Students with hearing loss struggle to gain full access to athletic programs

A common issue found in various communities throughout Massachusetts is the struggle for students with hearing loss to be provided equal access to opportunities.

This can be apparent but is not often discussed when students get involved in competitive sports and try to use the accommodations given during the school day for their documented disability.

The difficulty in transitioning to the playing field can come from a number of issues: lack of support for students with disabilities to play sports in general, lack of access in the classroom transferred to sports, and lack of community and/or school support.

To be able to wear hearing aids or cochlear implants, which can be essential to a student’s understanding requires a waiver to approve the device  for wear during school-sponsored sports.

Depending on the governing body of each sport, the waiver process can vary.

At any given time a student with a hearing loss can be asked if they have a waiver, and if it is found that they did not do the paperwork, which can be common, the hearing aid or cochlear implant can be taken away from the student.

“If my waiver wasn’t valid or in, or someone told me I couldn’t [wear my hearing aid], I would probably keep on playing. I wouldn’t want to give it up. Playing [without it] would be really hard,” said ARPS sixth grader Rutesh Jaswal.

Another issue that arises is that while hearing aids and cochlear implants are allowed, FM systems, or hearing assistive technology, are not allowed during matches, as they are seen as an unfair advantage to the singular student-athlete. An FM is a personal frequency modulation system that uses radio waves to send speech and other signals to hearing aids.

However, this starves the student-athlete with a hearing loss from vital information, so there needs to be a better system of incorporating assistive devices for athletes with hearing loss as much as is available for other disabilities.

While none of the students that I talked to used FM systems during their practices or games, it was not a matter of not wanting to.

When talking to Mya Glace, an elementary school student, she explained that wearing her FM wouldn’t be practical when competing for her gymnastics team.

“My FM would be in my face and would be flopping all around, I would look silly. And it might break,” said Glace.

While she is not able to wear her FM, it would be helpful because “one time I made a mistake, because I could not hear or see my coach, which made them really frustrated. If I had had my FM that [might] not have happened.”

Despite the fact that for many sports, the use of personal FMs is not practical, that does not mean that sport governing bodies should completely ban them, as the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association has done, listing the devices as listening devices that give may give an unfair advantage.

“If I was using my FM, and got told I could not use my FM, I would tell my coaches to hide the FM. Categorizing an FM as an advantage is unfair. My FM is the only way I’d be able to hear my coaches,” said Rutesh Jaswal.

There are other options that the MIAA can take, other than banning the use of FM systems for everyone, as it places students with hearing loss, who need to be able to hear coaches, at a disadvantage and conflates students with hearing loss with people looking to cheat.

There could be a system put in place that gives students with hearing loss access to FM systems during sports just as they do in the classroom.

In addition, using the mute function of FM systems and forfeiting FM usage during times outside of called time-outs could make this more acceptable.