Seahawk shakes up the way we think about disability

Published on
February 3, 2014

Derrick Coleman Jr., one of the running backs for the Seattle Seahawks, has had an incredible season, as has the team.

But Coleman – for those of you not paying quite as much attention to football as me – also lost his hearing as a child and has gone on to play for a team that won a trip to the Super Bowl. The tone was set when Coleman, who also is a member of the Seahawks' special teams unit, stopped the Broncos on the 14 yard line after they received the kickoff. The Seahawks scored on the very next play.

His story was told quite beautifully in, of all things, an ad for Duracell that has been viewed more than 15 million times online. Thousands of news outlets, including Good Morning America, wanted to talk with him after twin girls with hearing impairments wrote him a fan letter, and he responded by writing back and later giving them tickets to the Superbowl.

His story got me thinking about the way reporters label different health conditions and the people who have them.

I remember getting an angry call from a woman in Mexico, Missouri. I was working as an intern for the Mexico Ledger, and I had used the term “deaf” in a story. I should have used “hearing impaired,” she said, and then she went on to go through all the ways that my use of the term “deaf” not only was offensive but was causing real harm to the effort to provide mainstream education and employment opportunities to people with hearing impairments. From that day forward, I made a better effort to think about those kinds of labels, and when talking with someone with a specific health condition to ask them how they describe themselves.

Coleman describes himself as deaf. On his Twitter page, he says that he is, “Blessed but humble. Deaf but successful. RB/FB for the Seattle Seahawks.”

That has made it easier, I imagine, for a lot of people writing about him to just use plain old “deaf” in their stories. But it’s interesting to see the qualifiers being incorporated.

Doug Farrar at Sports Illustrated – in a section called Audibles no less -- described him this way:

As the only hearing-impaired player currently in the NFL, and the only legally deaf player in the history of the league, Coleman has a story of a rise to the top that has resonated with a lot of people.

Why the choice of “legally deaf”? It was the same term I first used when I started writing my first draft of this post, and it provides a bit of cover, I think. The sense is that there is some judicial body that has determined that Coleman is deaf and, therefore, that is the correct term to use.

In fact, there is no such thing as legally deaf, which is why I deleted it. “Legally blind” is a term that you see used by government agencies, for example the Social Security Administration. And it can entitle someone to specific rights or restrictions based on that condition. For example, if you are “legally blind,” you’re not supposed to be able to drive a motor vehicle.

But hearing impairment is a different matter. The Americans with Disabilities Act cares less about the level of hearing loss and more about the context. Here’s what the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has to say about it:

A hearing impairment is a disability under the ADA if: (1) it substantially limits a major life activity; (2) it substantially limited a major life activity in the past; or (3) the employer regarded (or treated) the individual as if his or her hearing impairment was substantially limiting. The determination of whether a hearing impairment is substantially limiting must be made on an individualized, case-by-case basis.

Interestingly, when you search for “legally blind,” you find a lot of information about blindness and specific legal guidelines. When you search for “legally deaf,” you get a lot of stories about Derrick Coleman.

Bob Condotta at the Seattle Times steered clear of “legally deaf.” He wrote:

Coleman, you see, is essentially deaf, having been able to hear only sounds and tones since age three. That’s when his hearing mysteriously began to disappear.

Condotta does something great in this story. He writes about the specifics of Coleman’s hearing impairment. If you read anything about hearing impairment – or have experienced it yourself – you’ll know that it is all about specifics.

One of the first writers to celebrate Coleman in a major publication was Mike Trudell in the Los Angeles Times Magazine, who wrote about Coleman when he was a UCLA standout. He described, in heartbreaking detail, how Coleman experienced life as a child with hearing aids in both ears.

“We never saw it as an excuse,” says [Coleman’s mom May] Manning, a registered nurse, of her son, who is virtually 100 percent deaf without hearing aids. “He’s just Derrick. We treated him as if there was no disability.” Not everyone followed suit, however. Wearing a high-tech hearing aid at his Fullerton elementary school, Coleman could hear the other kids calling him stupid. And when he couldn’t hear the taunts, he could read the lips of the students who mocked the devices protruding from his ears. He came home once with tears in his eyes after an incident with a fellow third grader. His mother had a simple solution: Compare your report card—the one full of A’s—to that of the bully’s, and see who measures up and who doesn’t.

And in the end, it’s Coleman – and his mom -- who provide the best lens for viewing Coleman’s experience and the experience of people who will never be in the spotlight.

“At first it was a struggle,” says Coleman, 20, now a year away from his college degree. “I used to never want to talk to people. But my parents told me that if anyone couldn’t accept me for who I was, I didn’t need to be around them.” He began to realize that his needing aids to hear was no different from someone needing glasses to see. “We all have a disability of some sort,” he recalls his mother telling him. “Some are just more profound than others.”

As more and more research shows, this is the most accurate view. Most of us have some sort of disability or soon will. Some do have noticeable impairments – my glasses give one of mine away – but others live with behavioral disorders, depression, mobility impairments, chronic diseases, infectious diseases, and other conditions that are harder to spot. Even those who appear superhuman in intellect or athleticism or both may also be, by definition, impaired in some way.

Coleman’s example shows that defining people by what they can’t do is much less compelling than defining people by what they can do.

Let me know what you think at askantidote [at] or via Twitter @wheisel.

Image by akarmy via Flickr