Deaf Sports: An Empowerment Perspective

(Printed in WFD News, Vol 17 No. 2)

It may be hard for some people to understand that Deaf people want to promote their own sports movement because it stands in contrast to the majority’s policy of integration. In the early 1990s, there was some discussion about integrating Deaf sports into disabled sports. This idea was based on the belief that combining disabled sports with Deaf sports would be beneficial to the Paralympic Games for economic and competitive reasons, as well as to the individual athlete. It would also satisfy the International Olympic Committee’s request that the International Committee of Sports for the Deaf (CISS) join the International Coordination Committee of World Sport, the predecessor of the International Paralympic Committee (IPC), in order for IPC to become a member of the Olympic family. However, due to problems between CISS and IPC, CISS left IPC in 1995.

This article, based on opinions of Deaf sport leaders about Deaf sports, considers why Deaf people need to keep Deaf sports and how important Deaf sports are to them. The focus is empowerment. The basic question is: “How is empowerment of Deaf people influenced by different kinds of sports organizations?”

Empowerment can be defined as experiencing control over decisions in one’s life. Empowerment occurs on three levels: individual, group (through identity and group feeling), and society (through political influence). Each level will be discussed in relation to its degree of integration. The degree of integration is the level at which Deaf people are able to function in an integrated situation without losing control of their own situation.

Individual Level
Deaf sports are important in Deaf life on physical, social, and mental levels. It has been said that Deaf athletes do not feel disabled in sports. They maintain that sign language gives them increased empowerment, and they do not have communication problems in Deaf sports. They have also experienced empowerment in majority sports, but integration can weaken individual empowerment due to inadequate social communication with hearing colleagues. A sign language interpreter is a necessary prerequisite in majority sports, but an interpreter cannot dissolve all communication barriers. 

Group Level
On the group level, Deaf athletes may experience a weakened sense of empowerment when Deaf sports become part of a disabled sports organization. The reason is that Deaf people feel that they meet with little understanding from hearing people in disabled sports and that hearing people are comparing them to other disabled people. On the other hand, staying in the Deaf community or sports organizations increases isolation and reduces Deaf empowerment. Being included in the majority gives Deaf people a higher degree of empowerment than being isolated. Cooperation with majority sports, and eventually with disabled sports, may be the best way to increase Deaf empowerment. It enables Deaf athletes to stay in contact with hearing people but at the same time maintain their Deaf identity and culture.

Deaf people identify themselves as part of a linguistic and cultural minority. They are proud of Deaf sports and culture. Deaflympics is important because it is the only sports competition that is based on sign language. In Deaflympics all Deaf people share the same experiences regardless of which part of the world they come from.

Deaf people often apprehend the concept of integration as assimilation, which means adapting to the majority’s culture. The thought behind integration is that Deaf people should be equal to hearing people in the community. However, even though hearing people have the best intentions, a linguistic minority group can get run over. It is hard for a Deaf person to be assertive at meetings and debates through an interpreter.

Society Level
Empowerment on the society level increases when Deaf people have the possibility of political influence in the majority society. Standing together as a group can increase Deaf people’s influence. Historically, Deaf people have governed CISS and Deaflympics for many years without any interference. CISS demands that Deaf sports shall not be subordinate to any disabled sports organization. Deaf sports leaders express a strong desire that CISS remain independent. However, Deaf sports may become less visible by standing alone. That is why it is important for Deaf people to take responsibility for their own sports and work toward becoming more visible in the majority society. Increasing visibility in this way requires hard work, but it will give Deaf people a higher level of empowerment and more influence in the hearing society.

Hearing people often have a different perception than Deaf people do on how the integration process of Deaf people has progressed. Deaf people who have worked within disabled sports say that hearing people have experienced little understanding of the situation of Deaf people. They do not understand just how hard it is to integrate Deaf people. Therefore, it is necessary for Deaf people to inform hearing people about sign language, Deaf culture, use of interpreters, and so forth, to give them better insight into the possibilities and limitations of integration.

Deaf sports alone do not give Deaf people increased empowerment, but identity, group belonging, and a shared community and experience of language are important for empowerment. The fact that Deaf people are members of both the Deaf and hearing cultures increases their empowerment. As Mr Lars Havstad, the first Deaf student in 19th century Norway to go to university, said: “Deaf people are getting together not to isolate themselves, but to gather power and information for life in a society where sounds and spoken language are prevalent.” That is why both Deaf sports and ordinary sports are important to Deaf people. Majority sports can give Deaf people increased empowerment on all levels, but only if Deaf people have freedom of choice. Freedom of choice increases Deaf people’s empowerment because they themselves know how much they are able to be segregated or integrated in order to reach a higher level of empowerment.

Siv Fosshaug, who was born in Norway, and received her education there, has lived in Zurich, Switzerland, since 2001. She works as a Deaf class teacher for the first bilingual class of Deaf students (now in their second year of primary school) in the German-speaking part of Switzerland.