Sports participation and opportunities for kids who are deaf or hard of hearing

Phil Harper, General Manager of Deaf Sports Australia, discusses sport and the opportunities for children and young people who are deaf and hard of hearing to participate in sport at all levels. 

Phil Harper is currently General Manager of Deaf Sports Australia. He has a background in sports, sports inclusion training, technology access and awareness, youth development training, mentoring and advocacy management and has worked in the deaf services area for almost 40 years.

Q: I have a 6-year-old son who plays soccer. Should he wear his Baha while playing sport or take it off?

A: This is a question we often get asked. It depends on what option is best for your son.

Is he comfortable with the device when playing sport, or more comfortable without the device? It’s a good idea to try a few different things:

  • See how he goes with his Baha on
  • See how he goes with it off.
  • Is he more comfortable with the device on or off?
  • Can he manage communication if he’s not wearing it?

Some people prefer to take their listening devices off when competing but then put them back on when having time out or having a conversation. It depends on the child’s confidence and ability to decide their preference.

It is important that the child, coach and team are aware of his hearing loss and how much he can hear with or without his devices. It is helpful if the team and coach provide more visual cues when instructing or playing. Their awareness and understanding can make it more comfortable for your son to participate in the game.

As an example, when I was playing AFL Super Rules Football, I usually brought my hearing aid with me. Before the match starts, I will wear my hearing aid whilst we’re having those conversations. And then, when the game starts, I will take it off. I put it near the bench in a box – so it’s safe. Then at quarter time, one of the volunteers or myself will go and get it, and I will put it back on. So, when the coach is talking, I understand what’s said. Then when the game starts again, I prefer to take it off. That works for me. And it means I can still be involved in those conversations with the team.

Q: You talked about school sport days where the deaf and hard of hearing kids all come together and compete in different sports. Is this organised by Deaf Sports Australia (DSA)or by the schools?

A: It is a partnership between Deaf Sports Australia and the schools. For example, recently in Queensland, we had a multi-sports day. There were three or four different sports offered. DSA worked with the schools and invited them to organise their own teams or groups to come along and play and compete. We also worked with the State sporting organisations who organised the umpires, volunteers and sporting activities. So DSA coordinates these events and brings everybody together. It’s also an opportunity for the kids to mix, meet each other over lunch, have some fun, and then go home. The kids love these events. Many have never met other deaf or hard of hearing children as they maybe the only deaf child in their school. It’s an excellent opportunity for them. We’re hoping to hold this multi-sports day in Queensland every year. There are some limitations in capacity within the school curriculum – of course, education is important – but it’s a growing area, and we’re hoping to be able to continue to do more of that across the country.

We are also looking into sporting camps and holding them through the school holidays. Children and young people can use their NDIS funding to participate, which helps fund the events.

Q: If a child does wear their devices while playing sports, is also using an FM beneficial?

A: This is another situation where it depends on the child and the sport. Some trial and error might be needed to find what works best for the child. The FM might be helpful when the coach is talking to the team.

It could be beneficial in one-on-one sports, e.g. tennis, or when having those conversations with the coach. I wouldn’t advise its use in contact sports where it could get damaged or even injure the child in some circumstances. It’s about trying different things and seeing what works.

Q: My child who has enlarged vestibular aqueduct syndrome, would you suggest a helmet to prevent further hearing loss.

A: That is not my area of expertise. Speak to your ENT or audiologist and seek their advice, particularly if the child is interested in contact sports.

Q: My child has hearing loss and mild intellectual disability.  He is 7 years old. He loves climbing, swimming and basketball but I have not been able to find services that cater for his needs.  I’m also discouraged to take him to team sports.  How can I identify suitable services?

A: We often receive questions like this via email.  It is difficult for DSA to provide support individually.  In terms of what DSA can do –  we can help sporting clubs or local sporting competitions be more accessible.  DSA would provide awareness training and one-on-one support for those sporting clubs or programs to help them understand how they can be more accessible for a particular child.  Similarly, with schools, as I mentioned before, the Sports School Program is an opportunity where the teachers of your child can be made aware of what they can do in terms of their sporting programs and how they can make them more accessible.  DSA helps local sporting clubs and competitions to understand how they can be more inclusive.

Q: How can I find a deaf role model to get deaf sports tips using Auslan?  We are attempting to be bilingual.  Is there a Facebook page we could place an ad?

A: There is a Facebook group called Auslaners (  This group includes a lot of deaf and hard of hearing people and others who work in the deaf community or have ties through the deaf community.  It’s a great place to advertise for a deaf sports role model.

Q: At what level do you recommend deaf awareness training – the coach, club level or referees?

A: DSA provides Deaf awareness training to any of those levels. Just recently, we were working with the AFL in Victoria. Their staff work in schools and provide Auskick in schools. DSA provided two deaf awareness workshops to their staff. If they were to attend a school with a deaf or hard-of-hearing child, they could better understand how to communicate and provide that support. We give them a bit of Auslan tuition as well. We work with a range of people and ages in terms of that advice and training.


Q: Do you team up with Blind Sports Australia for children who are deafblind?

A: Yes, we do work with Blind Sports Australia. They hold similar national sporting championships as us. We have some deaf people with vision impairment that compete in the Australian Deaf Games, and we welcome that. We want to make sure DSA can support their participation. Similarly, Blind Sports Australia have people who are blind, and their secondary disability is deafness. We work with them in terms of how they can make their sporting competitions more accessible. We absolutely welcome deafblind athletes.

Q: Do you have any suggestions for helmets that are compatible when wearing hearing aids or cochlear implants?

A: Again, explore what equipment options are out there and see what works and doesn’t. What works for one child might not work for another. Helmets are designed for the general population, so it is about finding the best for the individual child.
Tip: Cut the visor off a cap and wear the cap under the helmet. This keeps the devices more secure and is more comfortable as well.

Q:  Do deaf sporting teams cater for kids that use both Auslan and spoken English within the one team?  Is there a mix or is it either-or?

A: There’s not one group of people that dominates. It’s a variety of hearing losses, hearing devices and communication modes.

Australian Deaf Games in 2018 was one of the biggest. We had about 800 deaf and hard-of-hearing people competing. And many younger people had never been involved in deaf sports before. They loved it, and now they are very involved. It’s another option for people to get together, feel a part of the community, and feel that identity. They share that identity with other people and feel as though they can participate in two worlds, the hearing world and the deaf and hard-of-hearing world. It’s great that people have the option to compete with other deaf and hard of hearing people, as well as their hearing mainstream sports. It doesn’t matter if you can sign or can’t sign or just use spoken English. Everyone finds a way to communicate with each other.

Q: I think the primary sporting days are a wonderful idea and my daughter did attend some a few years ago.  It is my experience that not many schools in Sydney are aware of these sport days.  It was only in a period where she had a proactive support teacher who flagged it with me.  Usually, we don’t hear about them as they are not well publicised.  I understand that there are some logistical and other issues, particularly for small schools, but it would be good if every school would be told about these events or region assistant principals could be encouraged to organise groups from the region to attend them.  Any comments?

A: That’s a great question and comment. We are very aware of that. We rely on the visiting or itinerant teachers to get the message out there. It is even more challenging when a child is in a regional area. We rely a lot on the teachers and volunteers to help make it happen. We want many students to attend, so it’s important to work together to get that information out there. Moving the event to different locations so other students can attend will also help it become more accessible.

NOTE: Please check that clubs and individuals working with your child have the appropriate checks to ensure your child’s safety.

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