“Sharing our personal journeys is incredibly powerful” | Jodie Ounsley
Ounsley was born in 2001. As she was a premature baby, her health struggled and lead to complete hearing loss. Her parents had never met or known a deaf person, and they didn’t know who to turn to. Thankfully, the advancing technology at the time allowed her to be one of the youngest recipients of the cochlear implant at the time, aged only 13 months. With the aid of the Elizabeth Foundation, a charity which helps deaf children learn to listen and talk, Ounsley attended weekly rehab so that she was prepared for mainstream schooling. “Without them, I wouldn’t be the person I am today” says Ounsley.
Ounsley was a late-comer to rugby, having previous success in the lesser-known coal carrying championships – unsurprising when you discover that her father was a world-champion coal carrier. She took the event seriously and attributes the races as the place “where the fire started”, igniting the desire to be a top athlete. Athletics was her next calling, regularly participating in ‘deaf athletics competitions’: “I was the kid in P.E. who just got stuck into any sport, I didn’t care as long as we were moving and there was a chance to win.” Still hungry, Ounsley also took to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, winning a British title in her teens. Yet it wasn’t enough – she needed something combining the two sports, with speed, aggression and diverse community at its core.
Though always attracted to rugby, Ounsley was dissuaded by doctors due to the risks it posed to her cochlear implant. The general advice for those who wear the implant is to avoid contact sport altogether. “The processor that sits on the ear could break and stop working, however this can be replaced” explains Ounsley, but “the real risk is a direct blow to the implant that sits under the skin on the skull, as it could dislodge the magnet. This could cause complications such as having another operation to correct the magnet (however it may not be successful) which would result in not ever being able to hear again.”
In spite of this, Ounsley itched to get on the pitch and finally persuaded her parents to let her play, on the condition she wore a scrum cap. “I turned up to a local club, [and] I was that nervous I refused to get out of the car in the car park and nearly asked my dad to take me back home” she recalls. “I am so glad I didn’t go home; I did the session, and I was absolutely hooked!”
“There’s no denying that deafness is a disability, and this is absolutely fine because it’s the truth” says Ounsley. Playing with able-bodied women on the pitch however requires Ounsley’s style of play to be a little different. Lip-reading, body-language, hand signals and identifying where the space is are key techniques for the defender. Additionally, she has “learnt to be more open and honest with people with how they can help me on the field.”
Ounsley is now on a new mission having recently launched Not Just Anyone (NJA), a platform for human stories made to inspire, motivate and connect. Drawing on her own personal experience as a deaf athlete, Ounsley wants to inspire and educate people in a positive way. She is a firm believer that the conversation surrounding disability needs to change: “I think people are almost a little afraid to talk about it in general as it’s a bit of a ‘taboo’ subject…when in fact we need to talk more about it, whether that is hearing someone’s personal journey or having access to more education so that people are aware of these things and not afraid”.
With these aims in mind, Ounsley is hopeful that others can benefit from NJA. By sharing her own story, other people can come forward about their experiences with confidence, supporting others in the process. “The impact of connecting and sharing our personal journeys is incredibly powerful, with the potential to inspire others to be curious and push themselves beyond comfort with the knowledge that anything is possible” Ounsley tells AMG. “I think a positive platform is very much needed in the world, especially on social media. The internet is far too saturated with negativity and hate, I just want to bring a shed of hope and create somewhere where people feel safe and inspired.”
Detailing the changes she hopes to see in the sporting landscape, Ounsley’s priority is to create a healthy environment for sportspeople to learn about differently abled bodies, promoting a greater level of inclusivity: “Everyone needs a bit of light and encouragement in their life and if I can be a small part of it then my job is done…from [personal] experience, the majority of the rugby community I have come across hadn’t had much experience when it came to a deaf person, never mind a deaf rugby player in an elite environment. By being open and honest this has educated and raised awareness to players, coaches and staff to be more open minded about these things which is really powerful.”
A real homegrown athlete, Ounsley attributes her success to her family who pushed her to find her passion, ensuring that her disability was also a strength which wouldn’t prevent her from achieving at the highest level. Inspired by the support from them, and the hope that she can improve the conversation surrounding disability and sport, Ounsley is seemingly unstoppable.