October 5, 2004 Feature

Game Plans for Athletes with Hearing Loss

Athletes with hearing loss have made sports history. They've started enduring traditions, such as the football huddle and the baseball signs for 'strike,' 'out,' and 'safe.' Such athletes set standards of excellence.

In fact, four athletes with hearing loss competed in this year's Olympics in Athens. They are Hugo Passos of Portugal, in 60 kg Greco-Roman wrestling; Tony Ally of Great Britain, 3 meter springboard diving; Terence Parkin of South Africa, swimming the 200 meter breaststroke and 400 meter individual medley; and Frank Bartolillo of Australia in fencing.

Beyond scoring points and setting records, though, the athletes face challenges posed to their hearing aids. The devices can be damaged by perspiration or by hard knocks. Wearing helmets can cause feedback. For students, at the same time as they study playbooks, they also must develop protective strategies for their hearing aids.

Moisture on hearing aids has been one of the biggest problems, says Mary Saylor, an audiologist with the Kennedy Krieger Institute of Baltimore. Saylor primarily works with outpatients and also serves the school as an educational audiologist.

Dry-aid kits are of some help for hearing aids since moisture corrodes the battery. Saylor is working now with a brother and sister who are very involved in sports. "We've tried sending the aid to the manufacturer to put a seal on it. It helps somewhat but still does not cover the battery compartment," she said.

Waterproof hearing aids are another, pricey option. An inexpensive tactic is to use plastic sleeves that fit over the devices and reduce moisture.

Saylor noted that hearing aids for athletes are prone to falling out, getting lost and being damaged. "They're falling on hard surfaces and being trampled," she said, adding that athletes can wear headbands designed to keep hearing aids in place. These also can act as sweatbands.

Players may opt to go without hearing aids. Olympic athlete Bartolillo, mentioned above, says he never wears a hearing aid while fencing because he finds them distracting.

Team sports can benefit athletes with hearing loss, said Saylor. "[Players] will get a buddy to tap them on the shoulder to give them directions. The kids I'm talking about attend the Maryland School for the Deaf, so they're proficient in sign language and so are their coaches." 

A hearing device requires open space around it to prevent feedback. The booklet, Time Out! I Didn't Hear You (Sports Support Syndicate, Pittsburgh), recommends strategies for each sport. In baseball, for example, a player could modify a batters' helmet so that it only covers one ear. The hearing aid is worn in the opposite ear. For football, a hole can be drilled in the top of the helmet. A BTE hearing aid is secured at the top with the microphone in the hole. A piece of plastic tubing connects the earhook of the BTE to the earmold in the ear.

Depending on the price limits faced by a family or individual, custom-designed helmets that contain FM systems are available. However, the Time Out booklet considers a built-in FM system an unfair advantage for teams because it allows a coach to speak directly to players. It recommends such devices be worn only during tryouts and practice.

Carol Greer, an educational audiologist at Monroe #1 BOCES, Fairport, NY, says that an FM could provide an additional benefit, depending on the degree or configuration of loss. With an FM, student athletes would be more likely to hear the coach going over plays on the sidelines or during time-outs. "However, it isn't fair to hear the coach during play when no one else from the team does. There's the rub—who is going to monitor when the coach is _transmitting with the FM?"

Terese I. Huber, an audiologist with the Atlanta Area School for the Deaf (Clarkston, GA) commented via the ASHA audiology list-serve, "The worst thing that can happen to any hearing instrument during sports activity is not to wear it."

Some students want to wear their hearing devices only during a game, but it should also be worn during practice, she said. "The students need to learn what to listen for—footsteps, a dribbling ball approaching, opposing student conversation, team mate signals, and so on."


Cochlear Implants and Sports

Students who have cochlear implants require accommodations to play sports. In addition to using an FM system, techniques include:

  • Wearing sweatbands with hooks to keep the band & CI together,
  • Wearing a cap made from a nylon knee-high. This keeps the processor on and helps keep dirt and dust out.
  • Sewing a pocket in a sports bra to hold the processor
  • Taping the cable to the student's neck using easy off surgical tape

More information is in Time Out! I Didn't Hear You [PDF]. Sign up for ASHA's audiology electronic mailing list.

Dee Naquin Shafer, an assistant managing editor of The ASHA Leader, can be reached at dshafer@asha.org. 

cite as: Shafer, D. N. (2004, October 05). Game Plans for Athletes with Hearing Loss. The ASHA Leader.


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