hearing loss, including NBA's Lance Allred and NHL's Jim Kyte, among others. These athletes also serve as deaf and hard-of-hearing role models for young athletes who face similar difficulties. Syer noted that Derrick Coleman, who won a Super Bowl with the Seattle Seahawks, has made an impression on him.
“There was a Duracell ad a few years ago about him wearing hearing aids and going from undrafted to a professional athlete,” recalled Syer. “It was just eye-opening for me. It showed me that even with hearing loss, one can still have a future in sports.”
1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Identifying infants with hearing loss-United States, 1999-2007. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep
. 59(8): 220-223.
2. Constantinescu-Sharpe, G., Phillips, R. L., Davis, A., Dornan, D., & Hogan, A. (2017). Social inclusion for children with hearing loss in listening and spoken Language early intervention: An exploratory study. BMC Pediatrics
, 17(1). doi:10.1186/s12887-017-0823-y.
3. Aslan, S. (2019). Perceived Stress Level and Sports Participation in Deaf Adolescents and Young Adults. Journal of Education and Training Studies
, 7(3), 197. doi:10.11114/jets.v7i3.3974.
4. Roult, R., Brunet, I., Belley-Ranger, É., Carbonneau, H., & Fortier, J. (2015). Inclusive Sporting Events in Schools for Youth With Disabilities in Quebec: Social, Educational, and Experiential Roles of These Activities According to the Interviewed Practitioners. SAGE Open
6. Hartman, E., Houwen, S., & Visscher, C. (2011). Motor Skill Performance and Sports Participation in Deaf Elementary School Children. Adapted Physical Activity Quarterly
, 28(2), 132-145. doi:10.1123/apaq.28.2.132