Persevere (The Hard of Hearing Fencer)

Gael Hannan
August 31, 2015

I am delighted to welcome this guest post by Jennifer Gibson. She is passionate about sports, especially fencing, and in this article she explains that it takes more than a sharp sword to overcome communication obstacles.

By Jennifer Gibson

Growing up with a severe hearing loss taught me a lot of hard lessons and in some ways, forced me to grow up more quickly at a young age. Taking care of my hearing aids and using listening devices at school, as well teaching others about hearing loss, helped me become a more responsible person.

But there was always someone in my life who didn’t understand how difficult it was for me to hear them, or the limitations of my hearing aids. I became accustomed to working twice as hard just to keep up with my peers. However, I’ve learned that I can’t function at the same level as anyone else. Instead of relying on my ears, I had to find alternative means of learning. It meant utilizing visual clues, watching my surroundings and copying people, especially in sports. I had to use other valuable tools such as books, instruction manuals and videos that provided more insight and in-depth information.

Every year I dreaded approaching my coaches at the beginning of the season and explaining my hearing loss. They would stand there and blink at me, nod once or twice, and then went back to the lessons. They never changed their teaching methods and essentially treated me as if I was invisible. I reminded them constantly that I couldn’t hear their shouts across a field. Yet, they still yelled at me even though I couldn’t understand a word of it. Then when they got frustrated, they would bench me. Over and over. As a result, I found it more difficult to enjoy the sport like everyone else. Even though I was doing the best I could, I had to deal with angry players and coaches who didn’t understand that I was not ignoring them, I simply couldn’t hear them.

I decided to follow in my mother’s footsteps and tackle fencing. I enjoyed it but realized that I needed proper coaching.  My instructor was often called away to work overseas, and I had to switch to a club that involved a two-hour drive, each way. But it was a fast paced and competitive environment that suited my personality.

Fencing is unique, similar to a game of mental chess involving movesimage and counter moves. Not only is it about speed, which I love, but it incorporates a lot of finesse in handling the weapons. One of the biggest obstacles that I’ve encountered in fencing is the mask. The tight metal weave obstructs my ability to see opponents’ faces and it’s virtually impossible to lip-read them. This has forced me to pay attention to body language and to guess what they’re saying.

Another issue is my inability to hear the referees at the beginning of each bout; I must watch their hand signals to know when I can start. Unfortunately, this adds more stress and anxiety when I already feel at a disadvantage. As a result, I’m terrified of tournaments. I do let other fencers know about my hearing loss and try not to feel offended if I miss what they say to me. And I miss more than 50%, meaning that I’m learning to fence at an entirely different pace, and this can be frustrating.

When I suddenly went deaf in my right ear from antibiotics, my life came to an abrupt halt. Once I got over this shock, I went back to my training. However, nothing was the same. It was much harder. I struggled to hear my coaches. I began to fall behind. Emotionally and mentally it took a huge toll on me. It was as if someone shook an Etch-a-Sketch and erased my progress.

One of the biggest problems was that I was training in one of the worst possible environments with loud music blaring in the background, squeaky shoes on the wooden floors, and dozens of high pitched alarms going off all around me from the electronic scoring equipment. It was a minefield of sounds and impossible to understand anyone talking.

Then one coach did a huge no-no: he turned around and faced the wall during a drill. When I explained to him that I couldn’t hear him, he refused to change it and continued on with the drill. I was stunned. I had to walk off the floor and train on the side by myself. Afterwards, several of the fencers in that club treated me differently. It became a very negative and toxic environment that was affecting my state of mind. I felt as if I didn’t belong there anymore and often left the club in tears. I was emotionally and mentally exhausted. Then I decided to walk away from them. It was the hardest decision I had ever made but I knew that it had to be done.

Now, I’m starting all over again and re-learning correctly with the most amazing coaching staff I’ve ever had. They took it one step further and learned sign language for me. That’s HUGE. No one has ever done that which says a lot about their willingness to find a solution that works. They’ve experimented with different ways of teaching, changing the drills to be more accommodating for people like me, using the white board to sketch out the techniques so that I can see it. Since they took a better approach for me to learn more effectively, I decided to take private lessons which meant more one on one training. It’s exactly what I needed. It wasn’t easy. It required a lot of hard work, but I needed to persevere if I wanted to fully embrace becoming a better fencer.

Having a severe hearing loss and going deaf in one ear has taught me a very difficult lesson – I had to discover what worked for me. Even though it meant an incredibly emotionally ordeal that left me physically drained, I had to keep moving forward.

The lesson through all of this was about breaking down barriers for people like me and finding alternate solutions. I had to find out what felt right for me. It may have taken a long time to figure out but I did it.


Jenn Gibson is a graphic designer, public speaker and award-winning author of a trilogy series featuring a hearing impaired teen.   She was recently named a HearStrong Champion for her dedication to helping change the stigmas surrounding hearing loss through her books.


  1. Jennifer, thanks so much for sharing this with us. I was particularly affected by the story about the coach who insisted on facing the wall. I’ve also run into some people who simply could not adapt to other people’s needs at the time, even though it would have made a world of difference if they had—from maybe 90% understanding to zero. I could imagine all too well how upsetting his actions were.

    If at all possible, and for an ongoing situation, I think it would really help to try a private dialogue with the individuals who do things like that to try to understand what’s going on with them. Although many times the answer will still be disappointing, we’ll at least understand better what’s going on with the other person and what their limitations are. Sometimes they may have an invisible disability of their own, or an anxiety condition, and they’re hanging on to a particular strategy, strategies or philosophy that has been helping them get by. They’re often not trying to cause problems for other people, but their own challenges are causing them to have trouble adapting to the situation. It might be possible to work out a win-win solution if both parties understand what the concerns and needs are.

    Still, there are lots of tough situations that we come across, and it would probably be too much hassle to try to resolve every single one of them. Some people are really difficult, too. We really do have to pick our battles.

  2. I spoke with that several times and explained how difficult he made it for me to participate in class. He refused to make any changes, did not apologize and in fact, continued to do it over and over. It was deliberate on his part since he wouldn’t change his coaching style. For the most part, he didn’t understand the position I was in and was not taught how to deal with athletes with a disabilities. Even after I made suggestions, he was not able to formulate an alternative way of teaching. He was a By-the-book instructor and was unable to deviate from that. At that point, I knew that he was not the right coach for me. It’s a shame but there are people out there who cannot deal with disabilities. That’s life.

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