Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Program pioneers hockey for deaf kids

From Pictured is the Deaf Sharks team in Mass.

When Judy Fask was implementing a deaf studies program at the College of the Holy Cross in 1994, the last thing on her mind was a hockey program for deaf people.

That was until her husband, Rick, who was the president of Midstate Junior Sharks Youth Hockey, received a call from a mother (Kathy Hastings) who wanted to register her son (Ryan) — who was deaf — for hockey.

Judy’s reply was simple.

“I said ‘We’ll start a program,’” she replied.

Now, more than 15 years later, a program called DEAFinitely hockey caters to children and adults who are deaf and who want to play hockey.

“I came back to my classes after Rick got that call and asked my ASL (American Sign Language) students if anybody could skate,” Judy recalled. “A trio of Holy Cross students came to the skating program. Kathy’s son, Ryan, started playing with two other deaf kids that first season.

“Most deaf kids haven’t had a chance to join a regular learn-to-skate program because of the communication barrier. It wasn’t taught in sign language so the kids couldn’t get the full instructions.

“We’ve had kids of various ages who want to play hockey,” she continued. “But we never had a group of kids of the same age to make up a full deaf team.”

Still, players in the program are able to learn skills — like skating — without the communication barrier.

“It’s become an accessible program to them,” Fask said. “Another important thing to me is, because this is a low-incident population, they get role models from the deaf community who are skilled skaters and coaches.

“We’ve had Chris Whitney, who played semi-pro women’s hockey in Canada and deaf men from the USA Deaflympic Team. Chris has been the heart of this program from the start. She’s hard of hearing herself so she can sign with the kids.”

Kids who love hockey and stay with it usually join their local teams, which consist of all players who can hear.

ASL students serve as instructors and interpreting students from Northeastern University also participate and assist with communication in the program.

“There’s a lot of collaborating and a lot of opportunities for students to get involved,” Fask said. “I love to orchestrate this and see the interaction between hearing and deaf people.

“When one of my students starts to say a kid is funny and characterizes him, then I know they’ve got it. The deaf kids are very able-bodied kids. The difference in communication is where the barrier comes in and that’s what we address.”

Arguably one of the more ingenious aspects of the program is a portable strobe light system created by Rick Fask and his friend, Jim Gloshinski.

Rick Fask is the Massachusetts representative for Disabled Hockey to USA Hockey.

“It provides a visual light system,” Judy explained. “When the referee blows the whistle, the scorekeeper presses a button and lights flash. Instead of thinking they have a breakaway, the player realizes there’s a stoppage in play.”

The strobes can be fastened to the top of the glass on each side of the blue lines.

Now, Rick Fask is looking into a vibrating system, a mechanism similar to one patrons at a restaurant are given while they’re waiting for a table.

“You put it on your belt and when a coach wants you, it’s pressed and you know when to make a line change,” he said. “It’s not that difficult. It’s being creative with the technology that exists. It’s something we’re in the process of further developing and hope to use across the state of Massachusetts next season.”

Because, as Judy Fask says, she’s a teacher, she’s constantly thinking of new ways to educate people. One of her ideas resulted in a program called Deaf World on Ice where the “tables are turned” on hearing coaches and players who have a deaf kid on the team.

“We offer a workshop both on ice and off ice where voice isn’t used,” Fask said.

With the assistance of Holy Cross students and deaf volunteers, different stations are set up where specific drills must be learned.

“Deaf kids communicate in different ways,” said Fask. “Some communicate with just sign. Others use voice and lip reading and some use both.

“Every kid is different.”

The workshop ends with a “voice-off” scrimmage where nobody is allowed to talk. Coaches must figure out how to scrimmage without using their voice.

“It’s a great way for them to appreciate how to communicate and see there are other ways to communicate and still include everyone,” said Fask.

Among other things, the deaf kids on the teams are given the opportunity to show leadership skills.

“I feel it’s important for deaf kids to be empowered and show leadership skills,” said Fask. “They provide ASL lessons for any teammates and coaches with whom they play. That encourages them to be seen as a leader by the kids on the team.”

Fask also is quick to emphasize there’s more to the program than simply playing hockey.

“The locker room, social interaction and knowing their teammates is important,” she said. “And you can’t do it if you’re unable to communicate.

“The truth is kids are so quick to learn and they’re less afraid of something new. Communication access is what it is. You want kids to learn skills and have fun. That’s the bottom line.”