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Jodie Ounsley: Breaking barriers and championing deaf athletes in rugby

By Ciara Fearn
Jodie Ounsley of Exeter Chiefs during the Allianz Cup match between Worcester Warriors Women and Exeter Chiefs Women at Sixways Stadium, Worcester, United Kingdom on 22 September 2023. Exeter Chiefs / ©Pro Sports Images Ltd.

In the world of rugby, Jodie Ounsley stands out not only for her exceptional skills on the field but also for her dedication to breaking down barriers and advocating for deaf athletes.

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Ounsley spoke to RugbyPass, sharing insights into her journey and her campaign for fair play for deaf athletes, in addition to her experiences as a professional rugby player with Exeter Chiefs.

“I started with a typical Yorkshire event – the coal race. That was how I kind of got into the sport before Brazilian jiu-jitsu. My dad was sort of a professional fighter so, obviously growing up with that, watching him train and stuff I just naturally got into fighting as well.

“It was literally just wrestling with my dad loads and I’d lose every time, but I did it anyway. I then started competing at the British Championship and then I picked up the sport rugby and loved it. That’s when I just sort of had to choose one or the other really and it just sort of went to rugby instead.

“I started playing rugby when I was around fifteen, so a good couple of years now. Time flies though, it seems like just the other day when I started and really so much has happened in that time frame.

“It’s my second season at Exeter Chiefs and I’ve honestly loved my time here with the team, the location, the staff, everything. It’s got such a good feel about it but, also a very professional environment to be in which I find I work best with. You’re pushed but you’re well respected and you’re expected to perform and stuff so it’s a cool environment to be in really.

“Before I came to Exeter I was at Sale Sharks and loved it there as well, they’re a great bunch. I was sort of going between England Sevens and Sale Sharks, but now I’m purely focusing on 15s and just sort of seeing where I can go with that.

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“I’ve just been a bit unfortunate injury-wise, like I said I’ve been out for four months, the first game of the season as well… I just thought it was typical. Regardless of my injury or not I’m enjoying it and then when I get back fully fit I will work hard and see where it takes me.”

At the moment, Ounsley is in the midst of a rigorous training and rehabilitation routine, bouncing back from an injury. “It’s pretty much a bit full-on because they want to get you back as quick as possible,” she remarks, highlighting the determination and resilience required in professional sports.

As the Honorary President of UK Deaf Sport and Winger for Exeter Chiefs, one of the focal points of Ounsley’s endeavours is her campaign to raise awareness for fair play for deaf athletes.

She explains: “Not many people know about the Deaflympics. A lot of people know the Olympics and the Paralympics, but literally, the Deaflympics seems unknown. It’s still sort of a work in progress and trying to raise awareness more than anything.

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“Growing up, I missed out on having deaf athletes to look up to. We’ve launched a campaign to ensure every deaf person can fulfil their full potential in sport and activity and give the next generation of deaf children inspiring role models.”

Her campaign aims to raise awareness and secure funding to support deaf athletes on their journey to recognition and success.

The campaign calls for the government to end discrimination and fund deaf sport. At the moment deaf athletes can only compete in the Paralympics and be funded if they have another eligible Paralympic disability. Deaf athletes compete in the Deaflympics.

According to UK Deaf Sport, the charity co-ordinating the campaign, despite the UK having one of the best-funded talent and performance sport support systems in the world, with £612 million allocated over four years to Olympic and Paralympic sport through UK Sport, the current Government policy excludes deaf athletes from accessing it as they do not compete in the Paralympics.

UK Deaf Sport is calling for the government to commit £3 million over the next four years, just 0.5% of the current UK Sport budget, to create deaf athlete talent and performance pathways that mirror their Olympic and Paralympic peers and send a competitive GB Team to the next Deaflympics taking place in Tokyo in 2025.

Unfortunately, one in five adults are deaf and recent research has found that the deaf community is one of the most inactive groups with 53% of deaf adults being inactive.

Adam Blaze, Chief Executive, of Activity Alliance said: “Activity Alliance supports UK Deaf Sports in their campaign to change an unfair system for deaf people. A person’s impairment should not affect whether they receive financial support, whatever level someone decided to take part.

“We need to change attitudes towards disabled people from elite to grassroots level as too many face multiple barriers when trying to be active.”

Reflecting on her inspiration for launching the campaign, Ounsley emphasises the lack of awareness surrounding the Deaflympics. Her own fond memories and experiences competing at the age of 16 drive her passion for advocating for deaf athletes.

“It’s more just getting it on the map so, the more people know about it the funding will sort of come with it.

“I can’t compete in the Deaflympics anymore because I’m a professional rugby player now, which is a shame and I think that’s again why I want to try and support in any way I can, even if I’m not competing myself.”

Despite not being able to compete in the Deaflympics herself due to her professional rugby commitments, Ounsley remains committed to supporting the cause in any way she can.

Joining Exeter Chiefs has been a fulfilling experience for Ounsley, who embraces the welcoming atmosphere and camaraderie within the team. However, she acknowledges the challenges of being a deaf player in a predominantly hearing sport.

“I’m really enjoying Exeter, obviously I’m not from down south, if you haven’t noticed but, yeah I honestly love it down here. Being near the beach and everyone is so friendly. It’s got quite a slow-paced life and feel about it, especially Exeter Chiefs. Everyone is so lovely and the team is great. I feel really welcome here, which is nice.”

“I suppose in my own experience it’s more being in professional rugby obviously being a team sport it’s pretty hard throwing a deaf person into the mix..it’s just daily challenges.

“A lot of my teammates and my coaching staff just naturally forget that I’m deaf, I think because I just crack on with it and a lot of the time I just have to remind people,” she remarks, underscoring the importance of raising awareness and breaking down barriers for deaf individuals in rugby and sports at large.

Ounsley also sheds light on the growth of the deaf England rugby team and the need for increased funding to support its development. Despite facing obstacles, she remains optimistic about the potential for more deaf athletes to excel in professional sport and serve as role models for future generations.

“There is also a deaf England rugby team, so again back to funding. The team has grown massively over the coming years because it was my first open-age game when I was 16, but yeah again they just sort of need more funding and that’s the barrier at the minute – to get more deaf players, playing rugby and stuff – again it goes to the exposure of it.

“I suppose especially in rugby terms, when I was growing up I didn’t really see anyone who was deaf, nevermind in professional sport or professional rugby, especially because that’s like a sport that you get advised to stay away from because it’s a contact sport – with Cochlear implants and things like that. Like myself even, just sort of making a little bit of that small history, you know being the first deaf England player to represent sevens.

“It’s just if people can see that then it’s like ah, yeah I can do the same so it has a domino effect and I think that’s massive. I just think more people making history, more people being good role models, it encourages other people to do it as well.”

“I’d love to see more deaf people in professional sport or representing the country, whether that’s in deaf sport at the Deaflympics or grassroots rugby, or whether it’s sort of athletes crossing over to the hearing world like I have. I’d just say more involvement, more so it’s just a natural thing whether you’re deaf or not, get involved in sport.”

Her involvement in both Exeter Chiefs and fundraising for deaf athletes keeps Ounsley busy, but she remains passionate about driving positive change in the sports community. From her early days competing in Yorkshire events to her current role as a standout player in professional rugby, Ounsley’s journey exemplifies resilience, determination, and a commitment to making sports more inclusive for all.

As she looks ahead to the future, Ounsley remains focused on her recovery from injury and her aspirations in rugby. With her unwavering dedication and pioneering spirit, she continues to inspire athletes worldwide, proving that barriers are meant to be broken and that true excellence knows no bounds.

“I’m playing for Exeter Chiefs and fundraising at the moment. I try to stay involved as much as I can with UK deaf sport, so there’s a lot going on behind the scenes. Obviously, it’s not a quick fix or anything, these things take time and sort of getting the message out there that’s what we’re trying to do at the minute. First, get the message out there and then just build things from there. I’m very involved with Exeter Chiefs at the moment but, then when I have time, I’m really passionate about wanting to sort of push that side of things as well.”

The Deaflympics started in 1924 and is 100 years old this year, it is an entirely separate event recognised by the IOC as part of the Olympic family. To find out more about the ongoing campaign and how you can support to help end discrimination for deaf athletes, click here.

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J Marc 115 days ago

French international centre Maelle Fillopon is death, too.

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