Physical Activity and the Deaf Community
Chris Hopper, Professor of Kinesiology
College of Professional Studies
Humboldt State University
Regular physical activity and physical fitness are especially important in maintaining the health and well being of people of all ages. Research clearly indicates that virtually all individuals, including those with disabilities, can gain health benefits from regular physical activity. The health promotion and disease prevention needs of people with disabilities who have secondary health conditions may be complicated by specific medical aspects of disabilities. People with disabilities may be at greater risk of future problems; e.g., individuals with spinal cord injuries are more likely to have to address pressure sores. For Deaf individuals with no or minimal secondary health conditions, there is great potential for effective participation in physical activity programs.
According to the National Institutes of Health (1993), approximately 1 of every 1000 children is born with profound hearing loss. Many more are born with less severe degrees of loss, while others may develop hearing loss over time. Reduced hearing acuity during infancy and early childhood interferes with the development of speech and language skills. Communication difficulties may also adversely affect social, emotional, cognitive, and academic development. Since physical activity and fitness are tied to these developmental constructs, hearing loss may influence physical activity patterns and levels of physical fitness.
In a study (Longmuir & Bar-Or, 2000) assessing the physical activity level of youths with disabilities, individuals with hearing loss had the highest level of physical activity participation compared to individuals with cerebral palsy, spina bifida, muscular dystrophy, and other chronic medical conditions such as arthritis and kidney disease. Most of the participants in the study were recruited from schools for Deaf youths that provide in-school and extracurricular physical activity programs. Of the 104 individuals with hearing loss who completed the survey on physical activity levels, 87 individuals perceived themselves as active, 49 moderately active, and 28 sedentary.
Research studies dating from the early part of the 20th century have compared the motor performance of Deaf children and youth with their hearing counterparts. Goodman and Hopper (1992), in a comprehensive historical review of the psychomotor behavior of children and youth with hearing loss, found Deaf children and youth in some cases had similar profiles to their hearing counterparts, with the possible exception of balance.
The Deaf community has a significant history of involvement in sport. The oldest U.S. disability sport organization, the American Athletic Association for the Deaf, now recognized by the name, USA Deaf Sports Federation, was founded in 1945. Most of the research on physical activity programs for Deaf individuals has focused on physical education in schools and sport programs for children and youth. However, the physical activity needs of the adult population have received little attention beyond competitive sport. Information on lifestyle and leisure activities, informal and unstructured physical activity and play, and active living is virtually non-existent. To achieve the physical activity health objective of the nation, there is a need to enhance physical activity levels of Deaf individuals, beyond school-based physical education and competitive sport programs. Promoting a variety of lifestyle physical activity opportunities, including embracing the concept of "Active Living," a way of life that integrates physical activity into daily routines, should become a health objective priority.
Public Law 101-336, Americans with Disabilities Act (1990) has provided support for individuals with disabilities to participate in physical activity and sport programs. The public accommodations title has resulted in greater access for individuals with hearing loss. Although PL 101-336 promotes integration into mainstream activities, the Deaf community has a distinct sport culture. Deaf sport refers to sport as a specific cultural event for athletes who are deaf (Stewart & Ellis, 1999) and it has emerged as a cultural celebration and an essential element of the Deaf community. The USA Deaf Sports Federation (USADF) provides competitive sports opportunities for individuals with hearing loss through state, regional, and national tournaments. The Deaflympics, formerly known as the World Games for the Deaf, provide summer and winter competitions for Deaf athletes from various countries. Generally, Deaf sport has distanced itself from other disability sport groups.
Deaf persons often do not consider themselves disabled. Deaf persons do not use the person-first terminology and use terms such as Deaf sport and Deaf community. Hard of hearing is a term that refers to individuals who can understand some speech through the ears. The generic term, hearing impairment, was used to describe both deaf and hard of hearing; however, this term is not used due to the negative aspects of the word, "impairment." The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) still uses the term "hearing impairment" as a categorical label. In this paper, the term "hearing-impaired" (HI) is used with reference to historical reports and research studies that used this term to distinguish those individuals with some hearing capacity from deaf individuals.