Deaf American Takes a Stand on An International Playing Field

From 'World Around You', Winter 2001-2002, pages 10-12

Donalda Ammons knew immediately something was wrong. Track and field, one of the most popular sports of the Deaflympics, was supposed to be underway. Many deaf sports fans from all over the world had gathered in the stadium in Rome, Italy. Like Ammons, they were waiting for competition to begin.

"Track and field begins on time," said Ammons. "The athletes get ready, stretch and limber up. Then they compete. There can't be any delay."

But there was. On the field below all was delay. Coaches, officials, and spectators looked confused. The athletes did not know what to do or where to go.

The confusion confirmed Ammons' worst fears.

"I had been worried all along," she said. "Unfortunately Italy's government doubted deaf people's ability to manage the money for the games. Instead the government formed a new committee. Everyone on the committee was supposed to be a well-known individual in business or politics. Everyone was hearing. No one knew a thing about deaf people."

Ammons is Secretary General of CISS, the International Committee of Sports for the Deaf. There are eight deaf representatives from countries around the world on the CISS committee that oversees the international deaf games.

In her role as Secretary General, Ammons told the CISS board that she had doubts about an organizing committee of all hearing people that knew nothing about deaf people. But the CISS representative from Italy defended his government’s decision. As a result CISS reluctantly allowed the all-hearing committee to proceed with organizing the Deaflympics.

Pulling the Plug
Suddenly Ammons realized that some people were more confused than others. In fact some officials yelled directions. They screamed commands. They made confusing gestures. These were the officials who were hearing. They seemed to be receiving instructions from the air.

"Is there a PA system here?" Ammons asked suddenly. PA system means public address system. PA systems magnify sound electronically so that large groups of people can hear it.

Of course PA systems are useless for deaf people.

On the sides of the stadium were large electronic scoreboards. Ammons had realized from the beginning how easy it would be to communicate visually with those boards Messages could be written and displayed for all of the fans to read.

"From the beginning, the organizers promised to keep the communication visual," she said. "But when we asked them to put up the information on the large boards, they would not turn on the boards. They said that there was no money."

Ammons was disgusted. She knew that the Italian government had provided $6 million to the international games. She could not accept that the government would pay for sound systems-and neglect visual systems-in games for deaf people.

"I told him to show me the plug for the PA system," she said.

He did.

She pulled it.

Instaneously the electronic voice in the stadium was silenced. Hearing people, as well as deaf people, had no central way to communicate with each other.

"The official went crazy," she remembered. "His gestures were frantic. He said, 'plug it back in!'"

Ammons refused.

"I told him to use the visual message boards for deaf people and I would let him plug in the sound for hearing people."

The stand off lasted for three days. The athletes competed. The games continued. But everyone--hearing and deaf--made do with limited communication.

Finally the message board went on. With no pre-game practice and testing, it was difficult. Ammons held off the PA system while the officials figured out how to use electronic message boards correctly.

CISS Lends Support
Meanwhile the Italian committee that had organized the games asked CISS to dismiss Ammons. She had been rude, the committee said. She should not be permitted to stay in Italy. CISS President called on Ammons to explain herself.

CISS believes in respecting the countries that host the Deaflymics, but when Ammons explained what happened, CISS refused to comply with the organizing committee’s request. Two days later, the same committee sent another letter asking for her dismissal.

This time CISS President John Lovett said that if Ammons were forced to leave, he would leave, too.

Ammons stayed.

The Aftermath
Ammons said that deaf people reacted differently to her action.

"It depended on how empowered the deaf individuals were within their own countries," she said. "The French, Swedish, and American deaf people were supportive."

An American on-line editor called her a hero.

But deaf people from many countries were fearful.

"Their attitude was that we, the deaf people, should be 'nice' or 'appreciative,'" said Ammons. "They felt that the hearing people were trying to 'help' us."

The experience left Ammons feeling strong and proud, she said. But she also felt "tired." Her term ends in 2005 and she doesn't plan to run for reelection.

"I just want to retire," she said.

Next Deaflympics
The next Deaflympics will be in Australia. Ammons expects that the Australian government will be supportive, and the experience will be entirely different there.

"Empowerment is here to stay," she said.