Growing up, Tyson Gillies struggled with being hearing impaired. Through pursuing a career as a professional baseball player, he learned to be vocal about his hearing loss with teammates, coaches, and everyone around him, rather than shy away from it. Now, he openly shares his experiences and uses his platform to teach the world about what it’s like to live and thrive with hearing loss.
Read more about Tyson’s journey to better hearing below.
Let's start at the beginning - tell us your hearing journey and when you were first diagnosed with hearing loss?
Tyson - My hearing journey started when I was diagnosed with hearing loss at the age of 4 years old. I was tested twice – once at birth, then once more. No one understood how my “cookie-bite” hearing impairment remained undiagnosed until then. My parents started to see changes in my behavior and how much I began acting out and they became increasingly worried about me. Between getting lost at the grocery store or being sent to the office in pre-school, my parents decided to have my hearing tested again. This time in the audiometric booth. When the audiologist closed the blinds, I was unresponsive because I couldn’t read lips or hear what was happening. They say that a 4-year-old should know around 1,500 words, and somehow, I was able to do just that while implementing near perfect speech despite my diagnosis.
What were some of the biggest challenges you had with hearing loss while growing up playing sports?
Tyson - It was quite tough growing up in sports with a severe hearing loss. Competing amongst elite athletes is hard enough, but with a handicap under your belt there were many things out of my control. I found out several times I wasn't picked for a specific team due to my hearing loss being considered a “safety issue”. I remember training to be a quarterback in high school and when it came time to practice in full gear, I couldn't fit my hearing aids in my helmet. Instead of trying to work with my disability and allowing me to explore athletics, the school decided to place me as the field goal kicker, despite my ability to pursue a more complex position. The list goes on - those early years trying to shape myself as an athlete but having to understand my hearing loss as well as educate my teammates and coaches was an ongoing challenge growing up.
You’ve played for over 20 baseball teams. Was it tough communicating with a new team?
Tyson - In the game of baseball you come across a wide diversity of players from all over the world. That experience alone teaches you to become compatible with many different personalities. The livelihood of a successful clubhouse or workspace depends on the ability to create unity amongst your teammates. I won't lie, it can be difficult to make out the accents of a different language, but it taught me more about communication and understanding than I could ever explain. I actually had one teammate who was born with a speech impediment and we instantly grew close. I think it was refreshing for us to be able to let our guards down and we understood each other and the difficulties each of us had experienced. There was an unspoken understanding and we advocated for one another through our deficits. We were able to communicate without worry because we understood the value of patience.
What were some of your strategies when communicating with coaches and players?
Tyson - I remember my first practice with the Seattle Mariners and everyone had heard that there was a new player coming in who is deaf. One of the coaches flagged me over and told me I was going to Right Field in a very slow, wide mouth way. It was very genuine and sincere, but it right away showed me that I had to be very vocal about my loss. My strategy was to put myself out there. People are hesitant to ask about things like disabilities or hardships, so I went ahead and made it known. I felt I was able to touch the lives of many over my career span, and teach people about the world I live in. For people to be able to show compassion and empathy, we must first provide them with a general understanding of what we are going through.
How do you hope to inspire young athletes with hearing loss?
Tyson - I hope to first inspire parents to not allow their children to hide behind their hearing loss. It’s very easy for kids to want to isolate themselves in a comfortable environment, but that's not what sports are about. I was unable to reach my full potential as an athlete until I put myself out there. When I learned to be vocal and communicate with people about my loss, I was able to find comfort in any situation. This allowed me to find confidence with any new team I played on and has also made a huge impact on my life overall. We have no control over the hand we've been dealt, but the moves we make are our choice and ours alone.
What would you tell someone who is unsure about getting hearing aids?
Tyson - I would say that life is far too beautiful to miss out on. Kobe Bryant said it best, “ A great story is what moves the world, whether it's an inspirational or informational one, nothing in this world moves without stories.” I refused to wear my hearing aids because of my own insecurities. At a young age, I isolated myself from other people and it made me miserable. There is no reason to limit ourselves. The stories from our experiences could help move the world all on their own.
You're now living back in Vancouver after years of professional baseball. Tell us about the work you've been doing to advocate for the deaf community, and your company Travail Development.
Tyson - I’ve been taking strides to open up more about my hearing story. With the way the world works these days there are so many platforms for our experiences to be heard and reach people. It’s been very hard with Covid-19, but I would like to organize events bringing the BC Deaf Sports Federation together. There is a wide range of hearing-impaired athletes here in B.C. and I’d love to start seeing more under the same roof!
My business partner and I started Travail Development to change the way people view baseball in Canada. We felt like there are way too many amazing athletes here for people to think of it as a filler sport. In order to do that, we decided to start focusing on younger athletes in the game to not only train, but also mentor them using our past experiences. I think it's very important to start looking at individuality more in sports. The adversity outside of the sport that these kids have had to endure tells a lot about their work ethic and character. I am grateful that someone decided to take a chance on me, and I want to make sure that nobody is ever overlooked because of a physical incapability.
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