When Heather Whitestone became the first deaf contestant to win the Miss America pageant in 1995, she wowed the judges with moving classical ballet en pointe for the talent portion of the competition. Because she couldn't hear the music, she counted the beats in her head and synchronized her dance moves to reflect changes in pitch.
As Miss America, Heather helped launch the nation's largest multi-media public awareness campaign to identify early hearing loss. She certainly wasn't the first deaf athlete, but as a national title-holder she became a role model for thousands of young hard-of-hearing, would-be dancers all over the country.
Other competitive deaf athletes have competed on the world stage, too. American diver Chris Colwill and WNBA player Tamika Catchings competed in the 2008 Olympic games in Beijing. Deaf swimmer Marcus Titus posted the fastest time by an American in the 100-meter breaststroke before narrowly losing a spot on the 2012 Olympic team by .79 of a second.
Other individuals with hearing loss may not be Olympic-class athletes but with a few adjustments they can still enjoy their favorite sport, regardless of whether it's a casual game of golf on the weekends or a competitive game of tennis at the local tennis court.
- Tell your audiologist what sport you play. The type of hearing aid you use will depend as much upon the amount of physical activity you exert as it does your level of hearing loss. Hearing aids that fit inside the ear canal (ITE) are more protected from elements such as wind and rain, those that fit behind the ear (BTE) can be secured to your clothing with specialized gear to prevent damage from accidental falls.
- Invest in protective gear for your hearing aid. Athletes who wear hearing aids often damage them when they accidentally fall out or from too much moisture. If you swim or play a sport where excessive perspiration is a concern, consider investing in water resistant hearing aids. At the very least, purchase a hearing aid dryer or dehumidifier. These small, inexpensive units dry the excess moisture in the battery compartment at night while you sleep. Additional inexpensive accessories, such as sweat bands and cords, keep perspiration and other moisture away from BTEs while securing them to your clothing to guard against accidental falls.
- Keep friends and teammates informed. Some athletes opt not to wear their hearing aids during competition. This is a personal decision and should be carefully considered. If this is your choice, let your teammates and officials know so they can alert you to game whistles or other warnings and signals.
- Lobby for changes in your sport. Many sports already incorporate sign language or hand signals as a result of the influence of hearing impaired athletes. A long-held theory is that William Elsworth Hoy was the first to use hand signals in baseball in 1886. William, who was deaf, played centerfield for the Oshkosh baseball club and developed a set of hand signals to communicate with his third base coach. Paul Hubbard, a deaf quarterback for Gallaudet University, is credited with inventing the huddle in 1894. And deaf swimmer Marcus Titus successfully lobbied for the use of hand signals at the 2012 US Olympic trials races.
- Compete in the Deaflympics. If you're a competitive hearing impaired athlete, you may also want to investigate competing in, or at least attending the Deaflympics. More information on these world-class athletes can be found at deaflympics.com.