Opinion: Maryland Deaf Athletes Need Equality

At the 2017 Samsun Deaflympics in Turkey, Janna Vander Meulen of Beaverton, Oregon, took a gold medal in the 110-meter hurdle event. USADSF photo

“Equal pay! Equal pay!” was chanted by the fans in the USA and Netherlands seat sections at the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup. The sound of this chant went global. 

On June 20, the United States Olympic Committee formally changed its name to the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee. The news had reached as far in Australia. 

On Jan. 19, 2017, Maryland Del. Mary Ann Lisanti testified before the Ways and Means Committee about her sponsored bill, HB003/2017, that would exempt from the state and local income tax the value of specified medals and prize money or honoraria received by an individual who competes in the Olympic Games or the Paralympic Games. I, as a former Deaflympian, urged the committee to include the Deaflympics.

Del. Lisanti made a quick amendment to her bill by adding the Deaflympics and Special Olympics. Gov. Larry Hogan quickly signed it to law, Chapter 501 of the Acts of 2017. No media, including USOC, picked up this important news. 

Deaflympics?

The International Committee of Sports for the Deaf (ISCD) is the main governing body responsible for the organization of Deaflympics and other World Deaf Championships. The organization was founded in 1924 and was known as the Comité International des Sports des Sourds, or CISS. For many years, the worldwide event was known as the World Games of the Deaf.

Rebecca “Becca” Meyers (left) and McKenzie Coan at the State House on March 25, 2019. “Happy Maryland Day! I spent the afternoon at the State House, watching Governor Hogan and Ambassador Shinsuke J. Sugiyama of Japan ceremonially renew the spirit of cooperation that exists between the State of Maryland and the Government of Japan! I was honored to meet the Ambassador of Japan as I train with the goal of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games in sight,” Meyers wrote.

Engineered by Dr. Donalda K. Ammons, an alumna of the Maryland School for the Deaf who was the ICSD president, the name of this event was changed to the Deaflympics in 2001 with the approval of the International Olympic Committee. 

The Maryland School for the Deaf is proud to have about 55 alumni who have participated. More and more Marylanders from other schools had competed.

One of them is Rebecca “Becca” Meyers of Timonium. In the 2009 Deaflympics in Taipei, Taiwan, Becca was only 15 and swam in eight different events. She got a bronze in a relay event. Two years later, Becca was chosen as the 2011 Female Sportsperson of the Year by the USA Deaf Sports Federation for winning six medals – including four golds – at the 2011 World Deaf Swimming Championship in Portugal.

Since she has a second disability condition Usher syndrome, Becca participated in the 2012 and 2016 Paralympics and collected three gold medals, two silvers and one bronze. Then she won the Best Female Athlete with a Disability ESPY Award twice (2015 and 2017) and received the Trischa L. Zorn Award from USA Swimming twice. 

Did she participate in the Deaflympics in 2013 in Sofia, Bulgaria, and 2017 in Samsun, Turkey?

Becca kindly denied the USA Deaf Sports Federation invitation. No surprise to me and most die-hard Deaflympians. The simple reason is that the USADSF has not received the development fund from the U.S. Olympic Committee since 2003, when the USOC had complied with the Olympic and Amateur Sports Act Amendments of 1998, which includes the Paralympic Games and amateur athletes with disabilities within the scope of the act and the U.S. Olympic Committee, by establishing the Paralympics Division in 2003.

Back to April 28, 1979, the USOC had its 1979 annual House of Delegates meeting in Colorado Springs and had as a main speaker Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, sponsor of the Amateur Sports Act of 1978. He said to 2,000 delegates:

“Howie Gorrell has a dream. He wants to see more national governing bodies integrate handicapped athletes into their programs. He wants expanded programs for handicapped athletes. The Amateur Sports Act is going to help him achieve that dreams.”

Forty years later, Becca Meyers, a student at Franklin & Marshall College, exclaimed on Instagram: “CELEBRATE INCLUSION! The United States Olympic Committee has formally changed its name to the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee! What a great day to be a para athlete!”

We are happy for her and her two Maryland swimming Paralympian Jessica Long of Baltimore (with 23 Paralympic medals) and McKenzie Coan of Loyola University of Maryland (with four Paralympic medals), but what about the Marylanders who are deaf and hard of hearing?

Howard L. “Howie” Gorrell at the 2017 Deaflympics in Samsun, Turkey.

Since 1979, the USADSF is a member of the USOPC as a community-based multisport organization. However, for many years, the former was instructed by the latter to contact Congress to consider the inclusion into the USOPC program.

To Maryland legislators, some of you have known me since I testified before you on a child support issue and a redistricting issue, but I need your help to end my 43-year battle for the parity with USOPC by introducing a joint resolution to ask the U.S. Congress to add the Deaflympics to the USOPC program.

Quick fact: To qualify for the Deaflympics, “athletes must have a hearing loss of at least 55db in their ‘better ear.’ Hearing aids, cochlear implants, and the like are not allowed to be used in competition, to place all athletes on the same level.”

In the Olympics, there is no restriction on hearing loss or use of hearing aids. At least 17 athletes are in both Olympics and Deaflympics. One of them is Becca’s idol and hero, swimmer Terence Parkin of South Africa.

I believe that the parity with the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee could motivate future athletes who are deaf and hard of hearing. 

–HOWARD L. “HOWIE” GORRELL

The writer has attended 12 of the last 13 Deaflympics since 1969 and is a 2004 recipient of the Jerald M. Jordan Award. The Jordan Award is a USA Deaf Sports Federation award that was given to Gorrell during a non-Deaflympic year as someone who exhibits leadership and continuous participation toward the goals of the Deaflympics.

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