Reema Patel: Why we should get behind the Deaflympics and the GB Deaf Women’s football team

Posted on August 28, 2012

I think that there are two signature emblems to the X-lympics – as I like to call them (the Olympics; the Paralympics; the Deaflympics). The first official emblem is the flame. The second informal emblem – and in some ways, more pertinent to this article, is the starting gun.

The relationship between all three forms of these games is, if mainstream media reporting is anything to go by, slightly uneasy. So the first open question we need to ask to understand this relationship is – what’s in common between them – and what’s different?

The distinction between the Paralympics, the Olympics and the Deaflympics is that the starting point or the starting gun – being who we are – is often inevitably different. It is the celebration of excellence relative to a particular sort of starting point. This, I feel, is beginning to reflect an increasingly subtle and nuanced approach to recognising achievement in the world and that is by no means a bad thing.

However, there is also something the three forms have in common. There is commonality in the idea that elite sportswomen and men are in competition with each other, and by the mere act of participating, are celebrated for their ability, dedication and the competence they have demonstrated. And that is one of the things a flame is supposed to stand for. If there has been a symbol that is universally required across diverse groups and societies – it would be the flame.

So there we have it. Different starting guns but also a universal flame which recognises achievement.

What does this mean for those who are deaf? We are beginning to understand as a broader society that sporting achievement, and actually, any sort of achievement at all is more than external – it is internal (a mental feat) which requires much discipline. The willpower and the dedication to compete in a sport at such a high level demonstrates the ‘superhumanity’ of both Olympic and Paralympic participants – as the excellent C4 trailer for the Paralympic games suggests.

The Deaflympics are no different. They too are a celebration of mental and physical excellence. This is something they have in common with both the Olympics and the Paralympics. But they too recognise that the starting point for comparing that excellence is different. Not any less valid, nor any less interesting or important – just different. The technical challenges and the barriers – particularly in a team sport such as football (the one that I played) which often relies heavily on loud verbal communication, are different. So too, are the advantages. I can’t be the only deaf person who feels that sometimes my sense of spatial awareness or reading of non verbal body language, for example, is both more acute and often very handy in sports? (Be nice to hear what you think on this!)

Notwithstanding the advantages, the challenges that deaf sportsmen and women face are challenges I too often face and have faced – not just on the football pitch, but elsewhere. There are some related to the technical difficulties of playing the actual sport, in particular with other individuals who are themselves not deaf and who assume (even when they know otherwise…sport after all is a matter of trained instinct) that you too are hearing. But there are other, more difficult challenges; around the perceptions people have about the abilities of those who are deaf, and more broadly, those who are disabled.

So the Deaflympics and the Paralympics are to be commended because they do more than just showcase sporting achievement. They act as a way to break down assumptions and perceptions – the most dangerous assumption and perception being that deaf and disabled individuals, particularly young deaf people, cannot excel in their chosen field. Indeed the achievements of Mo Farah, Usain Bolt and David Rudisha have shown that even the Olympics challenge this perception – there are barriers absolutely everywhere, the starting gun is often different for numerous people – and those people still go on achieve.

As a young deaf woman who has played and enjoyed football through my youth (left midfield for those of you who are interested – youth amateur football, and then university college football…) I have a particular personal interest in the achievements of the GB Women’s Deaflympics team – whose existence I was delighted to discover only this year. I admire them because they play football in a way that, despite my own external practice and effort, I am physically unable to; and because of what is their clear dedication to excellence. Our starting guns were broadly the same and frankly, I am languishing somewhere long behind those women who have made it onto the team.

I also admire them because I find them relatable, and because when I fast-forward back in my mind to the fifteen year old young deaf girl who played football on a near-daily basis, I think my awareness of their existence would have changed my own assessment of what could be achieved in the sporting world and of what was possible beyond the sporting world as well. The sporting world has only just managed to get its head around the fact that a woman’s football team is worth filming and following on national television – and this represents a huge shift in attitudes towards women’s sport. I suspect it will be a while before similar treatment is extended to the GB Women’s Deaflympics team. But progress has to start somewhere. They, like other teams and individuals participating in the Deaflympics do allow us as deaf young people to visualise possibilities other than those which are often presented before us.

For this reason, it has been rather a shame that the only way I found out about the Deaflympics was through a twitter retweet of the GB Deaflympics Women’s Football Team requesting some support around both funding and awareness – which is, in my opinion, much deserved. The GB Deaf Women’s Team need £3600 per player to keep on playing. I’d encourage you to contact them (by emailing to arrange to donate if you’d like to.

It would have been a significant advantage, and a boost to awareness of the deaf community to have had the Deaflympics games covered as part of the broader Olympic and Paralympic coverage. In a world where corporate sponsorship determines to a very large extent what is showcased, deaf communities need to both lobby for inclusion of deaf sports – but also to support deaf sport and its existence financially. For that reason I am pleased to see Craig Crowley, President of the International Committee of Sport for the Deaf articulate the aim that the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro should showcase deaf sports. It’s also one of my reasons for writing this article, and for wishing to kickstart a discussion on this blog. I hope that it extends more broadly elsewhere – to Twitter, and to a dialogue between the co-ordinators of the various games.

Supporting the Deaflympics is not just about supporting deaf sport itself, but about the community, and about reaching those who perhaps may not even consider themselves a part of the community. There is a real power around this sort of financial support, lobbying and awareness raising to host and publicise events such as the Paralympics and Deaflympics. They have the effect of raising young people’s (deaf or otherwise’s) aspirations – which is what really needs to be achieved to tackle much inequality. Events such as the Paralympics and the Deaflympics are important because they communicate that anything really is possible regardless of barriers. These barriers are complex. They are not easily categorised, diagnosed, or solved but they do exist. The least we can do is try to understand what they are. People find remarkable ways to overcome them – and this is showcased not simply at the Paralympics and the Deaflympics but also at the Olympic games where the likes of Mo Farah and David Rudisha have overcome the odds to reach excellence.

There are those who are currently engaged in the counterproductive and thoughtless act (particularly in the mainstream media) of criticising the language of ‘barriers’; ‘overcoming’ and ‘challenges’. To them I would like to say – in many instances, I say this as a fellow deaf and/or disabled person – please stop it. Stop it now. There is a stark difference between recognising that a person faces barriers, challenges and has overcome them – and celebrating that; and patronising a person. The latter I am uncomfortable with – but the former, I think we must encourage if we are to achieve anything like a progressive and more equal society for those who are deaf and those who are disabled in the next century. And it is possible to be recognised as a world leader as well as to be recognised as a person who has overcome barriers and challenges. If anything – the likes of Mo Farah and David Rudisha show us that. We need to recognise this fact in order to support individuals to achieve the most they can.

A lot has been said about the economic legacy that the Games will bring to the United Kingdom. But if we are going to secure a cultural and a social legacy from the Olympics, from the Paralympics, from the Deaflympics – I hope it is that we can all understand each others’ circumstances – and most importantly, each others’ starting guns, a little better.

But we can only really do this if we feel able to talk about them.

Reema Patel is a twenty something deaf British Asian law student at City University. Her obsessions include reading and writing fiction; picking at obscure legal cases, social and political activism; being a School Governor; music (the bits of it she can hear/feel are quite nice) and spending far too much time people-watching on the South Bank in London. She tweets as @ReemaSPatel.

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