As a child growing up with a significant sensorineural hearing loss and no hearing aids to assist me, I found life confusing and often embarrassing. Most of my humiliations came in the arena of team sports, whether it was little league, peewee basketball, or just a pick-up football games with the neighborhood kids.
I recently attended the Angel City Games in Los Angeles—track and field events for kids and adults with physical challenges. Some of the participants were in wheelchairs, some wore prosthetic legs and some were developmentally delayed. I was heartened to see how far we’ve come in making sports for kids with disabilities both accessible and enriching. I know there are also sports teams specifically for deaf kids, where the coaching is done via sign language, but I got to wondering if there have been accommodations made for hard-of-hearing kids who want to participate in team sports with non-hearing impaired kids, so I did some Internet searching.
Within the public school setting—in theory, anyway—there are assistive devices available. For example, in basketball, a red light can be installed behind each backboard that signals the end of a quarter. Portable loop systems with the coach using a microphone and the kid wearing a hearing device can facilitate communication between the two. These are similar to auditory trainers used in classrooms to augment the hearing of HOH students. The teacher wears a microphone and the child wears the headphone and in this way the teacher’s voice goes straight into the student’s ear. For football, there can even be a hearing aid within a modified helmet so the player can hear the coach more clearly. These are a few of the adaptations that are obtainable, assuming a school district will pay for them.
Having used auditory trainers with students, I saw that most kids don’t like to wear the headphones, especially if they are in a co-taught or a general education classroom because—no surprise here—they don’t want to stand out as “different.” I can attest from experience that kids tend to treat “different” as though it were some kind of disease, which is why kids who are “different” don’t want to call attention to their “differentness.” Sadly, the school system and our society still push conformity and sameness and “one size fits all,” so is it any wonder kids are reluctant to accept differentness in their peers?
Fifteen per cent of children between six and nineteen have a measurable hearing loss in at least one ear—approximately thirteen million kids. They have significant hearing loss, but are not deaf or otherwise “special needs.” Do neighborhood sports programs like the kind I was involved in as a child make any accommodations for these kids to play on their teams with non-disabled peers? That’s the more relevant question, I think, for parents who have a HOH child, because those are the kinds of programs most readily available.
My experiences as a child athlete were miserable. I probably misheard every instruction a coach ever gave me, especially if I was on the basketball court or out in right field for little league. In mishearing the command, I did something counter to what I was told to do and got royally chewed out for messing up. Needless to say, I was not popular on these teams because I always did everything wrong. A sensorineural hearing loss, in particular, makes human speech unclear or even, at times, garbled. In that regard, it’s not unlike an auditory processing deficit where the brain scrambles up words that enter through the ear and causes the child to respond in a way that might seem non sequitur, defiant, or outright stupid. I got the “stupid” tag a lot. And here’s the crazy part—I believed it. I believed I was stupid and inept because I did everything wrong. And I never associated my “ineptness” with my hearing loss because it was “invisible” and hardly ever mentioned by the adults in my life.
I doubt much would’ve been changed to accommodate me even if people were more cognizant of my disability because “one size fits all” was even stronger back then. So I simply came to the conclusion that I was stupid and clumsy and sucked at athletics and I ended up hating sports with a passion. Only in college did I become somewhat athletic. I took up running and weight lifting and swimming—activities I could do by myself or with a friend that didn’t involve a large team or an angry coach demanding to know why I did this or that stupid thing.
This brings me back to sports programs at local parks and YMCA’s and other venues that are not part of the public school system. In my Internet search, I found summer camps for deaf and hearing-impaired children, but could not find local sports programs or little league teams promoting accommodations for HOH kids. It’s possible that they will make such accommodations if a parent asks, but it seems to me such an important aspect of the program should be advertised, especially given the large number of children with hearing loss.
Even if a child has hearing aids, that doesn’t mean they will be effective for an outfielder, a lineman, defensive midfielder, or the power forward in a noisy, echo-filled gym surrounded by screaming fans. Most sports, especially baseball, have numerous hand signals coaches flash to players to bunt or run or hold up on a base. These are perfect for the HOH player. Even more specific gestures can be worked out between the player and the coach (and/or other team members) to ensure proper communication. It really isn’t difficult for a HOH kid to play sports as long as the coaching staff and other players remember that communication doesn’t have to be verbal.
Colored flags could help. For example, a red flag could mean move closer. To an outfielder this would mean move closer to the infield. For an infielder, it would mean move closer to the bag. A blue flag could mean the opposite—move farther into the outfield or away from the bag. Colored flags could work in most sports to mean whatever the coach and player decide they mean. Trust me when I say how much better my failed sporting life might have been if I’d had even this one simple accommodation.
I think parents advocate more for their HOH kids than in my childhood. It wasn’t that my parents intentionally ignored my disability. It was just that the disability was invisible and easy to forget about. As noted above, I forgot about it myself, even as a coach or my mom chewed me out for not doing something right, or for not listening. I was told more than once, “You can hear when you want to.” This was not true. A HOH child only hears what his or her limited hearing allows. Nothing more or less. Even “listening harder” won’t clarify speech if the other person is too far away or there is background noise or the other person isn’t facing the child. Sometimes just the pitch of a person’s voice makes clarity problematic. Like all kids with disabilities, I instinctively compensated—which for me meant reading lips. I did this unconsciously and became so good at it I could almost follow a TV show with the volume off and still understand most of the dialogue. As long as the actor faced the screen, I “heard” him or her.
Hearing loss is a physical disability—it just doesn’t involve visible damage to the body or limbs. Yes, hearing aids are helpful. But they are limited. Parents and coaches and team members can easily make the small accommodations I mentioned, and many others of their own devising, that will guarantee the HOH child has a positive experience. The child will not only feel like an equal member of the team, but might also blossom into an outstanding athlete. I doubt I ever had such innate ability, but my experiences were so demoralizing I never attempted to find out. As events like the Angel City Games prove, we have gotten better at including disabled children in athletic competitions. However, let’s not forget the invisible disabilities like hearing loss or auditory processing. These kids want to play, too.