A Brisbane Australian rules club is trailblazing an Auslan-adapted football program tailored for young children who are deaf or hard of hearing.
Last year, a video posted by the Yeronga South Brisbane Devils AFL club went viral after players learnt the club song in Auslan and surprised a hearing-impaired teammate by performing it after a win.
Team captain Mia Walsh came up with idea to surprise fellow QAFLW player, Jamie Howell.
Ms Walsh said it was after some amazing feedback from the viral video that the idea for Auslan footy was born.
Ms Walsh and Ms Howell both work at local deaf services organisations and helped to spread the word.
But it was beyond anything they had imagined when more than 60 children registered for the first pilot program, which included three one-hour sessions run over three consecutive Sundays.
“We’ve had so much positive feedback, everybody has loved it and that’s what we’re here for — we’re trying to build a community and just so that everybody can be part of something,” Ms Walsh said.
“There’s a lot of happy kids out here with big smiles, they’ve all got their jerseys on and some of the stories … we’ve heard of them putting it on Monday morning and wanting to go back to football.”
‘We have a lot of deaf role models’
Ms Howell and several of her Yeronga QAFLW teammates help Ms Walsh run the sessions.
She said when she grew up she never had access to a program solely run using Auslan.
“We had things like deaf sports day, deaf camps, come-and-try days, but nothing like this where it’s been three weeks, it involves families and it’s very social and fun,” Ms Howell said.
“At this age group, with the four to 12-year-olds, it’s really important for them to meet other people like themselves and be able to share the same experiences.
“We’ve made sure that we have a lot of deaf role models here, deaf adults to help with that communication.
“I think the biggest thing for me has been the feedback … families have just loved this opportunity and they want more.”
Auslan Footy has been adapted from the AFL’s Auskick Program, which is considered an introduction to AFL for young children.
Ms Walsh said in addition to learning the basics, they wanted to ensure the children get to explore playing in a team sport as well as being able to use all of their abilities.
“A lot of kids who are deaf and hard of hearing, they have some deficits in their balance that can affect their gross motor, so a program like this really supports them in their development,” Ms Walsh said.
They have had to make some minor adaptations to the Auskick program to ensure the children can participate comfortably.
“In each group we have an interpreter, alongside that [person] we also have another adult who is deaf or hard of hearing as well, so there’s other role models the kids can look up to,” Ms Walsh said.
“We’ve made sure that everybody, no matter their communication level, has been covered.”
“We’ve also got flags to be able to alert kids that the drills are finished.”
“A lot of the coaches here, we’ve been through deaf-awareness training.”
‘So special’ to do sport in your own language
Asher O’Keeffe is four years old and Auslan is the only way he can communicate.
His mother Kate said there had never been a program like this for young children.
“We jumped at [the opportunity to sign-up], because it’s so special being able to do sport in your own language,” Ms O’Keeffe said.
“Hearing kids have access to every sport and get the full explanation of how to do that sport in English, everywhere.
“That is not available to my son, so it’s really special and it’s so important that he gets the same explanation to play AFL in his own language.
“If you want Asher to get the ball, you’ve actually got to tap him or wave your hands up in the air.”
Ms O’Keeffe said there were many benefits to the program — not just for the kids.
“It’s also a big community event, which is really hard to find for a lot of parents who are hearing, who have deaf children,” she said.
“It’s so essential for the kids, Asher needs kids who speak his language just to have that social exposure, interaction and fun, just like any other hearing child.
“Asher loves tackling, he loves running at the big, soft bag and jumping into it, and we’re working on the kicking — he’s getting there.”
This is just the start
The pilot program, funded through Deaf Services and the Deaf Lottery Australia, was created after taking feedback from children, parents and families.
Ms Walsh said she hoped it would become a fully fledged program.
“Ultimately, I’d love to think that Yeronga could be the hub of Auslan footy,” she said.
“I’d really love this to be a program that can be run in other states, through other clubs and that we could support them because I know there’s lots of families that would really benefit.
“From here it’s about getting the feedback from the parents and sharing it with the wider community.
“It’s not going to stop here, I really hope it can keep getting bigger and bigger.”