For this week’s blog post I am veering slightly off my usual topics. Rather than talking about closed captions or accessibility, I’d like to pay tribute to two football teams: Gallaudet University and the California School for the Deaf.
As reported this week in the Washington Post, the Gallaudet Bison finished their regular season with a 9-1 record, winning their conference title and a berth in the NCAA Division III playoffs for the first time in the school’s history. Gallaudet is well-known in the deaf community as the world’s first university with programs and services specifically designed to accommodate deaf and hard of hearing students, established by an act of Congress in 1864. Coach Chuck Goldstein says that the successful season has helped put Gallaudet on the football map, quipping that they have “definitely made some new friends.” Friends like Washington Redskins safety Reed Doughty, who wears hearing aids, who attended a Gallaudet home game and took part in the coin toss wearing a Bison jersey. And friends like dozens of reporters and television crews, who have been following Goldstein and his players around in attempts to document a typical day for deaf and hard of hearing football players about to make their first NCAA playoff appearance. Many of the sports outlets have interviewed Bison defensive end Adham Talaat, a 6-6 292 pound senior who could become the school’s first NFL player.
Some people may be surprised by Gallaudet’s strong showing in football this year, but it didn’t surprise me. That’s because I’ve seen this story play out before at one of our local Bay Area high schools, the California School for the Deaf (CSD). CSD’s football team went 10-2 in 2012, earning the league title playing against much larger schools, before losing in the Sectional finals in a 13-12 heart breaker to St. Vincent de Paul. CSD was even featured in Sports Illustrated’s “Underdogs – Inspiring Stories in High School Football.” In the Sports Illustrated interviews, CSD players and coach Warren Keller say that in general, they don’t find being deaf to be a disadvantage on the football field. In fact, in some ways they feel they have an advantage, pointing out that they run a no-huddle offense, calling plays on the fly using American Sign Language. Several of the players point out that their challenges have inspired them to work harder and reach higher. One CSD graduate from this championship team is now a freshman on the Gallaudet roster — freshman Jacy Pederson.
Both the Gallaudet and California School for the Deaf stories remind me of a theme discussed in Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, David and Goliath. Gladwell holds that the typical roles of underdog and favorite are often misunderstood, and that in many cases it is actually beneficial to face difficult challenges when you are young. He calls this “the theory of desirable difficulty.” At points Gladwell’s logic is a bit strained, but his point is well-taken that people who face challenges in one area can often develop compensating strengths that more than make up for their initial challenges.
All of this should not imply that efforts to make learning materials fully accessible is any less necessary than before. On the contrary, we should take these stories as inspiration, working even harder to ensure that there are more success stories like Adham Talaat, Jacy Pederson, and all the others at Gallaudet University and California School for the Deaf.