A few years back, the Seattle Seahawks signed Derrick Coleman, the National Football League's first deaf offensive player. Wrestler and mixed martial arts fighter Matt Hamill, deaf since birth, is a three-time NCAA Division III national champion, and has competed in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Despite these inspiring success stories, young athletes who are hard of hearing have historically been left out of team sports. Several factors contribute to this, including social and group sensitivities, challenges in understanding team norms, and a lack of resources limiting the size of the support staff. Overlooking these kids can hurt their growth as individuals and athletes, as well as set them up for exclusion in the workplace and other social settings further down the line.
As parents, how do we work with schools and communities to close this gap? How do we establish new allies to help our children develop valuable interpersonal and team skills and encourage a deeper understanding of what defines communication?
BUILD AWARENESS & UNDERSTANDING
An inclusive team environment starts by recognizing that communication isn't one-size-fits-all. When we assume that everyone communicates the same way we do, that's when exclusion happens. Encourage the leaders in your community to educate themselves and develop empathy by remembering these key truths:
- With sensory challenges, each situation or individual is different, and what works for one person might not work for another.
- Consider that someone on the team might be hard of hearing or have attention deficit disorder, autism spectrum disorder, or other sensory challenges.
- Don't write them off. Instead, seek to understand and put yourself in their shoes. It might be different from what you're used to and take a little extra work, but that's what inclusion is all about.
IT'S OKAY TO ASK QUESTIONS
Proactively observe and do your own research. However, the only way for a coach or teammate to know how they can fully support someone is to ask. Out of respect, they may feel they need permission to ask some of those uncomfortable questions. Share these conversation tips with sports coaches:
- Reach out to parents about how to best serve their child.
- Admit that this is unfamiliar territory, affirm that you value their child's contribution to the team, acknowledge them as the expert, and express a willingness to learn.
- Encourage players to ask questions too. Obviously, it's important to be respectful and mindful of context when approaching the conversation, but most people will appreciate the opportunity to have an open dialogue.
ADVOCATE FOR YOUR CHILD'S NEEDS
Resources often dictate the number of support staff available to a coach to accommodate specific player needs. That means you need to let someone know exactly what your child needs. Offer solutions such as:
- identifying a few specific teams to have trained support staff for players with sensory challenges. Resources may be limited to provide consistent support for each team in a league, but there may be enough to provide support for one or two teams.
- showing the coaches/staff how a hearing or assistive listening device works.
ENCOURAGE COMMUNICATION VIA MULTIPLE CHANNELS
Emphasize the need for multichannel communication and offer support to make that happen, whether that's creating visual aids, transcribing, or interpreting. Share these recommendations with coaches:
- After reviewing a game, send a note around to the team recapping what you discussed.
- If you show a video with an audio quality that isn't great, try to provide a transcript so the team members can follow along.
- When you put up plays on the drawing board, attach clear text labels to the different scenarios.
- Face the players when you talk to them.
- Find creative ways to complement visual communication with audio or text-based communication, and vice versa.
Connecting with coaches at school and the community is a critical first step to facilitating an inclusive sports environment. At your child's school, this could look like attending an athletic department meeting for ongoing education with the coaches. In your community, this might mean becoming a coach on your child's team, conducting a training session with coaches, and establishing regular check-ins with the recreation department to create an open line of communication.
These changes require time and energy (on top of what is probably already a busy schedule), so be sure to connect with other parents in your area to take on this cause together. And then, perhaps, we'll start to see more stories like Derrick Coleman and Mike Hamill.