• Breaking down invisible barriers

    14m 59s

    Irena has a deep passion for projects that promote healthier lifestyles, particularly access to sports for children who are deaf or hard of hearing.Irena has been involved with Deaf Sports Australia for 8 years where she established the Active Deaf Kids and Active Deaf Sports Club programs.
 Key takeouts
  • Deaf and hard of hearing children are at greater risk of developing mental and physical health issues than their hearing peers because of the isolation they experience.
  • Self identity and self-esteem are important for young deaf kids - knowing that there are other deaf kids in the same position helps with improving self identity.
  • Role models for deaf kids provides a sense of connection and something to look up and aspire to. 
  • Basic sport specific sign language for coaches builds confidence of coaches to include deaf and hard of hearing kids. 
  • It's important for coaches to be creative about what they do and how they communicate with deaf and hard of hearing kids.
  • Collaborate with Deaf Sports Australia and use their expertise, resources and networks. 
  • Having a positive attitude toward the inclusion of people who are deaf or hard of hearing really helps collaboration and creating new opportunities in sport.
When I meet people for the first time, a lot of them become quite surprised that I’m actually deaf and they go, “Oh, are you deaf?” and I go, “Yes, I am”. “But you speak so well” so I was actually born deaf but I learned to speak when I grew up since I was a baby and even though I do wear hearing aids, I can only hear about 60% of sounds around me so in some ways I do have an invisible disability.
So anyway, I just want to share some facts with you. One in six Australians currently have a hearing loss. About 30,000 of them choose Auslan as their first language which is Australian sign language and it is projected that one in four Australians will have a hearing loss by 2030 so that’s quite a few years away. That’s a big jump and most of it is due to people are wearing MP3 players which are loud in the ears and other factors, genetic factors as well so there’s a lot of different ways of how people become deaf or lose their hearing through illness and so on.
90% of deaf children are born to hearing parents. The first thing the parents hear from their doctors is when they find out their child is deaf, “I’ve got bad news. Your child is deaf” so for most parents it’s like that’s a bad thing. They feel negative about it so their first point of contact is doctors and the next step is getting their child hearing aids or Cochlear implants thinking it will fix their hearing loss.
More than 83% of deaf children and teenagers attend mainstream schools where they are often the only student in their class or school who are deaf or hard of hearing. It’s quite common around Australia. I’ve met so many deaf and hard of hearing kids who actually – maybe one or two in each school across the country. Deaf and hard of hearing children are at greater risk of developing mental and physical health issues than their hearing peers because of the isolation they experience.
So, because of those issues Deaf Sports Australia have put together a program called the Active Deaf Kids Program. It’s been running for the last five years around Australia. I will just talk about some of the positive impacts that have come out of this program.
This kind of program helps deaf and hard of hearing kids increase their social skills as well not only in sports but also outside of sports. I had a father in Canberra and he came up to me before an Active Deaf Sports clinic and he said, “Can we have a chat about my son? I find that he’s very angry at home. He’s always very frustrated. We try to communicate with him but he’s always angry. We think he might have ADHD” so I introduced him to some parents at the clinic so that maybe they can have a chat and work with each other, and his son to play with deaf kids and he met them for the first time at the same time as well. A few weeks later, the father emailed me. “Oh, thank you so much for the clinic. My son does not have ADHD. It’s simply because my son finds it very frustrating communicating with me and we’ve tried to find a way to communicate with him” so now because the father developed a network with other parents; they hang out together. He’s learning Auslan, the same with the son as well so the son actually catches up with his friends that he met at the clinic, so it just shows that it’s not always just about the condition. It’s about interaction and for the kids to build on that confidence socially as well.
Self-identity - that’s really important. A lot of the kids that I meet through the ADK Program – “Oh how are you going?” and most of them don’t identify themselves as deaf. “Oh, I’m not deaf. I just have a hearing problem”. They’re quite embarrassed about it. They’re quite embarrassed to be called deaf but once they meet other deaf people whom most of them meet for the first time through the ADK Program because like I said, they come from mainstream schools, they go, “Oh so you’re deaf? Me deaf. Oh okay, you’re deaf too” and they talk about their hearing aids, Cochlear implants and they find something in common and it makes you feel like it’s okay being deaf.
I grew up in a family, a Greek/Italian family and I thought I was the only deaf person in the world so until I met a lot of other deaf people and thinking, “Oh okay, I’m not the only deaf person in the world. I’ve got other deaf friends as well”.
Role models – that’s also very important. A lot of the kids that I met they often find it hard to identify with Olympians or Paralympians. “Yes, he’s a good player or maybe an NBA player – Kobe Bryant or so. Oh yeah, he’s cool. I like his playing style, and so on” but when they meet a Deaflympian. “Did you go to the Deaf Olympics – are you same as me?” or they might meet an older deaf and hard of hearing person, it doesn’t have to be sport. “So, you’re deaf too?” We can share the same experiences, so it gives them a sense of connection that they can feel strongly about.
Also with support once they get into a program like this they actually feel they’re supported. It doesn’t matter where they are, at school or at home they feel like they have that connection, self-identity and they feel like they’re getting that support that they need and self-esteem is similar. There are very strong links between self-identity and self-esteem so once a deaf child is okay with being deaf, they get that confidence. Most of them go, “No, I’m not deaf, no”. That’s a very negative thought on their own part but once they accept that that is okay for them to be deaf they get that confidence by meeting other deaf people and also the fact that once a deaf child or hard of hearing child becomes confident in themselves they perform academically a lot better and research proves that if a child is confident in themselves their schooling is improved and this is life changing for most of us and for the kids too.
While I was running the Active Deaf Kids Program I actually invited coaches from all different National sports organisations or State sports organisations. A lot of them had never worked with deaf or hard of hearing kids before. A lot of them come up to me and said, “Oh, how do I communicate with them? What’s the best way for me to talk with them? I’ve never done this before. I don’t know how to” and I’ve met coaches who also have said, “No, I don’t want to coach deaf or hard of hearing people”. It’s not because they don’t want to. They just don’t know how to. So, we came up with this idea, while we work with deaf kids getting them involved in sports and building up confidence and so on, we can do the same for coaches to build that bridge between them too” so we came up with the Active Deaf Sports Club Program.
Of course, once a coach learns inclusions skills they start including deaf and hard of hearing kids or people in their program, they get to learn sport specifics sign language. They’ll be involved in the Auslan Course maybe for tennis for example, we are rolling out an Active Deaf Sports Club Program for tennis clubs around Victoria at the moment. For example, they will do a 4 to 6 weeks course learning basics on language plus tennis specifics sign language. So when I talk about learning a new language, it’s like learning Spanish so rather than go to a two or three-year course to learn Spanish it is customised so they could learn basics on language like “Hi, how are you, good, bad?” and also tennis specifics sign language. They focus on tennis like the serve, forehand and backhand so the coaches when they communicate with their participant they know how to do it because it’s usually an outdoor court or indoor court but it’s a really wide-open space, so they can get that communication going by using language, and body language as well. The kids will be able to understand and I believe that not only deaf kids could benefit from that but even hearing kids too. Even hearing kids will rely on visual movement, body language and they will pick up on that as well.
Also, just going back on inclusion, I have one - a Deaflympian herself, her name is Hannah, and before the Deaflympic Games that were held in Turkey this year, a few months ago, she was actually involved in a swimming club and her coach was very well spoken but she had some issues where he would speak very quickly very often and she will have to remind him, “Sorry, speak slowly. Write on the whiteboard” and sometimes he would remember and sometimes he would forget so then as time went on she felt that her performance wasn’t improving so after the Deaflympic Games she left that club to go to another club where she felt that she would probably get better support and what an amazing difference it does make. 
The coach at the club will actually spent time with her. He actually filmed her swimming e.g. “If I’m teaching her how to swim and she wants to show technique, I explained that when you swim you move your hands flat and then you turn to your right a bit” but for someone, if I tell you that in three or four words, everyone will not get the same way of doing it if that makes sense so the coach what he did, he filmed her and then he goes, “Oh come here. Look at the video. This is what you’re doing but I need you to move your hands a little bit that way or whatever and your feet need to be out that way” so by visualising with her and showing what needs to be done, she improved after that and she was like, “Wow, I feel more competent in myself, in my ability to swim better so it’s all about coaches being able to take on and maybe be creative about what they do and how they communicate with deaf and hard of hearing kids.
Empowerment – of course it’s really important it’s like one coach learns their skill. They become empowered and know what to do so it won’t be like, “I don’t know what to do”. “I think I know the kid. Come along, yes I’ve done this before. How can we work together?” so it’s all about giving coaches empowerment and like I said deaf and hard of hearing kids have role models like Deaflympians or older deaf and hard of hearing kids but I can tell a lot of them look up to their coaches so once a coach makes the effort to communicate with them and they develop that relationship, they build that trust and come through with each other and of course the kids or the participant will be like, “I really love my coach. He’s so cool”. Just like Hannah. Now she comes up to me and says, “I love my new coach. We have a great relationship. He makes feel confident in myself” so that’s really important and through this program we give coaches the support and the tools that they need to feel that they can feel well supported so they can continue ensuring they have the skills to deliver whatever they need; the communication needs or whatever they need to do. Deaf Sports Australia will always be around to support them for the long-term.
Also, another thing is the talent identification. Deaf Sports Australia actually needs a stronger talent identification program so when coaches come into the picture we can get their help in identifying deaf and hard of hearing kids and I say this because a lot of deaf and hard of hearing kids are from all over Australia and like I said before they come from mainstream schools so there is no way of finding out if maybe a deaf Ian Thorpe could be out there somewhere so the more coaches are getting involved, the more coaches can identify them it’s “Oh, I will contact Deaf Sports Australia. We’ve got this deaf kid. I think he has a lot of potential, so we’ll make sure he gets involved in mainstream sports or even swimming competitions or Athletics with Disability competitions and make sure he gets involved, gets what he needs and so on to identify his ability further”.
So, what can we do to continue breaking down the invisible barriers? Collaborate with Deaf Sports Australia to set up inclusive programs and obtain resources. We have a whole range of information and resources that we can share with you. Get involved with the Active Deaf Kids and Active Deaf Sports Clubs Program and even though you may not be involved with the Active Deaf Sports Clubs Programs or Active Deaf Programs we could still teach you inclusive practices – a bit of sign language and so on.
Encourage a sports club and members to be aware that everybody has different needs. Just because a deaf person walks into a club and they can speak well doesn’t mean they can hear perfectly. I still find it very hard to try and hear everything and that’s why I’m reliant on language interpreters. I may hear some sounds. I may not. I may hear someone talk, their voice. I may hear their voice but not understand what they’re actually saying. It’s different between deaf people. Some deaf people are actually totally deaf and they rely on sign language. Some of them a bit of both. Some of them no problem. They can hear but their hearing loss is so light enough for them to still have hearing aids that they can hear better so there’s a whole range of different hearing loss levels that everybody experiences. They have different needs and different abilities.
Also, I need your help in supporting Deaf Sports Australia talent identification of potential athletes to ensure stronger pathways to Deaflympic Games, World Games and Asia Pacific Games for the Deaf.
So, I have always believed that having a positive attitude will always help people work together. My whole life, even though I’ve had a lot of barriers I’ve always believed that having a positive attitude gets me through and makes me work with people and create achievements and better results for all so thank you for listening.