Changing of the Guard


Glen Flindell

I was at the Australian Open tennis last weekend. There was a special tournament on featuring Deaf tennis players from all over the world. My mate, Glen Flindell, was playing. He is knocking on 43 and he is still out there. He has probably seen better days but he can still give the youngsters a run for their money. The tournament was probably a bit of a changing of the guard as far as Deaf tennis in Australia goes. He jokingly told me he was over the hill and wished he had a time capsule to take him back ten or fifteen years to when he was at his peak. Indeed, Ashlee Narker, at just 16 years of age, was beating everyone in sight at singles and doubles. She eventually won the tournament. Australia’s Deaf tennis is in good hands.

I watched Narker play her doubles match. Sitting next to me was a nine year old deaf boy. He was an Auslan user and had two cochlear implants. On his implants he had magnets of Buzz Lightyear and what looked like a replica of a red and white ice hockey puck. I thought of my day when I was a young deaf lad. I was encouraged to wear my hair long to cover my hearing aids. Here was this young lad with neon green cochlear implants, further being shown off by bright red cartoon magnets. His mother told me he had a whole collection of these magnets that he wore with pride. It is how it should be.

I had a chat with this young boy. I signed to him and asked him who he was going for. Narker was playing doubles. Her partner was a brilliant young woman from Tapei. Their opponents were from Greece and Japan respectively. The young lad was of Asian descent and told me he was going for the team with the Australian in it. Indeed, watching Narker would have been inspirational for him. He chatted about his school and the fact he was returning to school on Monday after the holidays. I suggested to him that in 7 years time, when he was 16, he would be out there playing just like Narker. He flashed me a beaming smile and nodded in agreement. You could see that Narker was his inspiration.

Ashlee Narker.

From Flindell to Narker and this 9 year old deaf boy, I was acutely aware that the Deaf community was seeing a changing of the guard. But what would the future be for this 9 year old deaf boy? He was possibly watching Deaf sport for the first time. I wonder what impact it was having on him. I remembered my first involvement in Deaf Sport. Every single member of my team signed. I was a fledging Auslan user at the time. It was an eye opener for me.

Over the years I was involved in the Australian Deaf Games. Through cricket, golf and soccer. Auslan was always central to our communication and sense of community. In 2005 I volunteered for the Deaflympics in Melbourne. Deaf people from all over the world. Different sign languages from different countries. Sign language was central to everything. Everywhere you looked people were signing. These are the memories that I and others took away from these events. The sport was important but that sense of community and cultural gathering was what it was all about.

So here I was at the Australian Open, watching the Deaf tennis. In the stand I caught up with the Deaf community. Of course, we all were using Auslan. People I hadn’t seen for a while, big smiles big hugs and endless conversations in Auslan. Marnie and I are becoming grandparents. Everyone was asking questions about the little one. Oldies like me exchanged health stories. Hip replacements, knee replacements, medication and tales of where their children were now. It was marvelous. It would have been brilliant for this nine year old Auslan user to see.

But out on the court it was different. None of the players seemed to sign. The umpires did a little bit. They would brush the top of their hands to indicate a let. They would use number signs to indicate the score for the deaf players. But as I watched these deaf players, seemingly none of them signed. I watched Australia’s John Lui get beaten by a hard hitting player from India. No one spoke, no one signed – they were fully immersed in the game. They shook hands at the net, they spoke to each other, they didn’t sign. I thought that was odd.

I went to watch the next game. The Indian player who had beaten Lui sat in front of me with two people who were probably his parents. He had two hearing aids on. He and his parents conversed in spoken language. No signing. They may as well have been hearing. I looked out at the game I was watching, Narker was playing. I could clearly see Auslan interpreters behind the umpires chair. There was a minor disagreement as to whether the ball was in or out. The foreign player spoke to the umpire, the umpire spoke back. No need for the interpreters. Narker and the foreign player said something to each other. No signing.

I watched the doubles. Surely now the players would sign to each other. Alas, no. It was interesting to watch. The doubles teams would get together to talk tactics. One would turn their back on their opponents and the other would stand directly in front of them so that their opponents could not see what they were conversing about. I felt for sure they would sign to each other, just small signs but hidden from their opponents. But no, they spoke to each other. I found this strange, not because they didn’t sign but because the doubles partners were from completely different countries. I wondered how much they had actually understood of each other and how much was bluff. Plenty of nods and thumbs up, but I wondered if some of this was actually a Deaf Nod and they had no clue what the other had said. Cynical of me, I know.

I did note that they had some signals that they would use behind their backs when their partners were serving. This is common in tennis and does not really equate to sign language. Despite this. my observation was that communication was primarily spoken language. From what I could see sign language was absent or distinctly in the minority.

Later, I watched Australian women’s players, Narker and Macy, socialising with each other. They were obviously good mates but they didn’t sign to each other ether. I watched Macy play doubles with her German partner – no signing, they spoke. I watched Narker play with her partner from Taipei – they spoke too. They were playing against a Greek and Japanese combination who spoke to each other as well. For me, an old fart from the past who came from a time where participants of deaf sport all signed and where if you were oral you either learnt to sign or sunk without trace, it was a huge culture shock.

I wondered if this is the way of the future. I wondered if cochlear implants have become so dominant, where speech has become so dominant over sign languages, that this is the future of Deaf sport. I wondered if in the future Deaf sport will be dominated by these oral implantees and where signing participants will be the minority. Rather than this huge gathering of signing sports people that I had experienced, those that sign will be the minority. Confined to small pockets where they communicate with each other while the oral dominant participants SPEAK to each other.

Is that the changing of the guard that we are witnessing. I hope for my nine year old Deaf Auslan user friend that this is not the case. I hope that Deaf sport will always be about the Deaf community, its culture and its beautiful and diverse sign languages. Because while the sport is important it is not as important as the Community for which Deaf games have always been a cultural gathering of significance. My wife tells me she noticed a couple participants signing off court. Who knows, may be I am overreacting.

Interesting times, interesting times indeed.

Footnote** I write this piece, not to start a war about communication methods, rather as an observational piece as to how the make up of the Deaf community and institutions like sporting events have seemingly changed over the years.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.