Celebrating Women in Deaf Sport

The Twittersphere is a crowded place today with every opportunity to tweet the celebration of International Women’s Day.


Here in the UK, the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation has launched its “Say Yes to Success” campaign to drive more commercial and media investment and attention to women’s sport. They plan to achieve this through investment and coverage of as many high quality events and competitions as possible.

According to WSFF, women’s sport only receives 0.4% of the total commercial investment in sport and only gets 7% of sports coverage by the media.

Today I am celebrating women in Deaf sport. I want to do this because I am concerned about the lack of deaf women taking up strategic roles in sport. UK Deaf Sport is currently recruiting for new Board members and we are very impressed with the high calibre of applications that we have attracted and we hope to be making some announcements later in the year. However, we need more women to apply for a place to help us go forwards.

Personally I don’t think we are communicating publicly how important women are to UKDS, perhaps people think we already have this sorted ? Maybe there is a lack of inspiration ? or there is a resignation that it remains a male dominated institution and it will be difficult to make an impact?

UK Deaf Sport has, up until now, always had women on its board of trustees, but both remaining women have tendered their resignations this year and we will not have replacements on the board at our AGM on 26th March.

I cannot stress how important it is that we have women represented at board level. There is so much that needs to be done and we need inspirational leaders to come and help us achieve our ambitions.

Did you know that at the first Deaflympics in Paris, 1924, there was only one woman competing. The pioneer of women was Hendrika Nicoline Van der Heyden (NED) who competed alone in the 100m backstroke swimming. According to Same Spirit Different Team  “Her event is probably, the first and only ‘walkover’ in the history of the Deaflympics.”

IMG_0533In the 2013 Summer Deaflympics, the majority of medal winners in the GB team were women. Athletic’s Melanie Hewitt, Lauren Peffers and the GB Womens Football team. The team was inspired by a charismatic Chef de Mission Fiona Brookes who was at the forefront from the moment she took on the role.

The CISS (Committee International Sports des Sourds) was the first international sports organisation to appoint a women, Maria de Bendeguz (VEN)  onto its Executive Committee in Koln 1981.

Donalda Ammons followed next as CISS Secretary General in 1997 and then succeeded John Lovett as President in 2005 and served until 2009 as she celebrated what was the most successful Deaflympic Games in terms of commercial and media coverage to date when the City of Taipei invested $200m of which $4.34m came from commercial sponsors and vastly increased media coverage which saw attendances rise from 12,00 in Melbourne 2005 to 278,884 in Taipei.


Emile Sheng, CEO of the Taipei DOC said that the real ‘gold’ in staging the Deaflympics was not in the number of medals generated by the national Chinese Taipei team or the financial profit generated but by the raising of Taiwanese international profile, initiating a regeneration of Taipei City and, for the countries leading businesses, showcasing their products and services. Tony Phoo, an economist with Standard Chartered bank Taiwan PLC, observed:

Taiwan has long been seen primarily as a supplier of electronics components. This will change after the nations socio-economic development is displayed for all to see. (Brisebois 2009, p60 Same Spirit Different Team 2014)

The UK Deaf Table Tennis Association, this week has appointed Sereena Gilmour as its Chairperson. She is the mother of Deaflympian Nick Gilmour and the wife of the late John Gilmour who the UKDTTA owe a great debt to for his dedication and hard work.

IMG_1138Swimmer Danielle Joyce is currently enjoying sporting success breaking 3 world records at the EFDS National Juniors last week and destined to go further.

Like the WSFF, we need more media coverage of the Deaflympics. Same Spirit Different Team explains in detail how in 2001 the IOC contributed US$9m for the promotion of the 2008  Paralympics and US$14m for the 2010 and 2012 events but only 150,000 swiss francs for the Deaflympics to cover 2005-2009. The book suggests a plan of action.

Deafness is a disability in sport – because people do not understand visual awareness.

In my latest book, Same Spirit Different Team I discuss the subject of deafness and how it affects high performance sport and I argue that we need more research into this area in order that people can understand the Deaflympics and Deaf sport itself.

The problem is, that non-deaf people find it very difficult to empathise with the difficulties of deafness – until it happens to them, and by then it is too late for the generations of deaf athletes who are missing out on the recognition and support that the Deaflympics and Deaf sport needs.


Steve James’ article in The Telegraph “Six Nations 2014: England turn to disco lights to improve visual awareness” demonstrates that the inability of the England international rugby team being unable to hear each other at Twickenham has resulted in missed opportunities to score tries because of the increased noise levels from the Twickenham crowds. The coaches are calling it a lack of visual awareness. Mike Catt is experimenting with disco lights to try and improve player performance.

The England players are temporarily disabled, because they cannot hear each other. Their performances are compromised. The coaching staff do not understand visual awareness and how to develop it naturally.

The solutions to the problem are much closer to home, and the people with the knowledge to help have already played at international level – but they don’t realise that they are the solution. Ben Cohen MBE (England 2000-2006) and Matthew Gilbert (flanker currently with Bath) are the players that Stuart Lancaster needs to turn to for help.

However, as i explain in the book, due to the stigmatisation of deafness and the impact that this has on sports performance, both Cohen and Gilbert have suppressed their innate abilities and therefore do not have an acquired understanding of the ‘super power‘ within themselves.

As Andy Palmer, writing for the Limping Chicken explains, the England coaching team need to consult with the England Deaf Rugby team as they can learn from them. Lyndon James, secretary of the England Deaf Rugby Union explained to Palmer that by learning sign language high performance athletes will improve their visual awareness. I might add that they need to create their own system of signs that cannot be intercepted by the opposition.

sports coach UK currently provides a workshop “Effective Communication” which is based on the non-verbal communication skills innate in deaf and non-deaf people that can be enhanced to improve sports performance. This workshop has been designed by myself, representing UK Deaf Sport in partnership with the NDCS and sports coach UK. Feedback from participants is having the desired effect that i intended the workshop to produce – not only do delegates develop a realisation that these skills give them a little more confidence to work with deaf performers but they can be applied to everyone that they coach.

The disco lights might have an outside chance to improve the peripheral vision of players and lead to a few more tries, but they have much much more to gain by developing their non-verbal skills which will lead to enhanced visual awareness – a much more natural state of performance development.

The first step is to get Stuart Lancaster and the entire England coaching staff onto the sports coach UK workshop along with the England Deaf rugby team and they will realise within three hours what their solutions are.

I have briefly mentioned here that is not only a physiological problem – the impact of being unable to hear, but it is also a sociological problem – the stigmatisation of deafness. The impact of Milan 1880 and the difficulties of accepting deafness has far reaching implications for deaf people in sport. The book Same Spirit Different Team is a must read if you want to know more about this fascinating subject.

Ex England and New Zealand international Jamie Salmon is already reading his copy of Same Spirit Different Team – who will he help first England or New Zealand ?