When Jamie Howell pulled on headgear and stepped onto the field to play her first game of Aussie rules, it quickly became apparent there was a problem.
She couldn’t hear. Instead of playing with four senses — unless you really like the taste of leather — she was down to just three.
In a sport as fast-paced as Australian rules, that’s a significant disadvantage.
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Born with profound bilateral hearing loss, the 24-year-old has zero hearing in either ear.
“A helicopter could be landing right next to me, and I wouldn’t know,” she told Wide World of Sports.
In her day-to-day life, Jamie gets around with two hearing devices which allow her to hear and speak.
If she plays without any devices, her world is completely silent. But to play with them requires her to wear headgear.
The devices underneath the headgear, while small, remain incredibly uncomfortable. And they’re rendered virtually useless by the padding covering the speech processor.
She basically only wears it so she can hear the sound of her own voice, so she knows her teammates can at least hear her.
”I actually can’t hear much on the field, so I’m relying on my eyes to just be constantly watching, watching for gestures to make sure I know what’s happening in the game.”
Howell wears one device, on her left ear. She plays on the right wing, with only the boundary line behind her, and play generally coming to her from the left.
It gives her the best chance of making the most of what little hearing she has on the field.
Growing up, she got involved in athletics – an individual sport where it was easy enough to compete while wearing her devices, or with some other cue when competing in para-sports where those devices are banned.
And she was good, too – she won four gold medals at the 2008 Pacific School Games and has also represented Australia at the Asia-Pacific Deaf Games in 2015, and Deaflympics in 2017. She was also a regular competitor at the Australian Deaf Games.
A deaf Aussie rules competition pre-pandemic ignited a desire for Jamie to join a hearing club full-time, but the unknown of how she and her teammates would be able to communicate put her off.
She said a work colleague playing for Yeronga South Brisbane Devils in the QAFLW convinced her to come down and give it a crack. And she’s never looked back.
“AFL is a 360 degree game, so sound is coming from every direction,” she said.
“I wear my implant so that I could hear myself, to make sure I was loud enough for my teammates to hear me, but I actually can’t hear my teammates.
“I remember in those first few games just being like, ‘Oh my gosh, I have to be watching everywhere’ because I had never played a 360-degree game before.”
Thankfully, a 50-metre penalty has been to-date the worst thing that has happened as a direct result of her impairment.
“We make the umpires aware at the beginning of games that I am deaf, so if I do play on after a call or something, it’s just because I haven’t heard the whistle,” she said.
So welcoming were the Devils of Jamie to their club, they learned their team song in Auslan – footage of which was used in a Colgate commercial.
But now, Jamie is trialling a new piece of headgear that will hopefully allow her and other players with hearing loss to be able to wear their hearing aids comfortably, and still be functional.
Developed by Steeden, Hear Gear has a recess in the padding for hearing devices to sit. The ridges on the outside direct sound towards the recess, allowing the wearer to hear more or less like they would otherwise.
The Hear Gear hopes to provide the same protection as standard headgear.
Howell said the padding in traditional headgear sits right against the speech processor, which muffles incoming voices. In the Hear Gear, the implant is held in place and the speech processor is clear.
“It really is an invaluable option for people who are hard of hearing to reduce any communication barriers on the field, and allow them to participate in their local sporting clubs,” she said.
To be a part of the same trial as Jamie, head to the Hear Gear website.
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