Shelby Bean lives between two worlds.
As a hard-of-hearing football coach at D.C.’s Gallaudet University – the nation’s leading university for the deaf and hard of hearing – Bean constantly switches between the hearing world and the deaf world.
“I get into situations where I have to please both sides,” said Bean, 26. This year, the team of 75 is composed of deaf and hard-of-hearing players, as well as two hearing players. Some grew up using American Sign Language; others have never signed in their lives. Somehow, they have to understand each other well enough to compete as a cohesive team.
As a workaround, Bean uses sim-com, short for simultaneous communication, a mixture of spoken English and sign language. But “it’s not fair to either side,” he said. “It’s not complete English, but it’s not complete sign, either.”
Still, it is from this in-between place that Bean is able to bridge the gap between those who can hear and those who cannot and, in doing so, build up the country’s only college football team for the deaf and hard of hearing. “America’s deaf team,” as they like to call themselves.
Bean’s story, along with that of the Gallaudet Bison football team, is chronicled in “Anyone Like Me,” a documentary produced and directed by D.C.-based photo and video journalist Mimi d’Autremont and screening online through Sunday at the DC Shorts Film Festival.
“I’ve never met a community and culture that is so proud of how they communicate,” said d’Autremont, 26, who spent a year and a half working on the documentary. “Every day it just got reinforced more and more just how much pride they have.”
Bean, a native of Arvada, Colo., was born with Goldenhar syndrome, a rare congenital condition marked by the underdevelopment of the ears, eyes and spine. He has limited hearing, and his external ears have been surgically removed. The many surgeries he underwent in his childhood years damaged all of his facial nerve endings, such that his face is paralyzed, meaning he can’t smile, frown or even blink.
None of this ever stopped Bean from playing football. He picked up the sport as a toddler, played throughout his school years and eventually won a scholarship to play for Gallaudet, from which he graduated in 2013 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration. But that didn’t spell the end of college football for Bean. He took a job as a coach for the team, and this year marks his fifth season on the Bison coaching staff.
The journey hasn’t been without major challenges.
Bean grew up in a hearing family and had no exposure to deaf culture. He had learned to adjust to mainstream culture, adapting to the “guessing game” of high school football — he never quite knew how plays would develop, because he could not hear his coaches and teammates properly. Going to Gallaudet meant uprooting himself from one culture that he was just getting used to and transplanting himself into an entirely foreign culture — deaf culture.
“I hated it here at first, to be honest,” Bean said. “A lot of it was culture shock.”
It took him a full year to grasp the culture at Gallaudet and to feel comfortable conversing in ASL. He soon realized that, despite the steep initial learning curve, sign language made everything easier on the field. The game was no longer defined by guesswork.
“Communication was so much better in college compared to high school,” he said.
Bean describes deaf football as having “a small-town feel,” with its tightknit community and strong sense of pride.
Even when traveling, “it never really feels like an away game,” he said. “Sometimes, we have more people in the stands than the home team.”
But while the nuts and bolts of deaf football are the same as hearing football, the game does sometimes require a little more creativity, Bean said.
“There’s just so much that you take for granted from having a whistle,” Stephon Healey, the assistant head coach, says in the documentary. “. . . You want to start everyone at the same time? You blow a whistle. . . . So everything needs to be visual or tactile.”
To make up for the lack of a whistle, the Bison instead use a large bass drum. Practice begins with the banging of the drum, and while the players might not be able to hear it, they definitely feel the vibrations in their bodies.
Traditionally, Bean said, the bass drum was also used to signal the start of offensive plays, but the team switched to a silent count, which relies on a visual cue, about a decade ago. These days, the bass drum is used only in “emergency situations” during games, Bean added.
One advantage of using sign language is the players’ ability to spell out a play exactly during a game, without the risk of giving their strategy away to their opponents.
“We pretty much sign exactly what the play is,” Bean said.
The ASL community is small, the football-playing ASL subset still smaller, so the chances are that the opposing team has no understanding of their signing. The team has invented various signs to communicate plays.
“We call it football sign language,” he said.
For Bean, football has become much more than a sport. In football, he has found his hard-of-hearing identity and embraced deaf culture. He is reaching out to people, sharing the language and culture of the deaf community. And he is showing the world that deaf football can be just as vibrant and competitive as its hearing counterpart.
“I’ve learned how to have enormous amounts of patience,” Bean said. “I’ve learned that not everyone understands everything the first time. . . . Gallaudet has been one of the best places for me, just to grow as a person.”