ON HAND: Cheerleading in signs?

This originally appeared in The Tactile Mind Weekly in Trudy’s ON HAND column.

Basketball season is coming to an end, and there’s been something bugging me about the past season: the cheerleaders.

One of the most overlooked aspects of any basketball game or tournament is the cheerleading squad. We all take them for granted: smiling faces, colorful uniforms, and perky hairdos. At deaf schools, cheerleaders are often few in number, but never low in spirit and energy. They spend hour upon hour practicing, just like the basketball players do–and it’s astounding for me to think about how much work goes into their performances.

At the Central State Schools for the Deaf tournament a few weeks ago, I sat down eagerly to watch the cheerleading competition. I had just come from chatting with one of the cheerleading coaches beforehand, who said she was absolutely terrified with pre-show jitters. I could only imagine how the cheerleaders felt, having rows of bleachers of people staring intently at them as they did their cheers.

By the time the third squad ran out on the floor, I was perplexed. All of the squads, except one, barely used signs. They were mostly screaming their cheers, with the occasional sign here and there–and most of the cheers weren’t interpreted or signed. Some of the people in the crowd, like me, started jittering, looking at each other whenever the cheerleaders would speak instead of signing, trying to decide if we were wrong to feel confused. It was odd to watch: “(Screaming something) GO! (screaming something) (insert sign of mascot here)! (Screaming something)!”

I wondered why the cheers weren’t being made accessible to the deaf fans. Sure, cheering doesn’t take a lot of work to understand–Go, Go, Win, Win, Defense, Defense–but why couldn’t these words at least be signed? After all, this was a tournament taking place at a deaf school where the majority of people were deaf–coaches, players, athletic directors, parents, fans, and students. I also wondered whether the cheerleading competition judges (who were all hearing coaches from universities and colleges) could truly understand the deaf cheerleaders’ spoken words, or if they listened to the ones who could speak well. Signs weren’t being judged at all, obviously, since none of the judges signed.

Out of maybe eight squads, only one actually used signs throughout—and I’m proud to say it was Minnesota (yeah!). The winning squad definitely deserved the title, given their astounding energy, marvelous skills, immaculate appearance, and perfect synchronization. I just think it’d have been nice if I could’ve understood what they were screaming.

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