Signs of inclusion as UQ student leaves her mark on the game
By Michael Jones
Jamie Howell had just helped the Yeronga South Brisbane Devils QAFLW side secure a win over Coolangatta Tweed last season and was headed into the change rooms to sing the team victory song.
Problem was, she wasn’t sure of the words nor the melody: as a player who is Deaf, learning the team song had proved to be one of the more challenging parts of the game.
But her teammates had a surprise in store.
The squad had secretly taught themselves how to sign over video chats, and Howell was left stunned as they performed an Auslan rendition in the sheds after the match.
“The girls had been practising behind my back for weeks and I had no idea! I was prepared to wrap my arms around them and get ready to do the team song, but they started doing the sign for ‘Cheer, cheer’ and I thought, this is new.
“It wasn’t until they signed ‘the red and the black’ that I started to realise what was happening.
“I was overcome with emotions. I couldn’t believe that my teammates would be so willing to go above and beyond to ensure that I felt supported and part of the team.”
The video went viral and was broadcast on news bulletins across the country.
It was Howell’s first season with the Devils, and her first season playing Australian Rules football. Yet the 22-year-old winger has already made an impact on the game, being named the 2021 AFLW Premiership Cup Ambassador.
Howell will play a role in AFLW grand final-week celebrations and will present the premiership cup to the winning team on grand final day, on the weekend of 18–19 April.
“It’s such an incredible opportunity and means a lot to me because it’s recognition for my amazing team, and the managers and coaches who have made sure I always felt included,” Howell said.
“To be able to do this on behalf of my team means so much.
“I will be involved in the biggest event on the AFLW calendar, and it will be an amazing experience, not only to go to the grand final, but to be part of it as well.”
Howell was born with profound bilateral hearing loss and has no hearing in both ears.
Her first access to language was signed English, before receiving a cochlear implant when she was 19 months old, which helped her access sound and speech.
Growing up in a hearing family and attending mainstream school meant that Howell was “very much part of the hearing world”.
“It was only when I started getting involved in Deaf sport and meeting others like myself that I started to learn Auslan,” Howell said.
“Now, I use both Auslan and spoken English to communicate. I use Auslan with my deaf peers and spoken English with my hearing friends and family.”
Howell has always excelled at sport, especially athletics. She won four gold medals at the Pacific School Games in 2008, breaking the Australian Deaf record in the under-12 girls’ long jump.
She has since represented Australia at the 2015 Asia-Pacific Deaf Games in Taiwan, winning gold in the long jump, silver in the 100 metres, and bronze in the 200 metres.
She also represented Australia at the Deaflympics in Turkey in 2017 and is a regular competitor at the Australian Deaf Games.
“The Australian Deaf Games would have to be one of my favourite competitions – probably more for the social side, rather than competing,” she said.
“I went to my first Australian Deaf Games in Geelong when I was 13, and was the youngest competitor in the Queensland team. There was no athletics competition at that time, so I went as part of the mixed touch football team.
“I loved the experience because I had never seen or met so many people like myself in one place. I made so many new friends and was part of a community that I hadn’t experienced before. I immediately felt like I belonged.”
Now in her second QAFLW season with the Devils, Howell said she was still getting used to the challenges of playing a new team sport as a Deaf athlete.
“Footy is a 360-degree game that has so many players on the field and requires attention from all angles,” she said.
“I wear headgear to protect my cochlear implant. The headgear covers the implant, making it very difficult to hear, and when you combine that with the game noise, I really can’t hear anything.
“I rely on my eyes to see what is happening. I have to constantly be watching and making decisions based on what I can see, because I won’t hear if someone calls my name or if someone is close behind me to make a tackle.
“My teammates know that they need to gesture and point when communicating with me on the field and that always helps.”
UQ student and QAFLW player Jamie Howell. Image: Marc Grimwade
Away from the sporting field, Howell is currently in her final semester of a Bachelor of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences, while also juggling work commitments.
She said the degree appealed to her because she loves learning about the importance of nutrition in sport and everyday life and applying that knowledge to her own life.
“Growing up in the hearing world, and going to a mainstream school, helped prepare me for university and I found I was able to adapt easily,” she said.
“However, last year – when all my classes moved online due to the COVID-19 pandemic – I struggled. I can’t understand speech that comes from an electronic device so I couldn’t understand what my lecturers were trying to teach, nor could I participate in discussions over Zoom.
“I was able to meet with UQ’s Diversity, Disability and Inclusion services to establish a student access plan and find a way to continue my studies online. I now have access to live captioning for my online classes and receive transcripts of lecture recordings so I can read the notes.
“I've found all of my course coordinators to be very supportive and willing to adapt to my needs. At the beginning of each semester, I would make sure I touched base with my course coordinators, so they were aware of who I am and if any adjustments needed to be made.”
As she approaches graduation, Howell said she hoped to pursue a career in the exercise and nutrition sciences field, but is also considering further study to become a physical education teacher.
However, she has some further athletics goals on the radar.
“I still have my sights on the next Deaflympics, which have been postponed until May next year due to the pandemic,” she said.