Jamie Howell on Steeden Hear Gear; a new headgear that will further open the sport to athletes who are deaf and hard of hearing

When Jamie Howell donned a headgear and walked onto the pitch to play his first Australian Rules game, 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 only had three.

In a sport as fast as Australian rules, this is a significant disadvantage.

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Born with profound bilateral hearing loss, the 24-year-old has no hearing in either ear.

“A helicopter could land right next to me, and I wouldn’t know it,” she told Wide World of Sports.

On a daily basis, Jamie travels with two hearing aids that allow him to hear and speak.

If she plays without any device, her world is completely silent. But to play with them, she must wear a headgear.

Under-the-helmet devices, while small, are still 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 don’t hear much on the pitch, so I rely on my eyes to watch constantly, watching the gestures to make sure I know what’s going on in the game.”

Howell wears a device on his left ear. She plays on the right wing, with only the boundary line behind her, and play usually comes to her from the left.

This gives her the best chance of making the most of what little hearing she has in the field.

Growing up, she became involved in athletics – an individual sport where it was quite easy to compete wearing her devices, or with another cue when competing in para-sports where these devices are prohibited.

And she was good too – she won four gold medals at the 2008 Pacific School Games and also represented Australia at the Asia-Pacific Deaf Games in 2015 and the Deaflympics in 2017. She also competed regularly at the Australian Deaf Games.

A Deaf Aussie Rules competition before the pandemic sparked Jamie’s desire to join a hearing club full-time, but ignorance of how she and her teammates might communicate discouraged her.

She said a work colleague playing for Yeronga South Brisbane Devils in the QAFLW convinced her to come over and give it a shot. And she never looked back.

“AFL is a 360-degree game, so sound comes from all directions,” she said.

“I wear my implant so I could hear myself, to make sure I was loud enough for my teammates to hear me, but I can’t hear my teammates.

“I remember in those early games I was like, ‘Oh my God, I have to look everywhere’ because I’ve never played a 360 degree game before.”

Fortunately, a 50-yard penalty was the worst thing to happen to date as a direct result of his impairment.

“We tell the referees at the start of games that I’m deaf, so if I play after a call or something, it’s just because I didn’t hear the whistle,” she said.

The Devils of Jamie were so welcoming to their club that they learned their team’s song from Auslan – footage of which was used in a Colgate advert.

But now Jamie is testing a new headset that will hopefully allow him and other gamers with hearing loss to comfortably wear their hearing aids while remaining functional.

Developed by Steeden, Hear Gear has a recess in the padding for hearing aids to sit in. The ridges on the outside direct sound towards the recess, allowing the wearer to hear more or less as they would otherwise.

The Hear Gear hopes to offer the same protection as a standard helmet.

Howell said the padding in traditional headgear sits right up against the voice processor, which muffles incoming voices. In the Hear Gear, the implant is held in place and the speech processor is unobstructed.

“It really is an invaluable option for people with hearing loss to reduce communication barriers on the pitch and allow them to participate in their local sports clubs,” she said.

To be part of the same trial as Jamie, head over to the Hear Gear website.

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