By Kel Rowe
A competitive game of footy nearly always draws out a healthy sledge in the direction of the opposition. But Deaf footballer Michelle Rowlands doesn’t pay heed to the noise — instead she gives her oppo a cheeky smile and lets her footy do the talking.
From the early age of 4, Michelle discovered her love of sport, joining in a netball clinic at the Werribee YMCA (now Eagle Stadium). That first endeavour set the course — from playing to umpiring, and then to cricket and footy; even seeing her represent Victoria in both Deaf Netball and Cricket. Michelle says that passion keeps her body and mind busy; and proves to the naysayers that Deaf people can play sport — like, REALLY play sport.
Michelle’s footy fever was ignited at the age of 12 — encouraged by her dad and inspired by the likes of Jason Akermanis and Darcy Vescio, she played her junior footy as a Wyndham Vale Falcon. Returning to the sport after the birth of her children, Michelle played her first 3 years as a senior footballer with Werribee Centrals, earning a name for herself as a reliable teammate, who loves snapping a goal. Ahead of Season 2023, she is now sporting the orange and grey of the Manor Lakes Football Club, an original powerhouse of the Western Region Football League (WRFL) Senior Women’s Competition.
Born profoundly deaf, Michelle’s first language is Auslan, learning to communicate by signing with her parents, who are also part of the Deaf community. Despite that, she has played for hearing community sports clubs for most of her life, simply because they were closer to home — a walk, or a quick pedal on the bike was all it took to make training and games. Michelle was always keen to get involved as a loyal member of her chosen clubs, but sometimes felt challenged by interactions with her hearing teammates.
“I play sport as a Deaf player, and I know my teammates respect me, they try to communicate with whiteboards or pen and paper. But it is still frustrating to communicate, a wall comes up when I want to contribute with tips and ideas,” Michelle notes. That barrier hasn’t stopped her enthusiasm for the game, but it was her Werribee Centrals coach Glenn, who was the first to make a serious impression with his efforts to include her in all aspects of team communication.
“Glenn was an amazing coach. He would always try his best to communicate with me, like giving me a pre-speech on game days, and using Messenger to make sure that I felt included and not like an invisible person.”
Club members with different accessibility needs can face many barriers when participating in community sport. Michelle’s experience is no different. When asked about some of the challenges she has faced, Michelle highlights the lack of options for people to communicate and be comfortable.
“Clubs should make sure that Deaf children and adults feel welcome in the club rooms with accessible options like paper and pens or basic sign language, plan events that include Auslan Interpreters and work harder to make sure that people don’t feel left out.”
The NDIS has made things easier for Michelle, but life before better access to Auslan interpreters meant that she missed critical game information and questions from her teammates. Her wish is to come to a club where everyone can sign, because it makes it easier for people like herself to connect.
In 2022, fans of AFLW were introduced to Yeronga Devil Jamie Howell, a profoundly deaf footy player who came to the fore thanks to the inclusive efforts of her teammates. After secretly learning their team song in Auslan, the Devils surprised Jamie with a rendition following a comprehensive win in their footy competition. When the song went viral on social media, embodying the spirit of the women’s game, Jamie was named as the 2021 NAB AFLW Premiership Cup Ambassador.
Michelle, who knows Jamie through her time as a representative athlete for Deaf Netball, Football and Australian Rugby, agrees with the honour — noting that the Deaf community needs more positive representation and promotion via people like Jamie.
“Of course, I would love to see this happen for any club community, not just learning to sign using Auslan or just in footy. Any sports and anyone in the hearing community should be making clubs accessible for all disabilities,” she says.
When it comes to supporting and including their Deaf members, Michelle says that there is an easy first step that clubs can take. Deaf Awareness Training (DAT) are programs that community clubs can undertake to improve their skills and confidence when communicating with their Deaf or hard of hearing members. Some even include learning about deaf culture and teaching sign language too.
Michelle is humble when asked about being a role model in her own club community, offering that right now she is happy just being a role model for her children. As for the future, she is keen to see other Deaf children succeed and “do it like she did”. Given that she is staring down the barrel of her 11th season of footy and will be playing her 50th WRFL Netball game — it’s fair to say that Michelle is doing it well.