Faye Frez-Albrecht was just approaching the starting blocks at the 2016 North Eastern Athletic Conference swimming and diving championships when the referee blew his whistle, kicking off the 400-meter individual medley. The 24-year-old Gallaudet athlete — who is deaf and legally blind — couldn’t hear it, of course, nor could she see the referee gesturing that the race was about to begin.

“I was disqualified,” Frez-Albrecht said later through an interpreter. “And if you’re disqualified in one event, it means you’re disqualified for all events. …

“There are a lot of swimmers in the past who’ve been disqualified, for example, for false starts because the referee is gesturing and using their voice and it’s not always in line with the gun. Sometimes swimmers have missed their starts because they don’t realize it’s their event that’s next because it’s been announced by voice only.”

After discussing her disqualification with frustrated teammates, Frez-Albrecht aired her thoughts in a video blog on Facebook.

Turns out, that video — which is silent save for the sounds of her signing — would lead to a movement that would change her sport.

A lightbulb goes off

Gallaudet swimming Coach Larry Curran didn’t know Frez-Albrecht was going to make the video, which has nearly 90,000 views, but he said he wasn’t surprised when he saw it.

“It’s her role to make the team better,” he said of the rising senior at the District university dedicated to the education of deaf and hard-of-hearing students.

Curran agreed with everything Frez-Albrecht expressed, including the team’s frustration over the NCAA swimming and diving rules, which NEAC schools are obligated to follow. Those rules led to her disqualification.

“We do all this work to accommodate a hearing environment, and they do nothing for us,” Curran said. The team was “going to call the papers. They were going to be bringing in all sorts of media. At that point, I asked them, what was their end goal? Do you want to get even, or do you want to see change?”

Curran had heard of a new technology developed for hearing-impaired swimmers called the reaction light system (RLS), which uses bright LED lights to give cues, eliminating the need for hand gestures or spoken instructions. The system, which attaches to a swimmer’s individual block, is relatively simple: When it blinks red, it’s time to get on the block; a blue light means take your mark; and, finally, a quick green flash signals swimmers to go.

“I noticed that the deaf and hard-of-hearing swimmers typically were the last ones getting off the block,” Frez-Albrecht said, adding that the traditional NCAA starting system requires deaf and hard-of-hearing swimmers to turn their heads to see the referee or the strobe light, while hearing swimmers are able to look straight on as they listened for their signals.

The NEAC, which issued a response explaining why officials disqualified Frez-Albrecht after her video caught on in the deaf rights movement, was on board. By May 2016, the NEAC and Gallaudet were working together to get the NCAA’s permission to try the RLS at the 2017 NEAC championships.

The process took about a year, but after the RLS passed tests that proved it could work in conjunction with all three of the NCAA’s approved electronic timing systems and not interfere with traditional methods of starting events, the NCAA approved the device for a one-time use.

“During the last championship, I noticed that the deaf swimmers are now catching up to the other swimmers,” said Frez-Albrecht, who previously relied on a tap from an assistant coach to signal her start to compensate for her vision, which allows her to see only what’s directly in front of her. “Now everyone’s getting off the block at the same time. … It makes me feel equal.”

The feedback from the experiment was overwhelmingly positive, said NEAC Commissioner Candice Poiss Murray, who was charged with gathering reaction from the conference’s athletic directors and sending it to the NCAA’s rules committee.

One athletic director of a mostly hearing school told her that he thought it was a “positive step for the sport of swimming.”

The race isn’t over

On June 13, the NCAA amended its rules to make LED lighting systems such as the RLS permissible starting in the 2017-18 swim season. While the portable technology will make appearances in every meet in which Gallaudet participates, it won’t be everywhere — including the NCAA championships. Despite Gallaudet’s urging, the NCAA declined to make the technology mandatory.

“The language in the rule book reflects what FINA and USA Swimming also have,” said Brian Gordon, the secretary rules editor for NCAA swimming and diving.

Both organizations require audio and visual start cues, including the referee’s whistle, hand gestures and a strobe, but neither has permitted LED lighting systems, such as the RLS.

Gordon added that schools always have had the option of placing individual strobe lights on each lane’s starting block, which he reasoned already eliminates hard-of-hearing swimmers from needing to turn their heads. Many schools, however, have not installed individual strobes because of the extra cost, which is another reason the NCAA has not mandated that technology or any LED lighting systems.

“I don’t know how many they’re going to sell out there,” Gordon said.

It costs $2,700 to install a single RLS unit on a starting block, according to Nick Santino, who engineered the lighting system in conjunction with Trine University in Angola, Ind. The price drops significantly for subsequent units or if pools already have in-ground wiring systems set up, with individual units then running between $500 and $750.

Santino said units admittedly aren’t cheap, but they’re in line with what individual strobes generally cost. He added that interest has increased substantially since the NCAA made the technology permissible.

Indiana University is the biggest program that has contacted him, and while the Hoosiers have not yet made a purchase, Santino said he has 18 orders at the moment, including from the Rochester Institute of Technology, the only other institution besides Gallaudet that had ordered the system specifically to aid hard-of-hearing students.

“All the rest of the customers are buying it for the speed of it,” he said. “If you can get a swimmer off the block faster, you’re going to win.”

The finish line

Gallaudet views the NCAA’s June ruling as a victory but not an end to the university’s campaign to gain more accommodations for deaf and hard-of-hearing student athletes.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Sam Atkinson, the school’s associate athletic director.

Not only would Atkinson like to see the NCAA make LED lighting systems mandatory at all collegiate swim meets, but he’s also hoping it will make it mandatory for in-meet audio announcements to be presented visually.

Gallaudet already has implemented its own system of visual announcements with the blessing of the NEAC: a PowerPoint projection on a large screen. It’s nothing fancy, Frez-Albrecht said, but it has been a big help.

“Often deaf and hard-of-hearing swimmers miss out on stuff,” said Frez-Albrecht, who was named team captain ahead of next season. “I might be getting an award, but I miss my award because I can’t hear them announce my name. … Now that the information is available visually, it’s nice.”

Gallaudet hasn’t approached the NCAA about instituting a mandatory visual announcement system, but the NCAA’s Gordon wouldn’t rule it out.

“We’ve made a lot of progress in the last five or six years,” Gordon said. “We’re very committed to having our playing rules be very inclusive and creating an equal playing environment so everyone has the same opportunities.

“May the best person win,” he added.

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