Sports diversity is all about inclusion, diversity, accessibility and equality. Some people understand the importance of including the LGBTQ+ community or those of a different race or ethnic background on their teams. But when it comes to an athlete with a disability they sometimes assume that that athlete can’t help their team win. Thank goodness the Quit Your Pitching softball team knows better!
Meet Kara Gulvas, Alicia “AJ” Johnson, Victoria Rainey and Rachel Sweigart, all enthusiastic athletes who don’t believe their Deafness is a disability or that it can prevent them from playing winning softball … or doing anything else they put their minds to!
Quit Your Pitching is part of CAPS, the LGBTQ+ and ally-friendly Chesapeake & Potomac Softball League that draws players from the greater Washington/Baltimore metropolitan area. In addition to all playing for Quit Your Pitching, the women have all attended Gallaudet University for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Washington D.C. and played a wide variety of sports that includes football (both flag and tackle), basketball, soccer, track & field, volleyball, cheerleading, golf, cornhole, even tight rope walking!
What has impressed me most about these women is their passion for living a full life and having fun. For those who think being deaf is a disability, just read what they’ve had to say about their Deafness and their ability to play softball. Their only request to me? To correct any spelling or grammatical errors because, as they reminded me, English isn’t their first language – it’s American Sign Language (ASL).
Learning ASL is one of the best things hearing athletes can do to improve the feeling of inclusion on a team, according to Victoria. She says, “As a Deaf person and a Deaf athlete, it’s important to be included in everything. Exclusivity is a common problem among the Deaf community. We are often pushed aside because of the communication barrier that can easily be solved … if they just learned our language (ASL).”
As you read their answers, I’m sure you’ll be as impressed by them as I am. Maybe you’ll not only expand your vision of what sports diversity really encompasses but also sign up to learn ASL!
Compete: Does your team have a hearing player fluent in sign language? And if there’s no interpreter on the team, what do you do when playing away games?
AJ: We don’t have any hearing players who know sign language on our team. We don’t need an interpreter to play the game we know and love. But we would prefer to have an interpreter for hearing people doing presentations, events, coaches talking or other people asking something.
Compete: As a Deaf person, how are you able to play a team sport? What do you need as a player and how is your team able to interact with you in a fast-moving sport like softball?
Rachel: I have never really considered my deafness as a barrier in sports. The game is the same regardless of who plays it. For my hearing leagues, we discuss signs or gestures prior to the games to be able to communicate on the field.
AJ: If I’m going to play with hearing people who don’t know sign language, we will use softball gestures. But usually when they’ve never met a deaf person, they will avoid us or act weird since they don’t know how to react or respond. Honestly, Americans are usually the only people who don’t know how to gesture with others and then panic. You’ve just got to be yourself and try your best to learn how to work with others.
Victoria: The only difference between the “hearing” players and Deaf players is our form of communication. I use my hands; they use their voices. If everyone knows the rules, everything can fall into place. It helps if you build some sort of connection with the people on your team and the people officiating your team.
Compete: Why do you love sports?
Victoria: That’s almost like asking us why we breathe. I love sports because it gives me hope. It gives me reasons to be better. Over the years sports have taught me that hard work pays off, physically and mentally. I learned how to be confident and if I wasn’t, how to change that … it has shaped me into the woman I am today.
AJ: Sports are my life! It is one of the reasons that keep me going. I play for the Love of the Game!
Kara: I love sports because of two things; the camaraderie of being on a team and they keep me busy.
Rachel: I am a small-town girl who didn’t have much else to do growing up. It’s always felt like therapy for me and I always have such a blast playing.
Compete: What would you like to tell your younger self or perhaps say to younger Deaf athletes looking up to you as a role model?
Kara: Have courage, know that you’re worthy of great things, give back, be grateful, value relationships over things, stop comparing yourself to others and most importantly, love yourself.
Rachel: I’d say don’t be so hard on yourself, let go of the little things and always stand up for what you believe in no matter how difficult it may seem at the moment. I want the younger generation to learn to always treat others with respect and if you see someone struggle, help them rather than watch. Be the best you can be.
AJ: For the younger Deaf generation, if you want to play the sport you love, fight for it and commit to it. Do not degrade yourself to others and become lazy and cocky. Stay humble, support each other and don’t go against each other.
Victoria: If I could teach the younger generation, especially younger Deaf individuals who may be looking up to me, I would say, “Try. Don’t sell yourself short and don’t think the worst before trying. If you fail, try again. You miss all the opportunities you don’t take.”
Thank you, AJ, Kara, Rachel and Victoria for showing hearing athletes that Deaf athletes definitely know how to “Play Ball!”
By Connie Wardman