In the world of international sports, there are the Olympic Games and competitions for disabled athletes, such as the Paralympic Games, World Games for the Deaf, and the Special Olympics. The Olympic Games, by its very nature, is not accessible to most disabled athletes.
The formation of special competitions for athletes, who are physically or mentally disabled, or who are Deaf, has been of tremendous benefit to athletes who have never been given the opportunity to strive to reach the pinnacle of competition.
However, there is a common misconception among the non-deaf community that deafness is simply another form of disability; that it is a minority subgroup among the greater disabled community. This misconception has led to the question: Why do not all disabled athletes, including the Deaf, compete together in just one Games? This essay presents the perspective of the Deaf community in response to this question.
Understanding the History of the World Games for the Deaf
The Olympic Games, as most people are aware, are for able-bodied athletes. The modern version has been celebrated since 1896, when they were revived by Baron de Coubertin. These Games have never been accessible to the disabled athlete.
The World Games for the Deaf were founded in 1924 and have been celebrated ever since. The Paralympic Games were first held in Rome in 1960. They were preceded by the Wheelchair Games in 1948. The Rome competitions were limited to wheelchair athletes. In later years they were expanded to include athletes with cerebral palsy, visual impairment, amputees and others. The 1996 Paralympics included some athletes with mental impairments.
The Comité International des Sports des Sourds (CISS) is the body which controls the World Games for the Deaf (referred to as Deaf Games). It is composed of national Deaf sports organisations and is managed by an executive committee of eight persons, all of whom are Deaf.
It has been recognized by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) since 1955.
In 1966 the IOC awarded it the Coubertin Cup in recognition of its strict adherence to the Olympic ideal and its service to international sport.
In 1985, IOC President, Mr. Juan Antonio Samaranch requested the CISS to join the International Coordinating Committee (predecessor of the International Paralympic Committee [IPC]) to provide an organizational structure for disabled sports within the IOC. Upon receiving assurance that it would retain its autonomy and continue with its own Games, the CISS agreed, and in 1986 was admitted.
When the ICC was superseded by the IPC, CISS became a founding member of the IPC, after negotiating an agreement to retain autonomy, continue its own Games and share in any revenue raised for disabled sport. This did not meet with universal approval of the other disabled sport organisations. Nevertheless the IPC was formed, and CISS took its place on the executive committee.
Toward 1990, the problems escalated. There was a great deal of confusion in the National Olympic Committees about the status of the Deaf Games and the Deaf athlete. Many of the national Deaf sport organisations, which formerly had direct and harmonious ties to their National Olympic Committee, lost these links and were forced into a national disabled sport organisation, losing their autonomy and much of their funding. Some were even denied permission to participate in the Deaf Games, and were told to participate in the Paralympic Games, despite the fact that there were no Deaf competitions available. Attempts to get the IPC to intervene and help resolve these conflicts were unsuccessful. Further more, the IPC did not share IOC funds in spite of the original agreement.
Finally, the members of CISS, after considerable debate, decided that the only way to resolve this confusion between the Paralympics and Deaf Games was to either resign its membership or give up the Deaf Games and participate in the Paralympic Games. At its 1993 Congress in Sofia, Bulgaria, the delegates instructed the executive committee to explore the consequences of these two options and report back at the 1995 Congress.
The CISS asked the IPC what would be involved in the participation of Deaf athletes in the Paralympic Games with regard to the number of athletes, the types of events, the provision of interpreters and the control of competitions. The CISS also asked the IOC about the consequences if the CISS left the IPC, and whether the IOC would still recognize the Deaf Games.
The IPC did not formally reply. In private, it made clear it valued CISS’ membership, but said the participation of Deaf athletes in the Paralympics would have to be negotiated later. The IOC stated that if the CISS wanted to leave the IPC it could do so if this was the strong desire of its members. The IOC also said it would continue to recognize the CISS and the Deaf Games. CISS delegates soon voted without dissent to withdraw from the IPC.
Why the Deaf Community Needs Separate Games
Among the Deaf community there is overwhelming support for separate Games. Deaf people do not consider themselves disabled, particularly in physical ability. Rather, we consider ourselves to be part of a cultural and linguistic minority.
The Deaf athlete is physically able-bodied and able to compete without significant restrictions, with the exception of communication barriers. In team sports and some individual events, hearing loss can be limiting. However, these restrictions disappear in the Deaf Games. The sports and their rules are identical to those of able-bodied athletes. There are no special sports, and the only adaptations are to make auditory cues visible. For example, we use strobe lights for starting signals. Among the athletes allowed to compete in the Deaf Games there are no classifications or restrictions except for the requirement that each have a hearing loss of at least 55 decibels in the better ear.
By comparison, in the Paralympic Games many events are adapted. Because of the great range of physical qualities, athletes competing in the Paralympic Games have had to be classified according to ability. This classification system is complex and intended to create a level playing field for the athletes. Where there are not enough athletes, classifications may be combined. For example, there are eight classifications for cerebral palsy athletes, three for the visually impaired, nine for amputees and one for athletes who are intellectually disabled. For athletes with spinal injuries, there are a number of classifications depending on which sports are played, and for swimming there are ten classifications.
The Deaf athlete views the disabled athlete as being a hearing person first and disabled second. When athletes congregate at the Paralympics, or when hearing and Deaf people congregate at any event, the hearing people, regardless of physical limitations, are able to converse freely with each other as long as they have a common language. The Deaf athlete, however, is always excluded from the group. On the other hand, at the Deaf Games, or any other event at which Deaf people meet, Deaf athletes can usually communicate other Deaf athletes, regardless of which country they may be representing.
In the Deaf Games, athletes are able to compete and interact with others freely and without sign language interpreters, except where hearing officials are involved. If Deaf athletes were to compete in the Paralympic Games, then numerous sign language interpreters would be necessary to bridge this communication barrier, otherwise the Deaf athletes would be completely separated from all disabled athletes. The very purpose of the Games – to bring athletes together – would be lost.
The Paralympic Games already faces strict limits on the number of competitors. Many did not want to include the mentally handicapped athletes (the Special Olympics for the mentally handicapped is a private organisation and not part of the IPC), partly because of the additional numbers.
In Atlanta, nearly 4,000 athletes competed in the Paralympic Games. The Deaf Games usually attracts 2,500 athletes. It is obvious that the Paralympics would not be able to absorb such a large number. Some athletes in other disabilities would need to be cut back to allow a limited number of Deaf athletes to participate. All disabled athletes would suffer as a consequence.
Would the combination of all disabled and Deaf athletes be a benefit to the Paralympic Games economically, competitively and individually?
We do not think it will.
While it may be true that all able-bodied athletes compete in one Olympic Games, it is hardly true that all disabled athletes compete in one Paralympic Games. In the Olympic Games there are two competitions, for example, in the 100-metre dash – one for men and one for women.
In the Paralympic Games, there are many more competitions, due to the classification system, so actually there are many mini-games, within the Paralympic Games. If Deaf athletes take part, there would be still another mini-games, with one major difference – the Deaf athletes would still be segregated from all other disabled athletes due to their communication difference.
The economy of scale is illusory. Having the Deaf athletes compete in the Paralympic Games rather than in their own separate Games would not save any money. On the contrary, it would cost more. At present, the Deaf Games are organised very economically, with the major costs involving sites and officials. Individual teams bear the usual costs of food, lodging, uniforms, equipment and support personnel. None of this would be reduced significantly.
Alternatively, if the Deaf athletes participate in what would essentially be a hearing competition, they would need many sign language interpreters in order to enable communication between the Deaf athletes, other athletes and officials. Skilled sign language interpreters are not easy to find and are expensive. The costs of recruiting, training and compensating the thousand or so sign language interpreters would be staggering.
Furthermore sign language interpreters while reducing the communication/ cultural barrier, cannot provide us with the barrier-free environment of our own community in which we flourish. At best, they provide a second-hand access to what other athletes enjoy directly.
With the present separate Deaf Games, we use only a few interpreters for direct communication with competition officials. All other communication is Deaf-to-Deaf and interpreters are not required.
As a group, Deaf people do not fit into either the able-bodied or disabled categories. It has been the oft-repeated experience of the Deaf community that our unique needs are lost when we are lumped into either category. Our limits are not physical; rather, they are outside of us, in the social realm of communication. Among hearing people, whether able-bodied or disabled, we are almost always excluded, invisible and unserved. Among ourselves however, we have no limits.