Laura Dunn: What it’s like to be the only deaf person at karate class

Posted on April 15, 2014

Picture this: The Karate Kid, awesome kicks, punches, getting one over the big guy… and then there’s this: a clumsy woman with a blank expression on her face while she is working out what Age uke, gyaku tsuki, gedan barai actually means.

This woman is me, in my karate class early in the morning, with a usual blank expression. Why? Because I am usually trying to concentrate on lipreading the teacher rather than on the movements.

Let me rewind a bit and explain how I got here…

Three and a half years ago, I was in an all-women’s samba drumming band called SheBoom in Glasgow. I am profoundly deaf (deaf from birth), but at that point I was a hearing aid user. I was loving being in the band, in my third year drumming, when I began to notice that the hearing aids were not helping me as they should.

A visit to the audiologist resulted in a referral to Crosshouse Hospital in Ayr for an assessment for a CI (Cochlear Implant) and eventually, after months of waiting, I had the operation five days before Christmas (Don’t recall much of Christmas that year!)

I went back to drumming around two weeks after the switch on of the implant and unfortunately, I felt it wasn’t the same any more, the sound was different, the processor had a “cut off” point for noise level and in a small room with over twenty drums making a cacophony of noises, it wasn’t ideal so there was a lot of trips to the hospital to try and tweak various programmes on my processor to help me hear the drums better. Eventually I had to leave the band as I felt it didn’t feel the same any more or at least hear the same any more.

At this point I was becoming depressed, as the band had been a big part of my life. Also, I was suffering really badly with headaches and tinnitus which can be a side effect to the implant so I was really affected by the tinnitus. I felt within myself that the implant was a mistake – even though there was an improvement in things I could hear.

After a few months, I got to thinking, what about karate? I had taken karate classes when I was young, but left because the teachers had no deaf awareness at all. I did what I was told, but was pushed to the side and didn’t find the experience enjoyable at all.

But that was about twenty years earlier, surely things might have changed? I spent a few days researching and looking up various clubs in the Glasgow area, explaining that I was deaf. I got positive responses but found one that suited me as it was local to me.

At the leisure centre on a Tuesday morning for my first class, I was hit with a bad case of nerves and couldn’t find the courage to go in. So I emailed the contact and explained that I got too nervous to go in by myself and I got words of encouragement and that she would walk in with me.

The next time, I managed to garner up enough courage to actually go in and join the class; the first class was a real struggle as I had to get used to lip reading the teacher, as well as the Japanese terms he was using.I had already done research on my own, looking up karate terms and moves online to get used to the structure of the class and not have to keep asking for someone to write terms down.

It was still a struggle but the teacher was a great help, making little adjustments so I could see him and using hand gestures to make sure I knew what was happening. It still took a long time for me to get settled, and the further I progress, the harder things are because the higher up the belts you go; the more difficult the terms are to understand and certain terms are similar in lip patterns so it is easier to make mistakes.

At the moment, I am currently in training to earn my next belt which is purple. (I am a green belt now which is three away from a brown belt, which means I have already passed four gradings to get to this level)

I can get very anxious at the belt gradings, when there are as many as fifty people in the hall, making it very difficult to see the teacher, so I have to rely on others to see what I’m supposed to do – but if they make a mistake, I wouldn’t know as I am at a disadvantage of not hearing the commands and such.

The aim of this article is to prove that deaf people CAN do anything they want if they put their minds to it. My eventual goal is to obtain a teaching certificate when I reach brown belt (hopefully by Christmas) and teach karate to deaf children, helping them to increase their fitness and learn to defend themselves safely.

As a profoundly deaf person, I am very proud of myself for having come this far. I can see that far-off goal of being a black belt getting closer and closer. There’s so much to say about myself being involved in karate here; I was really shy when I first joined karate but as time when went on, it had really boosted my confidence and I have come a long way from where I was three years ago and I really do believe that karate has changed my life for the better.

I’ve met amazing people in my class and they have been so welcoming and encouraging, I appreciate their help in every aspect.

My sensei teacher was given some questions about having me in his class.

Q: What was your first thought when you heard there was a deaf person in the class?
A: There wasn’t a problem with that, I thought it was interesting.

Q: Did you have to change the way you taught the class to accommodate the deaf person?
A: No, not really, Karate is very demonstrative, so I thought the student would be fine, as we always demonstrate all moves and commands, especially in the very early stages of the karate journey.

Q: Was there any problems that you thought would come up?
A: No again, I just made sure the student could see me clearly. Karate takes a lot of concentration and that was not a problem with my student on that front.

Q: Do you feel confident enough to teach another deaf person if they joined the class?
A: Yes, I would be very confident teaching another deaf person. I found that my student, used her vision more and I feel she was actually more aware visually than possibly my “hearing” students.

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