Classifying Disability Sport

Sunday 2nd September:


As Vice Chair of UK Deaf Sport, I deal with many emails on a daily basis asking for advice, offering opinions etc on deaf sport. I am currently involved in a discussion with some deaf athletes over the validity of the 55dB rule. In the Deaflympics, all competitiors must have a hearing loss of 55dB in their better ear. The argument is that this threshold is too high and should be lowered to 35dB.

I started drafting this blog earlier this afternoon using the story of GB Paralympian swimmer  Ellie Simmonds winning gold on Saturday in the S6 400m freestyle against the American Victoria Arlen who was declared ineligible after tests suggested that she was not disabled enough. The US appealed and Arlen was reinstated.

By coincidence, as I was putting finishing touches to this blog, I have just watched Alan Oliviaria fly past Oscar Pistorius in the T43/T44 200m final. Pistorius was well ahead with about 75m to go and then Oliveria glided past him to win. Mondays news headlines will be “Has Oliveria cheated?”

Joanne, my number two Two Big Ears has pointed out that the other runners in the race with one normal leg are unable to change the length of their blades, suggesting that the IPC need to tighten up the rules.

Many deaf sportsmen and women will have their jaws on the floor at the suggestion of lowering to 35dB – as it was also my immediate reaction earlier this week when I read the emails coming through my in-box. However, I am open to suggestions and asked the 35dB campaigners to give me evidence/reasoning to support their case.

The arguments for 35dB :

a) Is there scientific evidence to back up the rationale for 55dB ?.

b) Deaf sport is struggling to attract more athletes to events, the small turnouts would be increased by lowering to 35dB. In some sports, countries are unable to field teams as they cannot find enough elite athletes at 55dB.

c) Deaf sport at 55dB is struggling to attract commercial sponsors because it is not reflecting a large enough market.

d) Deaf sport could be like the Paralympics with different classes of difficulty such as in the 200m race this evening with T43 and T44 athletes.

e) In deaf sport  athletes are not allowed to wear their hearing aids or cochlear implants during competition, in order to level the playing field and not give anyone an advantage through technology. Quite the opposite to the 200m race tonight, where people are taking advantage of technology to go faster. Deaf people should be allowed to take advantage of either wearing or removing technology, a personal choice.

The arguments for 55dB :

a) Lowering the threshold would allow non-signing athletes into the sport and because sign language users are in the minority, the problems of communication would soon mirror daily life as more and more partially-hearing people get involved and the profoundly deaf are marginalised. Disempowering those for whom deaf sport is organised.

b) The original games in 1924 The Silent Games were conceived by a Frenchman and a Belgian, both deaf sportsmen, who wanted to make a stand against societal misconception of deafness of the day. Unfortunately, despite many advances, Deafness remains a hidden disability and greatly misunderstood.

c) Many disabled people are excluded from the Paralympic games because of the classifications system. They do not mirror the social model of disability. They do not empower severely disabled people. By maintaining a higher threshold of 55dB, deaf sport is safeguarding opportunities for deaf people who are marginalised in life. Deaf sport is empowering and ‘hearing” society has much to learn from this.

d) Deaf sport is managed, lead by deaf people for deaf people and therefore truly empowering not only for athletes but for officials and volunteers who also have minimal opportunity in mainstream sport. The 55dB threshold is a self-imposed rule and not by “hearing” society.

What do you think?

Channel 4 “The Last leg with Adam Hills” they are all saying that “disabled” is outdated. They are not considering that technology, classifications, running guides etc make it easier and possible to perform at your very best and within the rules of Paralympic sport. Unfortunately the rest of the planet is not set up in the same way so the war veterans breaking Paralympic records cannot be ordered to go back to another tour in Afghanistan because they are disabled.

In the Deaflympic games there are no communication barriers, this empowers deaf people who experience the Olympic ideals in a way that would be impossible in the Paralympics or Olympics. More on this tomorrow – when I discuss the case of deaf athletes who have won medals in the Olympics and the Paralympics.


Finally, before I sign off, thank you to Rita and all her colleagues at Furniture Village, J9 Retail Park, Wednesbury for taking a keen interest in Two Big Ears. Rita took two copies of the Introduction – one for herself and the other to post on the staff kitchen. Thank you for your support.

11 thoughts on “Classifying Disability Sport

  1. ‘a) Lowering the threshold would allow non-signing athletes into the sport and because sign language users are in the minority, the problems of communication would soon mirror daily life as more and more partially-hearing people get involved and the profoundly deaf are marginalised. Disempowering those for whom deaf sport is organised.’

    On the other hand – does this also give an opportunity for non-signing athletes to learn to do sign language in a different enviroment and all deaf sport associations should encourage its members to learn basic sign language. – is a web based sign language learning tool that I have been referred to

    I am profoundly deaf and speak verbally in a hearing environment and being with the English Deaf Golfers has been a great experience that I have not had before – being involved with other deaf people and am learning sign language slowly and will educate myself further with lessons in the nr future.

    I think deaf sport in whole needs to come to 21st century thinking and terms. Currently we are stuck in early 20th century. The important thing is to be flexible and to accomodate as many to increase participation in all sports for the deaf and hearing impaired. This will attract more sponsors and extract more funding from National Sport Organisations if we show this ‘modern’ approach. The Olympics, Paralympics, Football, Rugby, Cricket, Golf have all evolved over the last 100 years to be more suited to the modern era.

    The Olympics used to be for amateur sportsmen now the majority of athletes that take part are professional sportsmen. The funding for hosting the Games was via Goverment and National Sporting Associations now a lot of the money is from Commercial Partners which makes the Games more profitable and viable.

    Sticking to the 55db will keep deaf sport in the “dark ages” and progress will always be hindered by this ‘prehistoric’ rule. We need to look at this with Open eyes and think outside the box.

    Classsifications would work ie under 55db and 55db sections as well as overall to keep all happy and is it our responsibility to accomodate as many people to participate in deaf and hearing impaired sport.

    I find that deafness is on its own – not included in Paralympics and Disabled British Open Golf because it follows European Disabled Golf Association rules – i.e ‘hearing impaired not eligible’ is this because we are able bodied and our functions work well for golf. This is in parts discriminative against deaf people who are also registered as disabled.


  2. C)

    Where’s BSL version of all this for BSL users to input their views – Ben while I agree this is 21st century and there should be no excuses to discriminate those who use BSL as their first or preferred language to access such information and Deaf people should not be forced to use speech to suit the majority of the population….. sign language should be made available on the national curriculum as part of MFL (modern foreign language) learning…..

    I will give you an example……. how many English speakers do you know have retired to live in Spain? In that case let me ask you something….

    1. Do they make every effort to learn Spanish? If so, do they live and socialise with Spanish speakers 24/7? No I thought not….. therefore they are a minority group living in Spain speaking English. No they do not live in ‘Dark Ages’ or 20th Century

    2. If there was a ‘Spanish speaking only’ golf club in Spain would English speakers prepare to pay full membership fee and not being able to access to any information – verbally or written? No I thought not – this is no different to Deaf BSL users who feel this way about golf clubs in UK ….. instead of dropping the hearing loss down to 35db to attract hard of hearing golfers who are already enjoying privilege playing golf and quality lifestyle that many Deaf BSL users are deprived of. National Deaf golf groups need to focus on how to work with golf clubs across UK to attract group Deaf golfers to join chosen golf clubs i.e. Essex area perhaps choose 2 golf clubs that many would use regular and work with those golf clubs teaching them Deaf awareness, basic sign language and to make Deaf golfers feel confident to join the club competitions on regular basis just as what those with less than 55db are doing. This would attract more Deaf golfers to get an active Congu handicap.

    3. Ask any hearing person you know….. if they were in Spain and had a toothache problem…. there are 5 dentists on the same street and only one of them with a sign on the windows “English Speaking here” – which dentist would they have gone to? …. Well I bet their answer would be this English speaking one because it accessible and comfortable… this is no different for any Deaf BSL users as all they wanted is for government to put BSL on national curriculum instead of forcing deaf children to learn to speak and spend more time on quality education. Many do not see their deafness as an issue but as a communication barrier. Many deaf people who use speech do not help the matters and giving people the wrong impression of being deaf and able to use speech…. I have stopped using speech for that very reason and don’t want to make myself disabled anymore.

    We have to agree to disagree – I am more interested in empowering Deaf people to make choices, access and opportunities.

    Now this is 2012 and technology is moving fast and the media is watching…. the schools are now starting to teach BSL to younger pupils, Deaf people are giving wider choices than it was less than 10 years ago, Deaf people are united worldwide on Deaf sports – without Deaf sports I don’t know what would have happened to Deaf people, Deaf sports saved many Deaf people mentally and emotionally. The society need to keep up with our way of thinking and not the other way round.

    Those with 35db – 55db hearing loss are not really missing that much…….. they can use telephones, clearer speech, can communicate with hearing people easily, most of them have good jobs, comfortable lifestyles, very few with mental health issues etc They also happen to enjoy the privileges of being a golf club member – surely their lifestyle is not so terrible?

    55db – very few can use telephones, very few with clear speech, most are under educated, most are under employed, do not use facilities locally due to language barriers, high numbers of mental health – this tells me society failed them –



    • BSL and English are more similar than English and Spanish! Its all about getting the message across – I tend to write things down if people do not understand me this is an ‘in-between’ 🙂

      Going back to the 35db-55db topic. I am looking at ways of expanding EDGA and it is difficult with the 55db rule. I believe it is unfair towards hearing impaired golfers and we should accommodate them as well as educate them basic sign language so they can communicate with the deaf.

      Tony Jacklin who is our patron is hard of hearing and is beginning to understand what is like to be deaf – he is keen to help out giving deaf people more opportunites in golf. I would not be surprised that most people with 35-55db hearing loss will have a similar approach.

      People with 35db-55db hearing loss do struggle over the phone and in social circles. My grandmother is in this position as her hearing is worsening as she gets older.

      Reducing the levels will open up more opportunities. I have been in a series of meetings/letters with companies/organisations and there has been requests to lower the 55db to accomodate hearing impaired which I believe is the right way forward. No only it will help to increase numbers for the EDGA – it will open up sponsorship opportunities as well as access to a bigger funding pot.

      Sarah please put aside your ‘deaf world’ mindset and use your business mindset – how can we expand, get funding and sponsorship opportunities that will open up for both deaf and hearing impaired golfers. #businesscomesfirst

      CASE SCENARIO 1: The chief executive of Coca Cola meets the ICSD President and offers a multi million pound sponsorship deal only if the hearing qualification level was reduced from 55db to 35db to accomodate his niece and nephew to enable them to participate in a big sporting event. What would you do if you were ICSD President?

      CASE SCENARIO 2: I have been given opportunity to be part of a stem cell research program which aims to restore hearing to my left ear left (my right is too damaged to restore due to a cochlear implant) a few years later my hearing is restored and yet I have 95db hearing loss in my right. Does that mean I miss out on qualifying for deaf sport due to advanced in medicine?

      Being flexible is important – we need to adapt to the times, be realistic, take the commercial opportunites wherever possible and adapt to the technological/medical advancement without losing the deaf identity.

      Deaf people tend to put themselves in the corner of the room rather than in the middle of the room with their hand up. If they did this they would educate verbally hearing impaired as well as hearing people basic BSL. I consider myself lucky to get help + advice from deaf golfers/people in BSL.

      Despite being profoundly deaf am fortunate because I had 2 hearing parents that are very supportive and strong willed to educate me to speak verbally and help me through mainstream schools so that I can be closer and more adaptable to the real world. Through my education I had to work 3 times harder than hearing person to get to where I am now – an fully qualified RIBA architect and a golf course designer with 2 courses to my name. I would not change who I am – a profoundly deaf person who speaks verbally.

      I was proud to witness 7 deaf golfers playing together at Woodhall Spa last week – this opportunity was given through hard work and communicating with people in the real world.


  3. Firstly, great piece. I think there is a discussion that could and should be had around this. Classification is a difficult topic as it is meant to be as fair as possible to all athletes, but in reality it is never 100% as you will get some athletes that are on the borderline of the class below and those that are close to being in the class above.


    • Continue above.
      I think if you are looking at this as building membership consideration needs to go into what happens if that doesn’t have the impact you want. Do you lower it further? This should be done on the basis that it will uphold the standards for the athletes rather than to simply build membership. The idea of having differing levels is interesting (similar to VI athletes).
      The idea of using technology I think is a no go!
      Without meaning to sit on the fence I would say it is a mix of both arguments. Yes numbers need to be increased so that levels of competition are raised too, look at the Paralympic swimming, the standards are so high that even if you post a time under the world record you still may not win!! It should be for the good of the sport not simply to fill places


  4. We were considering similar themes in deaf karting, lowering the limit to 40dB under the basis that those who are hearing impaired will be on the same level as those who are profoundly deaf since wearing crash helmets will blank out any sounds therefore no-one is gaining advantage. This is under consideratiion to to increase the number of people to get involved in karting.

    I do realise that this may put me at odds with other people who will disagree, I need to say that the sport itself needs to be considered to determine whether any modifications to the levels of deafness puts some people at advantage over others, whereas in karting, there is no advantage.

    Chris Heppenstall
    President of Euro Nations Deaf Karting Association


  5. Pingback: Guest post: Welsh Deaf Golf Association | Two Big Ears

  6. Pingback: Classifying Disability Sport « dicastlewriter

  7. I feel this decision should not be made in haste. Reducing the hearing loss level could have implications that affect the sport for many years to come. It is a short term solution but will have long term affects. What is the aim? To increase membership? To allow the relatives of a rich CEO to participate? Or to increase opportunities for Deaf people to push themselves in the sport of their choice?

    The issue at the heart of this matter is Deaf people having access to/feeling welcome in hearing golf/sport clubs. People with a 40dB loss may already enjoy all the privileges afforded to most hearing members of a club. People with a more severe – profound loss may feel the membership fees of a hearing club are not worth it as they will not be able to fully partake in the activities of the club.

    In Wales we have successfully negotiated a reduced fee for Deaf people to join a hearing golf club (for a limited time) and around 6 Deaf people have taken this offer up. This kind of solution could solve the numbers issue without the need for ‘diluting’ entry criteria. I know of 250 – 300 or more Deaf golfers in the UK, but most of these are not members of clubs and therefore do not have a congu handicap.

    The Paralympic movement and the Deaflympics have, over the decades, had a hugely positive affect on peoples’ mental health. Looking at a community which has a high rate of mental health problems, sport is a huge contributor as a preventetive measure. Part of this solution is providing a ‘safe’ environment where people are linguistically comfortable. English speakers have the luxury of choosing whether they learn BSL or not. For many people who rely on BSL, they do not have the luxury of learning to ‘speak’ any other language. Whilst Deaf sport has always been flexible and welcomed oral deaf members, the change to the criteria could push the balance to make BSL users a minority within their own community.

    In other discussions around this topic, people have discussed having different classifications in the sport. e.g. 35dB – 50dB / >50dB. Would this lead to a ‘signing’ group and a ‘non-signing’ group? Other sports have a levelling factor (VI football for example making all competitors wear eye masks). What is the levelling factor for Deaf sport? Is it about everyone wearing ear plugs? No? Maybe the levelling factor could be that everyone must have a minimum level of sign language?

    Ben mentioned Tony Jacklin and his empathy for HoH/Deaf people as he himself has a hearing loss. Whilst I’m sure he will try to understand, loosing your hearing later in life is not the same as growing up as a Deaf person, being educated as a Deaf person, being employed as a Deaf person! I am sure he would be interested to read about the many levels on which sport helps Deaf people.

    If this change goes ahead, my prediction is that the sport, rather than attracting people ranging from 55dB to profoundly Deaf people, will in time become 40dB – 69dB. i.e. the lowering of the bottom level will affect the upper level. Profoundly Deaf people (BSL users or not) will be more likely to feel alienated within Deaf sport and may be less likely to be able to afford the golf trips/tournaments offered.

    For this reason and the reasons above, I feel Wales should not agree to this change.


  8. This is an interesting debate.

    My question is what is the purpose of setting up these organisations in sport?

    The answer must surely be as follows
    1: Allowing those who would never have got a change to be involved in sport to be able to take part and enjoy a competitive life style that non-disadvantaged people have access to every day.

    2. To work with the national bodies to improve access to these sports so that they can play against the non-disadvantaged people.

    3. Improve the standard of the sport for the specific group.

    Therefore my belief should be keep the db levels the same, the constitution of the individual sport clubs should have a commitment to working with main stream sporting bodies to improve access for ALL deaf and hard of hearing people regardless of their db levels.

    This way if we can improve the access for the 55db group then access will improve for other groups as part of a natural process.

    If we change to 35db then we will be excluding the most disadvantage people by default as those Deaf who can talk will be the deaf that mainstream clubs will talk to as they are easier to speak to due to the same language. This is what has happened with Deaf Rugby, the db levels were changed and nearly all the sign language users were virtually excluded from the game.

    I can understand the frustrations of those who are just outside the 55db group as I would be fuming myself and would be doing everything I could to make myself part of the group. But where can you draw the line?

    I think the best option in the long terms is to make sure that all sports are accessible to all and make sure that the national bodies become more accessible to all Deaf and hopefully we will have a better chance of seeing a Deaf person in the Ryder cup or similar., but we need to keep the db levels the same to ensure that all people from disadvantaged background can take part in sports and not the privileged sections.


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