Unique Identity of the World Games for the Deaf

By Donalda Ammons

(Printed in Palaestra, Winter/Spring, Vol 6 No. 2, page 40-43)

Deaf sport is not well understood by many hearing individuals who tend to perceive it in a manner that is similar to the way they view any sport for disabled individuals. But deaf sport is unique and the World Games for the Deaf (WGD) in particular, highlight this aspect.

Through my involvement in WGD and in deaf sport in general, I have encountered various inquiries about why people choose to compete among each other and the relationship between deaf sport and disabled sport organizations. Some of the common questions asked are:

  • In what direction is the world deaf sport movement heading?
  • Are WGD equivalent to the Olympics?
  • When were the first international games for the deaf?
  • Why are separate sport competitions for the deaf necessary?

In this article I attempt to answer these questions in terms that will further the understanding and respect accorded to WGD and deaf sport.

The oldest of international organizations on sport for disabled people is Comité International des Sports des Sourds, better known as CISS. It was founded back in 1924 when two deaf European men, Eugène Rubens-Alcais of France and Antoine Dresse of Belgium, saw need for an international sport governing body to stage quadrennial games for the deaf in an Olympic format. Governance and constitution of CISS are very much in accordance with the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Full recognition was given to CISS by the IOC in 1955.

In 1935, the United States became involved informally in the Games through the efforts of Robey Burns. It was not until 1957 that the American Association of the Deaf (AAAD) became an official member of CISS. Today CISS consists of 46 full members with rights to participate in WGD and six adherent members who maintain affiliation but are not eligible to participate in WGD or other CISS sanctioned events.

The constitution of CISS states that the majority of members of the deaf sport federation in each country shall be deaf. Each federation is allowed to send two deaf delegates who are familiar with international sign language to the biennial CISS Congress. According to Jerald Jordan, CISS President, CISS is the only international disabled sports organization that has such requirements. That is, no other disabled sport organization requires disabled representation on its Board of Governance.

After World War II other disabled sports organizations emerged to serve athletes with disabilities other than deafness such as spinal cord injury, blindness, amputation, and cerebral palsy. Eventually, separate games were established for these groups in single sports competition called Paralympics. Due to some overlapping functions of various disabled games, the International Coordinating Committee of World Sports Organizations for the Disabled (ICC) was formed to ensure uniformity and harmony while preparing for the Paralympics. The ICC is recognized by the IOC. Also, in an effort to further the cause of disabled sports, IOC’s President, Juan Antonio Samaranch, encouraged CISS to be a part of ICC. Upon receiving assurance from IOC that CISS would continue unhindered by the ICC with its World Games staged and administered separately from the Paralympics, CISS agreed to become a new member of the ICC.

When asked about the practicality of a unified disabled sports body, Jerald Jordan confided that he had doubts about whether it would be more effective than having separate games for each disabled sport group. However, the idea of lumping all disabilities under one umbrella is endorsed by some governments because it reduces the burden of dealing with several disabled sport groups requesting separate funding for their own games at different times and at different sites.

Should WGD Be A Part of Paralympics?
Given the foregoing brief perspective of international deaf and disabled sport organizations, it is now appropriate to address the issue of why deaf sport organizations resist the suggestions that WGD become part of the Paralympics. The major reason for resistance is that, whereas Paralympics provide sporting events for the physically disabled, deafness is a communication disability in a hearing society (Stewart, 1986-87).

In addition, deaf communities around the world are culturally distinct from their hearing counterparts mainly for linguistic and social reasons. Briefly, these reasons revolve around the fact that deaf individuals tend to use sign language in their interactions with one another and their preference for socializing invariably leads to social groups and activities that focus almost entirely on deaf persons. Indeed, WGD and other deaf sport competitions serve as strong vehicles for socialization among deaf persons. These aspects of deaf sport cannot be merged within the organizational framework provided by the Paralympics.

Distinctiveness of CISS was further illustrated at the inaugural meeting of International Confederation of Sports Organizations for the Disabled, September 21-22, 1989, in Dusseldorf, West Germany. At this meeting, CISS was successful in getting the name of the organization changed to International Paralympic Committee (IPC). The benefit of the new name is that it in no way identifies deaf as a subgroup. Given that the IPC constitution restricts the activities of the IPC to the Paralympics and other multi-disability world games (WGD are not considered multi-disability games), CISS will lobby the IPC at its next meeting in Assen, Holland, to insure that it does not assume any jurisdiction over international games for the deaf.

Cooperation Both Extended and Needed
Yet, CISS is willing to cooperate with other disabled sports organizations toward solving mutual problems and achieving common goals when they arise. It is essential that this cooperation be allowed to develop without integration of WGD with Paralympics or any other multi-disability games.

Formation of the IPC does not dissolve all the fears that the CISS has that IPC and other disabled sport organizations will continue to try to impose their standards upon WGD and other deaf sport events. In particular, there is some uneasiness that deaf sport groups might be tempted with offers of generous financial assistance to integrate their sports with other disabled sport events. To this end, I can only reiterate the following that is strongly felt among deaf individuals:

"We, the deaf, maintain our right to self-determination and the full control of our sport organizations. This right will not be compromised nor relinquished in the interest of funding support for our various levels of sports. As demonstrated in the past, the volunteer efforts of many deaf individuals will assure our integrity in the face of efforts of assimilation by larger coalitions of disabled sports organizations."