Coach of only deaf foot­ball team in U.S. bridges gap be­tween those who can hear and those who can­not

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS - BY MARY HUI mary.hui@wash­

Shelby Bean lives be­tween two worlds. As a hard-of-hear­ing foot­ball coach at D.C.’s Gal­laudet Univer­sity — the na­tion’s lead­ing univer­sity for the deaf and hard of­hear­ing — Bean con­stantly switches be­tween the hear­ing world and the deaf world.

“I get into sit­u­a­tions where I have to please both sides,” said Bean, 26. This year, the team of 75 is com­posed of deaf and hard-of­hear­ing play­ers, as well as two hear­ing play­ers.

Some grew up us­ing Amer­i­can Sign Lan­guage; oth­ers have never signed in their lives.

Some­how, they have to un­der­stand each other well enough to com­pete as a co­he­sive team.

As a work­around, Bean uses sim-com, short for si­mul­ta­ne­ous com­mu­ni­ca­tion, a mix­ture of spo­ken English and sign lan­guage. But “it’s not fair to ei­ther side,” he said. “It’s not com­plete English, but it’s not com­plete sign, ei­ther.”

Still, it is from this in-be­tween place that Bean is able to bridge the gap be­tween those who can hear and those who can­not and, in do­ing so, build up the coun­try’s only col­lege foot­ball team for the deaf and hard of hear­ing. “Amer­ica’s deaf team,” as they like to call them­selves.

Bean’s story, along with that of the Gal­laudet Bi­son foot­ball team, is chron­i­cled in “Any­one Like Me,” a doc­u­men­tary pro­duced and di­rected by D.C.-based photo and video jour­nal­ist Mimi d’Autremont and screen­ing online through Sun­day at the DC Shorts Film Fes­ti­val.

“I’ve never met a com­mu­nity and cul­ture that is so proud of how they com­mu­ni­cate,” said d’Autremont, 26, who spent a year and a half work­ing on the doc­u­men­tary. “Ev­ery day it just got re­in­forced more and more just how much pride they have.”

Bean, a na­tive of Ar­vada, Colo., was born with Gold­en­har syn­drome, a rare con­gen­i­tal con­di­tion marked by the un­der­de­vel­op­ment of the ears, eyes and spine. He has lim­ited hear­ing, and his ex­ter­nal ears have been sur­gi­cally re­moved.

The many surg­eries he un­der­went in his child­hood years dam­aged all of his fa­cial nerve end­ings, such that his face is par­a­lyzed, mean­ing he can’t smile, frown or even blink.

None of this ever stopped Bean from play­ing foot­ball.

He picked up the sport as a tod­dler, played through­out his school years and even­tu­ally won a schol­ar­ship to play for Gal­laudet, from which he grad­u­ated in 2013 with a bach­e­lor’s de­gree in busi­ness administration.

But that didn’t spell the end of col­lege foot­ball for Bean. He took a job as a coach for the team, and this year marks his fifth sea­son on the Bi­son coach­ing staff.

The jour­ney hasn’t been with­out ma­jor chal­lenges.

Bean grew up in a hear­ing fam­ily and had no ex­po­sure to deaf cul­ture. He had learned to ad­just to main­stream cul­ture, adapt­ing to the “guess­ing game” of high school foot­ball — he never quite knew how plays would de­velop, be­cause he could not hear his coaches and team­mates prop­erly. Go­ing to Gal­laudet meant up­root­ing him­self from one cul­ture that he was just get­ting used to and trans­plant­ing him­self into an en­tirely for­eign cul­ture — deaf cul­ture.

“I hated it here at first, to be hon­est,” Bean said. “A lot of it was cul­ture shock.”

It took him a full year to grasp the cul­ture at Gal­laudet and to feel com­fort­able con­vers­ing in ASL. He soon re­al­ized that, de­spite the steep learn­ing curve, sign lan­guage made ev­ery­thing eas­ier on the field.

The game was no longer de­fined by guess­work.

“Com­mu­ni­ca­tion was so much bet­ter in col­lege, com­pared to high school,” he said.

Bean de­scribes deaf foot­ball as hav­ing “a small-town feel,” with its tightknit com­mu­nity and strong sense of pride.

Even when trav­el­ing, “it never re­ally feels like an away game,” he said. “Some­times, we have more peo­ple in the stands than the home team.”

But while the nuts and bolts of deaf foot­ball are the same as those in hear­ing foot­ball, the game does some­times re­quire a lit­tle more cre­ativ­ity, Bean said.

“There’s just so much that you take for granted from hav­ing a whis­tle,” Stephon Healey, the as­sis­tant head coach, says in the doc­u­men­tary. “… You want to start ev­ery­one at the same time? You blow a whis­tle … So ev­ery­thing needs to be vis­ual or tac­tile.”

To make up for the lack of a whis­tle, the Bi­son in­stead use a large bass drum. Prac­tice be­gins with the bang­ing of the drum, and while the play­ers might not be able to hear it, they def­i­nitely feel the vi­bra­tions in their bod­ies.

Tra­di­tion­ally, Bean said, the bass drum was also used to sig­nal the start of of­fen­sive plays, but the team switched to a silent count, which re­lies on a vis­ual cue, about a decade ago.

These days, the bass drum is used only in “emer­gency sit­u­a­tions” dur­ing games, Bean added.

One ad­van­tage of us­ing sign lan­guage is the play­ers’ abil­ity to spell out a play ex­actly dur­ing a game, with­out the risk of giv­ing their strat­egy away to their op­po­nents. “We pretty much sign ex­actly what the play is,” Bean said.

The ASL com­mu­nity is small, the foot­ball-play­ing ASL sub­set still smaller, so chances are the op­pos­ing team has no un­der­stand­ing of their sign­ing.

The team has in­vented var­i­ous signs to com­mu­ni­cate plays.

“We call it foot­ball sign lan­guage,” he said.

For Bean, foot­ball has become much more than a sport.

In foot­ball, he has found his hard-of-hear­ing iden­tity and em­braced deaf cul­ture. He is reach­ing out to peo­ple, shar­ing the lan­guage and cul­ture of the deaf com­mu­nity. He is show­ing the world deaf foot­ball can be just as vi­brant and com­pet­i­tive as its hear­ing coun­ter­part.

“I’ve learned how to have enor­mous amounts of pa­tience,” Bean said. “I’ve learned that not ev­ery­one un­der­stands ev­ery­thing the first time. … Gal­laudet has been one of the best places for me, just to grow as a per­son.”


Shelby Bean, who is hard of hear­ing, coaches at Gal­laudet Univer­sity. He is pro­filed in the doc­u­men­tary “Any­one Like Me.”

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