Made of Stone | Tackling The Stigma Of Snowboarding And Skiing While Deaf
"I am strong, and I most certainly can do it."
“Oh, you’re deaf?" the guy in front of me suddenly exclaims.
Everyone seems to internally groan, shifting their weight awkwardly on their snowboards and skis, prodding the snow with their poles; suddenly finding a clump of ice that looks really bloody interesting. “Do you speak sign language?" he continues, waving his mittens and arms in the air, poles flying dangerously in all directions from the straps around his wrists.
Once again I am unbelievably grateful for my helmet, my thick goggles and swaddles of fabric around my neck because underneath it all, my face is burning up.
“Do you speak sign language?" he continues, waving his mittens and arms in the air, poles flying dangerously in all directions
I’m tired from riding up and down the mountain all day and pushing my legs to their absolute limits. And I’m still eager to get another three rides in on the lift before they close, but a void of good humour and mirth opens up because this is perhaps the third time in the space of a few days I’ve come up close and personal with someone who still treats me like a novelty.
Sliding down the mountain and away from the group of people who seem to find it hilarious that they can sign the word for “bullsh*t" with two hands, I’m struck with a sense of sheer determination.
It’s defining moments like these that remind me why I got into snowsports in the first place. A burning desire to prove everyone, myself, the doubters, the haters, my parents, my teachers, my friends that they’re wrong. I am strong, and I most certainly can do it.
"It’s moments like these that remind me why I got into snowsports in the first place. A burning desire to prove everyone… wrong."
Sometimes it seems like the general consensus is people with invisible disabilities such as deafness, sensory loss and mental health issues need to be handled with cotton wool, and a large soft pillow provided for them when they fall. We’re living in a decade where everything suddenly seems to have become über-fragile; an offensive advert might trigger emotional distress in some, and falling and hurting oneself might induce the feelings of failure and inadequacy…
It’s a common mistake to assume people with disabilities are suffering. But as someone who takes part in a sport where one of the main objectives is to wipe out as spectacularly as possible, pick myself up and go again, it gives me drive; and a strong reminder to myself not to let my disability govern my lifestyle. Strong people, those that conquer their fears, disabilities and insecurities, stand out of the crowd like superhumans.
"I learnt to ski in Breckenridge when I was 6 years old, and at the time when my hearing was rapidly slipping through my fingers."
I lost my hearing gradually between the ages of four and seven. Annoyingly, no one knows why. I spent my childhood being prodded with needles and syringes trying to find the root of the cause and they got as far as “genetic reasons" before packing it in and going to the pub. I’m not a sign language user, which isolates me from the deaf community and puts me in some sort of weird limbo world between the fully hearing, and the deaf.
Pretty unsurprisingly, I’ve always sucked at sports. At school I spent the majority of PE lessons having tennis balls/ netballs/footballs/and in one case a rugby ball being bounced off the side of my head. My PE teachers despaired, my mother shook her head sadly at my report card, and at a young age I came to terms with the fact that team sports were never going to be for me. I was a frequent bench warmer and usually the last to be picked for teams. The only sports I enjoyed were the ones where I could go solo. I excelled at horse riding, climbing, kayaking, mountain biking, and as I grew older just about anything on snow became my niche.
I learnt to ski in Breckenridge when I was 6 years old, and at the time when my hearing was rapidly slipping through my fingers. Although I don’t remember much, I can recall being lumped into the ski school and sitting paralysed with fear, surrounded by a cacophony of confusing voices with numerous different accents. I refused to take my hat off during the introductions and the warm ups, seeking some sort of safety from a strange and alienating world from behind my wooly warm clothes.
It all finally clicked when we hit the slopes and it became a game of watch-and-copy. You don’t need two working ears to mimic someone’s movements and soon I was at the front of my class and moving up levels, much to the delighted surprise of my instructors. The same principle of watch-and-copy applied to when I first picked up a snowboard in my teens.
"You don’t need two working ears to mimic someone’s movements and soon I was at the front of my class and moving up levels"
A lot of people look wistful when I tell them I’m deaf with two hearing aids in my ears. Explaining to them that with my hearing aids in, I can hear (just about) what the average person can hear but all noises are scrambled, unfiltered and unless I’m focusing on the source of where the sound is coming from, it’s quite often just “noise" for me. But without them, I’m as deaf as a post (sorry… it had to be done).
“I would love to be able to just switch off," people say sighing and leaning forward on their hands, “and enjoy a few minutes, or hours, of just silence."
I laugh. But the truth is, silence may seem like an attractive prospect for some, it’s very much the opposite for me. And then there’s the internal pitying moment of “Oh Christ, you really have no idea, do you?"
"The truth is, silence may seem like an attractive prospect for some, it’s very much the opposite for…"
Maybe when you’re standing in the middle of a club at 3am and the music and people have long stopped making any sense, I can sympathise that it might be nice to just tune out. But when you’re on the side of the mountain, having all of your senses tuned in are crucial when it comes to avoiding an accident.
The last few years have been great for raising awareness about disability in sport, and indeed, action sports. A spotlight on the Winter Paralympics, Disability Snowsport UK going from strength to strength, and a rising commercial interest in those superhumans who go above and beyond what society would expect of them. Combined, this has allowed disabled people, in all their shapes and sizes, to slowly emerge and show the world what they’re capable of.
But it seems as if regardless of how well we ride, how well we speak and how well we dress, the second that the word “deaf" or “disabled" is thrown into the mix, people's attitudes almost instantly change. My friend’s younger sister, born deaf due to complications in pregnancy is an avid skier and we discussed how you can almost read in their eyes and facial expressions that they’re processing the inner conflict of: “But you don’t look like a deaf person?!"
Someone, after a few drinks, will probably be slurring their words as they say: “Oh honey, you are just so brave."
Being confronted by the unknown can bring out some interesting characteristics in people, and it seems like the main one is that even the nicest people can descend into becoming hilariously, awkwardly and bumbling-ly patronising when faced with someone with sensory disabilities. More often than not, people think they’re helping when they reach out to you and offer to shadow you down the mountain, or, embarrassingly, take enormous steps to repeat everything that everyone is saying to you on the chairlift, in a painfully loud and slow voice.
Someone, after a few drinks, will probably be slurring their words as they say: “Oh honey, you are just so brave. I wish I had an ounce of drive and bravery that you have." Which reinforces that rather odd assumption that we struggle with being the people that we are.
Then there’s probably a bloke who opens a conversation with something like: “Having been out on the mountain with you today, I am impressed. You’re pretty good… for a deaf person." And then proceeds to give you everything he knows on hearing loss, his carefully planned consensus on how deaf people just need to listen more, and he might even throw in a few wizened old tales about how he once knew a deaf person. And no, it definitely wasn’t his Gran.
And then, last but not the least, there are those who are completely and utterly oblivious. After apologising and explaining to a man in the gondola for saying “Sorry/ what/ pardon?" repeatedly, he suddenly turned deadly serious. Pulling his goggles away from his face he stared at me for a second, before leaning forward and saying “... Does that mean you have night vision?"
Any person with a sensory disability (both on and off the slopes) will tell you that there needs to be more awareness about our presence in the action sports world, and that regardless of our shortfalls, we can keep up. As I stated previously it’s been a fantastic few years for the rising awareness of disabled participants in sports, and with the Olympics and Paralympics 2016 just around the corner, the hashtag #Supercharge (the official supporting hashtag for ParalympicsGB) is picking up momentum by the second.
Numerous disability charities are already campaigning for change. The disability charity Scope brought us their hilarious campaign, #EndTheAwkward; their YouTube series and web pages shone a funny but informative light on the everyday lives of the disabled and the cringe-worthy reactions they get. Just because I can’t hear doesn’t mean that I am not capable of tearing it up in the park, playing cat and mouse on the singletrack, and pushing my body and my mind to its constant limits. When it comes to thinking about what defines a superhuman, I am proud to say that I am part of a community of people who constantly push their own personal limits and turn their disadvantages into advantages.
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No time like now to offer a helping hand in the world of snowsports to those who need it.