Why disability won't hold these rugby players back

June 11, 2019

 

The notion of equality of opportunity for all individuals has undergone centuries of philosophical substantiation and political development, to now becoming widely held as a universal ideal.

 

Be it a non-discriminatory employment policy that assigns greater weight to ability and qualifications over gender, race and creed; or organisations that cater to the needs and improvement of all aspiring sportspeople, we have largely come a long way from the institutionalised marginalisation of certain groups in society. 

 

Indeed, events such as the Special Olympics, the Blind Football World Cup and the Arnold Festival's categories for athletes with special needs and disabilities all stand as examples of how taking part in competitive sport is no longer just the preserve of able-bodied individuals. 

 

Nor is this merely confined to a global level - the Hong Kong Rugby Union (HKRU) celebrated the 10th anniversary of their Deaf Rugby Programme last month, having also participated in the 2018 Deaf World Sevens for the first time. 

 

Photo credit: Hong Kong Rugby Union 

 

Founded in 2009, the Deaf Rugby Programme has its roots in REAL - an initiative by the HKRU that aims to teach English to locals through rugby. 

 

Upon realising the success and popularity of REAL among hearing-impaired and deaf students, the Deaf Rugby Programme was launched with Stuart Gunn as head coach. 

 

Having been in Hong Kong since 2006, it is a role Gunn derives much satisfaction from and the Englishman describes his work as a highly-rewarding experience. 

 

"I think it's amazing to see the transition from them. When they pick up a new sport, they seem timid and shy at first," he said. 

 

“As soon as they start participating in matches and meeting people from around the world”, they feel “immediately welcome into the rugby family." 

 

 

This spirit is certainly perpetuated by the presence of Winnie Cheung, who was one of the original members of the Deaf Rugby Programme.   

 

Now captain of the Hong Kong Deaf Rugby team, Cheung also plays full-contact rugby for Kowloon RFC (the only hearing-impaired player to do so) and made history by scoring a try at the 2018 World Deaf Rugby Sevens. 

 

With years of experience under her belt, she has also become a nurturing figure for many members of the squad, who often look to her for guidance both on and off the pitch. 

 

In her role as a spokesperson for Hong Kong Deaf Rugby, she called on the public to pay greater attention to athletes with special needs. 

 

“We hope they’ll support us, because we’re putting in our best effort to play rugby but not just Deaf Rugby - (the public should support) other sports such as blind football and special sports." 

 

 

However, it was when Cheung was queried again on her personal goals that her humility shone through, as she chose instead to speak about the future of Deaf Rugby and less so about her own targets and accomplishments.   

 

"My expectations? I hope that younger generations of the hearing-impaired can take up rugby and that this continues for time to come." 

 

Gunn, affectionately known as "Gunny" among his charges, foresees a bright future for Deaf Rugby in the city and has bold plans to take the Programme forward. 

 

“We’re hoping in the future we can get more deaf players involved in the contact version of rugby, so we can form a Hong Kong Deaf Team and stand alone as representing Hong Kong when we enter World Sevens competitions”.

 

 

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