Can You Row Being Deaf?

1 Jul

Helen Cooper (left) rowing at EnduRow Challenge with Paralympic Champion Naomi Riches

Yes you Can

“Yes You Can”. What you might not be able to do is compete as an adaptive athlete. But that doesn’t mean you can’t do adaptive rowing or take advantage of the support of an adaptive rowing programme, or even compete in adaptive events.

“Deafness” (also referred to as “hearing impairment”, but that term is used less these days) is not included as a classifiable impairment for either “adaptive” (AR) or “pararowing” (PR) classifications. But as you can read below, our guest contributor, Helen Cooper, finds the adaptive/para rowing squad especially suited to support the issues that her impairment presents so that she can enjoy the sport the most fully. And, she is also able to compete as Marlow couples her with a classified athlete (not deaf so that they can provide the hearing for the boat) and so Helen rows as a “support” rower in “Supported Adaptive 2x” competitions:

I’ve only been rowing for about 10 months now but, I feel like I have been part of the Marlow RC Adaptive Squad for much longer. I was welcomed into such a wonderful group of people where it seems like everyone understands one another, even though we all have different disabilities or support someone who has a disability. When I come down to the club sessions I feel included and not a minority, knowing that I won’t have to face adversity from people who don’t understand how my deafness, ADHD and sensory processing difficulties affect me.

Training with the adaptive squad is much easier for me than training with a large group as, being deaf in a boat means communication is harder between the coach on a launch and myself and also with my rowing partner when in a double. I can’t wear my hearing aids on the water as they aren’t waterproof so it’s nice to be part of a group of people who understand that I cannot hear well especially, as lip-reading in the boat can’t happen because my partner doesn’t face me to communicate and with the surrounding sounds from the boat and around myself added on top increases the difficulty in hearing. It is also hard for me to tell what my coaches are saying from the launch when they’re at a distance so it is helpful that they come closer to me and use arm signals to communicate. When out on the water training, it’s great that there is a small number of us per launch allowing for more direct coaching and less chance of thinking that the coaches are talking to myself, when they actually trying to coach another person! I also have no ability to tell where the direction of sound is coming from so when another boat calls to myself to let me know that I’m approaching them, I won’t be able to tell where it is coming from and what they are saying, this might lead to clashes in the future and so the launch following me knows that they will have to be closer to myself and use signals to communicate especially when I might have to suddenly stop the boat – of course this only works well when agreed signals and phrases are used! At regattas it is useful if coaches can explain my needs to umpires, for example, when racing I need to have flags used to start them so I can tell when to go because it’s hard to hear what people say through megaphones sometimes.

In other sports I have previously participated in for a long period of time, I have felt left out, ignored and had not much effort put into me because no one took the time to adapt their way of coaching me and understand how being a deaf neurodivergent person means I take longer to process some things, unless I hyper-focus on the skill or activity! This led to the past sports not being as enjoyable for me to take part in. However, rowing is different; rowing on the water is very calming even when working hard as I’m surrounded by nature and it enables me to not think about anything else that is currently happening, giving me some much needed time when I’m just present and not overthinking something that’s coming up like school exams, it’s basically freedom from my anxious mind that has too many thoughts constantly popping up.

The great thing about doing adaptive rowing is that everyone is willing to help each other to make participating in rowing more accessible and adapting to everyone’s needs, whether that is just getting someone’s oars as they can’t reach them because they are hanging up too high, adjusting footplates if you struggle, holding boats when getting in or out of them and even constantly coming up with creative ideas to make something that isn’t working, work! For example, when on the erg I was overextending my knees when at front stops so we put a clamp on the rail, in front of the footplates which meant when coming up to the catch I wouldn’t be able to overextend because I would otherwise hit the clamp and make a loud sound. Another great thing is the sense of community, when out at competitions you get to socialise with other local adaptive rowing squads and share ideas that they have done to make rowing easier for them because of different or similar impairments. It also seems like you know nearly everyone from at least one other squad and it’s great to just chat and have fun together after racing is finished – we even have shared cake when celebrating someone’s recent birthday at a regatta before!

5 Replies to “Can You Row Being Deaf?

  1. Thanks for the article. I’m glad that rowing is increasing the variety in disabilities tha can take part. 👍🏻

  2. Helen, any tips for a hearing impaired rower who also gets vertigo with head turning? People are reluctant to go out with her as she can’t hear commands or see them speaking. I’ve suggested a single with pontoons but she is afraid of getting dizzy.
    Thanks in advance.

    • I personally do not have vertigo. However, knowing a tiny bit about how it can affect deaf people. Depending on the level of deafness I would suggest either –

      1) try finding someone who is willing to do support rowing in a double/pair where they can personally work together to find the best way of communication without turning heads eg; different tapping patterns on the back may work from supporter to communicate simple commands or possibly have some sort of white board that could be past back and forth between the two athletes which they could communicate from.
      2) Have the same regular coach following the athlete so they together could work on developing simple signs they would both personally use for different meanings eg; a sign for turn around or stop etc. It would be helpful if they have multiple regular coaches to involve them in making sure they all have the same signs as confusion will happen otherwise!
      3) I would suggest trying a wide stable single with pontoons as low as they go at the beginning. You could go to a local swimming pool to test out what it is like for the deaf athlete first as it would be in a much controlled environment compared to the river. It may just be that they need to try it first knowing that they will be safe with people available to help easily if anything arises first for them to gain confidence.
      4) lastly you could try a quad/four where the cox is in the stern facing the deaf athlete for easy communication of signs or raised voices etc.

      in terms of people being reluctant to going out with them, it seems like the other athletes might not know too much about vertigo. It may be worth doing a little education session if the athlete is happy with that or letting them send out resources personally to team members to explain their vertigo and what they could do to help the deaf athlete row at ease and also for the other members, be more comfortable at rowing with the deaf person.

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