Kate Ward is a 24 year-old midfielder and co-captain for the USDWNT. She has been on the team since 2009 and has been a member of the US Deaf Soccer Board since 2013.
“Sorry, but could you say that again please?“ I asked my boss to repeat himself for a second time. “Kate, how do you expect to have a career in this if you can’t hear the patients?” my boss replied instead of repeating the question.
‘Wait, is he joking? I think so, I don’t know.’ I was mortified.
‘Did my boss really just say that to me? In front of all my co-workers? So that the whole clinic could hear it?’
I felt my face redden and my eyes well up. I mumbled a response and faked a laugh so that he would walk away. My thoughts were racing and emotions rising to the surface, and I took a deep breath to try to compose myself.
‘So this is the moment,’ I thought to myself. ‘This is the moment you’ve always wondered about. The moment you’ve always known was coming, but wondered who would be callous enough to say it. Of course there are people who think that your hearing loss holds you back.’
It didn’t matter that I had just graduated Magna Cum Laude with a degree in Cellular Molecular Biology from my undergrad.
It didn’t matter that I had just completed four years of soccer at the Division 1 level and was a member of the Dean’s or Chancellor’s List every semester.
‘People really think that you can’t succeed because of your hearing loss. Your very worst fear and it was just said out loud in front of everyone.’
You see, I’m deaf. When I was three years old, my parents found out that I was deaf in one ear and hard of hearing in the other. I was able to get hearing aids that functioned quite well for a few years. This all changed when I was walking down the hallway at six years old and I realized that my hearing aids were not working that well. We immediately went to the ear doctor, who was unable to do much as my hearing quickly deteriorated over the next few weeks. All too soon, in one month exactly, I was a little girl with a legal ‘disability.’
My family and I decided that a cochlear implant was the best option for me. A cochlear implant is a device that is placed in the cochlea and helps stimulate the auditory nerves to send electrical impulses to the brain and cause hearing.
‘It’s true, people really doubt you because you say, ‘What?’ too much. It’s annoying. You need to try to hear harder.’
There is a common misconception that a hearing device automatically restores our hearing to a normal capacity. I can assure you that this is not the case.
It didn’t matter that I have spent everyday since I was six years old doing everything I could to fit in and be normal in a world that was predominantly not like me, just because others can hear while I cannot.
It didn’t matter that I had learned all the ‘tricks’ to fit in – how to piece together conversations when I only catch a word or two; how to stand close to the flight attendant in airplane terminals so I don’t miss my boarding group; how to read lips in loud, crowded places; how to discreetly ask my college professors for note takers; and how to position myself at a table in loud restaurants and memorize the questions that waiters or waitresses will ask.
In my mind, I exist in a gray area. Hard of hearing – not quite deaf enough, not quite hearing enough.
‘Jeez, Kate, why did you have to ask him to repeat himself again. Why didn’t you just walk away and ask one of your co-workers in private what he wanted you to do?’
It didn’t matter that I was a two-time Deaflympic gold medalist and two-time Deaf World Cup Champion.
One of my favorite sounds in the world is the thump of a soccer ball being kicked. I love the memories it evokes and the emotions it brings. Thump. So many memories – the smell of freshly cut grass on a beautiful fall morning or the goose-bumps after an overtime win. Echoes of laughter with teammates or the bittersweet mental and physical exhaustion after passing a fitness test. Thump. For me, the soccer field is like a second home.
Thump. Perhaps it’s ironic that it has become one of my favorite noises since I’ve been on the US Deaf Women’s National Team (USDWNT) since I was 15 years old.
‘Deep breaths, deep breaths. Does he have any idea how hard I work to hear? That I come home exhausted everyday because most of my day is spent anxiously straining to not miss anything that is said.’
I thought about my USDWNT teammates. They play multiple roles in my life – friends, teammates, travel buddies, mentors, my sanity keepers. You know those people you text when things go wrong? Like “Today’s the worst – I spilled my coffee and was late to class and my professor called me out.” Yeah? Well, my texts to my deaf teammates are similar. Except I sometimes go, “Guys, my non-waterproof cochlear implant just fell into the ocean on a trip with my (hearing) college friends and it’s now shark food!” (That’s a true story, by the way) or “Today, my hearing device batteries died in the middle of an important meeting and I forgot to bring extras.” (Perhaps a more common occurrence than we’d like to admit.)
Most of all, my teammates are my role models. I often feel that my teammates and I are fighting double discrimination as females with a disability in a predominantly hearing and male-dominated society. Yet, my teammates are some of the strongest, most intelligent, and most successful people I know.
They are lawyers, teachers, audiologists, nurses, farmers, non-profit employees, coaches…the list goes on.
‘Wow, my teammates will be pissed when I tell them about this. Honestly, most of them have probably experienced this before, too.’
What’s so incredibly fascinating about this team is that each of us has our own powerful and unique story. Some of us wear hearing devices, some of us don’t. Some of us sign, some of us rely on voice, and some of us use both.
A vast majority of us grew up in an environment where we had no idea that there were other people just like us out there. Our first encounters with people like ourselves occurred when we joined the team.
That, to me, is a huge problem. There aren’t enough deaf role models in world.
‘I’m angry, but why do I feel guilty too? Why does it always feel like my fault when I can’t hear?’
I sometimes feel that my own ‘disability’ is largely a societal limitation that has made understanding my actual physical/sensorial limitation much more difficult.
I’m lucky because I found that sports, and soccer in particular, have been a way for me to prove my own abilities to both others and myself.
It’s hard to put into words the effect that sports has had on my life as someone with a disability. Inclusion. Strength. Normalcy. Empowerment.
Perhaps it’s easier to convey this by telling you the story of two girls who have visited USDWNT training camps.
When I was 17 years old, I was at a training camp with the USDWNT and we were doing a meet and greet with local club players. As we shared our stories and experiences, we noticed a little three-year old girl with bouncing blonde curls and giant innocent blue eyes staring up at us in awe. She was running amongst us and pointing at our hearing devices, then pointing at her own.
This adorable little girl, Emma, had just gotten cochlear implants in both ears. It’s almost like she was saying, “Look, you’re just like me!” This was the first time this three-year old had seen anyone else with hearing devices.
This was also the first time that I realized that perhaps my teammates and I have a responsibility to use the platform we have in order to help little girls like Emma.
Nine months ago, I was again reminded of this responsibility. I met a wonderful, brave, strong, and lively nine-year old girl named Malia who was diagnosed with neuroblastoma in 2011. She flew down from Boston to our winter training camp in Austin and we got to hang out with her all weekend.
Though Malia is now cancer free, the disease left her with hearing loss. We made it a point to show off our own hearing devices and her dad told us that she has not stopped talking about the team since. Malia is another wonderful reminder that soccer is more than just a game.
‘Alright, Kate. Just make it home.’
I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve cried in the last five years. That day was one of them. It’s a moment that I think will be forever ingrained in my memory.
But, in a weird way, I felt such a relief after it happened. I now knew what that moment was like and how it felt, and I realized how silly it is that people could ever think that.
I think it will always be in the back of my mind that someone is thinking that. Maybe I’ll hear those same words said to me again someday. Maybe I won’t.
My job, as well as that of my deaf teammates, is to make sure that little girls like Emma and Malia don’t ever have those same seeds of doubt planted in them.
Our job is to be role models for those little girls that are growing up the same way we did. The little girls who are little bit lonely, a little bit in a gray area, a little bit unsure of where they belong.
Yet, these little girls are also warriors on the soccer field – strong, feisty, and full of energy. These little girls are also warriors off the field – intelligent, hard working, and determined to succeed in a world that is not tailored to them. Just like us.