Hearing Like Me talks with one athlete going to the games: Emily Wilson. She is a distance runner and track star of the the USA Deaf Track and Field organization (USADTF). The USADTF has established a national Deaflympics track and field team. They will be showcasing their talents at this year’s Summer Deaflympics in Caxias do Sul, Brazil.
The Deaflympics are organized by the International Committee on Sports for the Deaf (ICSD). It allows d/Deaf athletes from all around the globe come together every four years to compete at the highest level. The games were created by deaf people, for deaf people. Launched in 1924 in Paris, the games were introduced as “The First International Silent Games.” The games have come a long way since then, with more than 100 countries participating.
To be considered for participation, the athlete must be deaf. The ICSD defines this classification on their regulations page as “at least 55dB in the better ear.” Athletes must also be a citizen of an ICSD nation member of the ICSD. Hearing aids or cochlear implants are not worn during any Deaflympics event. The motto is “Per Ludos Aequalitas,” which translates to “Equality through Sport.”
The founder of the Deaflympics, Eugene Rueben-Alcais, invented the games because he wanted to prove that deaf people were not inferior. Yet, nearly a century on, deaf athletes are still being denied the advantages that hearing athletes are given freely. Even though more and more athletes are joining each year, with thousands now in attendance, funding remains a major issue. Athletes are expected to come up with $4,500 to cover uniform expenses, international airfare, meals and accommodation, and more. While hearing athletes are handed money as a reward for their talents, deaf athletes of the same standard are being sent home with nothing but applause and a pat on the back.
Something that much of the hearing world seems to easily forget is that the deaf community has been adapting the structures laid out in this predominantly hearing society for centuries now. Deaf athletes have been demonstrating their unique strengths by setting world records at the Deaflympics and breaking down barriers ever since the 1924 Paris games. All you have to do is spend a few minutes scrolling through the Deaflympics website to see that the achievements are astounding. Apart from the inability to be guided by sound, there really are no significant restrictions when the right accommodations are made.
For instance, instead of using a whistle to signify the start of a race, coaches use visual cues such as hand signals and flags. Buzzers and starting guns can be replaced with light flashing systems. Deaf athletes strengths and abilities are in no way hindered. This begs the question: what does a hearing athlete have that a deaf athlete doesn’t? And why is one rewarded more than the other?
Luckily, Hearing Like Me found an insider who was able to shed light on all of this.
Emily Wilson shared stories of her upbringing as the second of four deaf children born to hearing parents. She was the first of her siblings to get cochlear implants when she was three years old. She underwent her second surgery when she was seven. Her parents were keenly aware of how strong she was even as a small child. They knew that she was going to turn out great no matter the outcome. Her middle name of Quinn is from a song called “The Mighty Quinn.”
Wilson attended school at Tucker Maxon in Portland, an inclusive educational institution that assists children with hearing loss by including hearing children at the school. Wilson remembers it vividly. She attended until she was old enough to be mainstreamed in first grade at a school closer to her.
Even though she was a tough kid, Wilson still experienced bullying when she switched schools. However, she says she is thankful for the experience.
“It taught a lot of people around me how to treat people, and educated them on deafness,” she says. “To this day I still have people reach out and apologize for how they treated me growing up. I know people change for the better, so it’s not something I’ll ever hold a grudge for.”
When she was in seventh grade, her teacher, Mr. Condon, established “Cry Day.” These were days set aside to teach kids the effects that bullying has on others. Living up to her title of “Mighty Quinn,” Wilson decided she would speak directly to the class and share how the bullying made her feel.
“It made everyone cry,” she recalls. “I still keep in contact with this teacher. Even though he says I changed his life, he changed mine. He taught people how to treat others and how to be strong and stand up for myself.”
Wilson was introduced to sports at a young age. Growing up, her parents met a lot of other parents who had deaf kids who wouldn’t let them play sports for fear of damaging their implants. Some held their kids back because they were worried about whether they were going to fit in. Wilson’s parents were the opposite. They’re big believers that sports can teach kids a lot of important life skills, even if they don’t go on to play sports professionally, she says.
“I’m forever thankful they got me in every sport ever,” Wilson says. “It instilled a lot of confidence in me and my interacting with other kids. I could’ve easily been the quiet, shut down kid. But I was a TALKER, even if I didn’t have great speech at the time. And that was because every coach I had was about communication.”
While Wilson’s physical abilities were by no means restricted to one field, there was a particular sport that stood out as time went on. After years of playing soccer, Wilson’s dad, who was also her coach, thought that running would help her improve as a soccer player.
It soon became clear to Wilson’s dad and Mr. Condon (who was also the head track coach) that she had a natural born talent for distance running. Their encouragement and excitement led to Wilson quitting soccer to focus on running by the time high school rolled around. This is when her passion for the sport really set in. The team of freshman girls won regionals and the state title. They went on to Nike cross nationals and did well years after that. Almost all of them went on to run in college.
Having people in her corner really drives Wilson, not the running itself.
“It’s the people who have always believed in me and don’t let me quit on myself,” she says. “Quitting on myself is really easy to do, especially as a deaf woman. People don’t care if you fail. But it’s the people who have picked me up, over and over, that I do it for. Specifically, my parents and my assistant coach at UNC. Not once did they give up on me. I don’t know if I’ll ever get picked up by a company, or if I’ll keep running once I’m officially done collegiately. But maybe the Deaflympics will change that path for me.”
Wilson shared some vulnerability when she admitted that mental health is her biggest barrier. She struggles with depression and anxiety, and knows a huge part of it is linked to her deafness.
“It’s hard being in your own world sometimes,” she says. “At night, when I take my implant off after reading lips all day, or even just signing with other people, I’m so drained because we’re in a world that is primarily hearing. Although we have accommodations and a deaf community, it doesn’t change everything else around us. The majority is still hearing. We’re still fighting for accommodations every day. We still live in a time of face masks, having to constantly ask people to pull their mask down or write things down. And we still have to ask people to be patient and empathetic, when really that’s simply just being a good person. It’s exhausting and it has burned me out so many times.”
Wilson has been supported by her school’s athletic department, which has gone above and beyond. Her golden Labrador Barley also provides a comfort that people can’t.
When asked why there is so little deaf representation in athletics, Wilson explained, “We lack representation because so many people quit sports or never try it because of their fear and lack of accommodations. They would rather avoid it altogether. I can’t help but think about how many deaf people are missing out on the experience to be a phenomenal athlete, or a collegiate athlete… not even just within Deaflympics, but as a whole. We deserve to be seen and allowed an equal opportunity to get into sports. The Deaflympics are all about celebrating the hardships deaf people have gone through, the culture and [on] a totally equal world stage where we don’t feel like we are the odd ones out. Instead, we get to be surrounded by thousands of deaf people. Some of us have never met other deaf people. It’s life changing.”
“We lack representation because so many people quit sports or never try it because of their fear and lack of accommodations.”
The USADTF does not receive financial assistance from the U.S Olympic Committee or the U.S. government. Deaf and hard of hearing athletes also do not receive any financial assistance from the government or sponsorships from large multi-national corporations. But hearing athletes do. This means the team had to fundraise the money and rely on donations to get Wilson to Brazil for the 2022 Deaflympics.
When asked if this is why deaf representation on the U.S team is so low, Wilson responds, “This is 100% the reason. It’s still baffling thinking about the lack of support available because of how many years the Deaflympics have been around. I also want to point out, almost every other country receives the same sponsoring that their Olympic teams do, same uniforms, gear and funding. I have no idea how or why the U.S is behind on this. I’ve been doing a lot of research and talking to a lot of people and companies who also want to change this alongside with me.“
Although Wilson has been reaching out to several companies who are interested in sponsoring her, they have never heard of the Deaflympics. She has identified the problem as being a lack of awareness surrounding the Deaflympics and its absence in mainstream media. Her graphic design degree will be put to use creating social media pages and bringing USADTF to a wider audience.
When Wilson was presented with the choice of walking at graduation or going to Brazil, she decided there was no better way to end her career as a collegiate athlete than representing her team and country. Bringing back a medal to the U.S would be a huge achievement. Wilson will be able to use the platform to continue raising awareness of the Deaflympics and USADTF.
Beyond Brazil, Wilson plans to form her own team outside of USADTF with other deaf friends who share the same mindset. It would work similarly to a Nike pro team run by a coach, but would be a team of deaf people.
“Having people who have similar backgrounds and deafness will instill even more drive in us to be great,” Wilson says. “I can’t help but think how much better of an athlete I’d be if I simply had one other deaf person to train with or lean on.”
“I can’t help but think how much better of an athlete I’d be if I simply had one other deaf person to train with or lean on.”
To the younger generation of deaf athletes who might be too nervous to try out, Wilson says to try EVERYTHING and meet EVERYONE.
“The world isn’t going to wait on us,” she says. “Instead we need to go take the world on! It’s up to us to make our own opportunities. What you’re putting into it will be what you get out of it. What if you’re missing out on the best thing in your life simply because you didn’t try or didn’t keep pushing forward? I’m not the fastest runner and may never run professionally, but I at least want to take this program in the right direction, bring people in, and show deaf kids that sports ARE meant for them.”
Until government bodies and companies with the power to make change recognize that supporting deaf athletes is a worthy investment, we must continue to be our own best allies and invest in ourselves. If you are in a position to offer support, please visit the USADTF donation page, where you can help to fund the next generation of athletes who deserve a recognized and supported place in the sporting world.
If you are passionate about running and want to become a part of the USADTF team, qualifying guidelines can be viewed here on their website.