We Need To Be Better Than This: Roller Derby, Inclusiveness and Audism

Roller derby prides itself on its inclusiveness. We’re open to all body types, all orientations, and increasingly to all genders. We even have places for people who can’t stand the idea of putting on a pair of skates (NSOs rock my world).

When I joined derby I was struck by two things (three, if you count being literally struck on my target zones). One was the way that derby changed how I looked at my own body. My body was no longer something that was supposed to look a certain way that would always be found wanting. It became something that I could train to do more stuff, and instead of being always failing to reach a mark it was always learning and able to do more. That change was a revelation.

The other revelation- one I didn’t expect- was about my queerness. As a bi person, in public spaces my acceptance has always felt conditional. In gay spaces, I’d better be relatively quiet about my different-gendered attractions. In the rest of the world, the usual negotiations every queer person makes between outness and safety. That sense of always having to be careful of what I say, of feeling like the only spaces where I’m not an outsider are the ones I create myself, was something so ordinary as to be entirely unremarkable.

You don’t know what you’re carrying around until it’s lifted from you. When I say that in derby, nobody gave a rat’s ass, I don’t mean that they didn’t give a rat’s ass but they were really assuming I was straight (or gay). I mean that they genuinely didn’t give a rat’s ass who I fancied and that I never got the sense anyone was assuming anything. It was the first time in my life that I’ve been in a public space that wasn’t bi-specific where I felt like it honestly didn’t matter one bit either way. It wasn’t that it was the first time I didn’t feel like the only one in the room. More that it was the first time I felt like it didn’t matter if I was the only one in the room or not. We had other stuff to think about.

To say that the inclusivity that derby prides itself on means a lot to me, then.. it’s not something I say lightly. I adore this space.

When a space’s inclusivity has meant to much to a person, it’s a hell of a blow to find out that it has been harming other people.

A story has recently come to light of a skater being rejected for a place on her national team. Because she is Deaf. Seriously- here’s what the head coach of Team New Zealand, the aptly-named Pieces of Hate, had to say about Meat Train, one of the 30 skaters from which the final squad of 20 for the World Cup was picked. This is from Hate’s public Facebook page, by the way- the post’s since been taken down, by the way:

“What I do not like is that everyone has to walk on eggshells around someone because they have a disability… These players have so much to take on. Expecting them to learn sign language in nine months on top of that is just not fair. I’m real sorry, but it’s called a disability for a reason.”


One quick tip for people who want to get away with doing something ridiculously discriminatory: you probably shouldn’t post on your public Facebook page that the reason you did it was totally to discriminate against someone. I hear plausible deniability is all the rage among bigots these days. And another quick tip? If people question, say, why the hell you did what you did and said what you said, it might be a good idea to put down the metaphorical shovel and not, say, keep digging by saying something like this:

“It was a silly off-the-cuff comment. It meant no disrespect. It was just trying to explain to people the thing you go through when you are looking at considering people for teams.”

Yep. Apparently the thing you go through when you are looking at considering people for teams isn’t actually their skills at all. It’s their hearing impairment- which, as they it stop Meat Train from getting into the final 30 candidates for her national team, are obviously not something that has any negative impact on her game play whatsoever.

Actually, it’s not her Deafness at all. It’s Hate’s assumption that learning enough NZSL to play derby with is a task too massive for nine months of the team’s time. We’re not talking proficiency here- although, y’know, some skaters might want to give that a go, ’cause that’s precisely the kind of thing that people do for their teammates. Just enough to discuss plans, plays and strategies. The sorts of things that we communicate about visually all the damn time, even when we use spoken languages. This isn’t about Meat Train’s hearing. It’s about Hate’s audism, plain and simple.

In response to this blatant, unapologetic bigotry, the New Zealand Roller Derby Association (NZRDA) published a weak-ass sorry-not-sorry statement, where they talk about how discrimination is unacceptable, how Hate was directed to say sorry for what she had said, but also how any kind of sanction (such as selecting a new coach who could be relied upon to act fairly towards her skaters) would be “detrimental to the final 20 squad”. A few days later they released another statement saying, basically, that they’re investigating things and it’s gonna take a while.

Either way, though? There’s a skater who, by the sounds of things, isn’t getting to represent her country and take her game to the highest level she can. And that’s not because there were simply 20 better skaters than her in New Zealand, but because she is Deaf. It’s heartbreaking enough to miss out on something incredible for entirely legitimate reasons. But this? This is simply not fair. And the fact that the person who did this is currently still in her position, with no signs of being removed or facing any meaningful sanctions? Simply not fair.

I want roller derby to be better than this. The community that I know and love is one where we take people as they are and where the only damn thing determining how far you’ll go is how good you can be. It’s the one where inclusiveness is taken for granted, because it is granted. The community I know and love is one that goes out of its way to take people in from the cold and give them a home. If that is to matter a damn, then we need to get off our asses and show that we’re better than this. That audism and ableism- and any kind of bigotry- are not things that we accept, and not things we shove under the carpet.

We need to be better than this. We are better than this.



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We Need To Be Better Than This: Roller Derby, Inclusiveness and Audism

6 thoughts on “We Need To Be Better Than This: Roller Derby, Inclusiveness and Audism

  1. 1

    Actually, it’s not her Deafness at all. It’s Hate’s assumption that learning enough NZSL to play derby with is a task too massive for nine months of the team’s time.

    I feel like if baby chimps can learn sign language, than a team of adult humans can learn enough to get by.

    I worked with a deaf woman over the summer. She knew sign language, but most of her communication was through lip reading. Unfortunately, I have a rather severe speech impediment; communication between the two of us was a little strained.

    But fuck, so what? We got alone great. We’d have to repeat ourselves a lot, and a few times we simply gave up and I started writing out what I wanted to ask, but she was absolutely awesome to work with.

  2. 2

    the excuse is just weak. I would imagine that, like most sports, derby has a few things that need to be communicated frequently so nobody is going to have to be fluent. Is it impossible to find an interpreter?

    I’ve become more aware of deaf issues for a variety of reasons lately; part of this is that I do work with prison populations, and resources for deaf inmates are lacking, and some deaf inmates are simply in prison for ‘refusing to comply with police commands’ they could not hear and for simply behaving in a natural way if someone starts beating you for no reason. Another is my brother is a translator in China and is learning Chinese sign language.

    1. 2.1

      Well, there are definitely things that people need to communicate in the moment with their teammates. But yeah, it’s a matter of learning how to instantly communicate strategies and what’s going on, which is a fairly specific set of things.

      Also, to add insult to injury? We already use signs LOADS in derby! Bench coaches communicate with jammers using signs, jammers will communicate with their pack, even blockers with each other. It’s one way of many- verbal, visual, tactile- that we’re all in constant communication. Teams already tend to have ways to sign what strategies we’ll be doing to each other! All that would be required here is to add to something that the team are presumably already doing.

  3. 3

    Hey, nice post. It looks like they screwed up pretty badly but luckily they’re getting a reaction. Now I know this is the stupidest question but why do you capitalize the word deaf? Thanks 🙂

    1. 3.1

      We Deaf people capitalise the word Deaf to refer to a specific group of people who subscribe to Deaf culture, communicate mostly through the national sign languages (depending on where they are from, in my case I use Irish Sign Language) with each other, and largely have a Deaf identity.

      When most people think of the word deaf, they think of negative things like loss, loneliness, disability. This is NOT what we think when we think of the word Deaf, so we capitalise it in order to make that distinction.

      This link is very American, but the point applies worldwide. http://endora.wide.msu.edu/7.1/coverweb/portolano/deaf.htm

      This is a very helpful link to understand the issues involved.

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