To celebrate International Day of People with Disabilities, Deaf Sports Australia is sharing a story about Katie Kelly OAM – an Australian deafblind para-triathlete who deserves to be acknowledged for her successes to date.

Katie Kelly has Usher Syndrome which is a type of hearing and vision loss that worsens over time. This means her moderate hearing loss from birth requires her to wear hearing aids and her eyesight is deteriorating. From being a small-town country girl to now living in Gold Coast, Katie has always found herself fully active in the sports.

In sports, Katie feels equal amongst other players/competitors because ethnicity, culture and other social differences had no part in it. But her deafblindness has caused some barriers to arise. When she was a young girl, she recalls a time where she’s experienced difficulty in understanding her coach in swimming. “Obviously we don’t wear hearing aids in the water, and I would have no idea what the coach had just instructed everyone,” Katie says.

“We’re often looking for other cues. We don’t hear something, I got this and that and we put the pieces together and then we’ll work out what’s going on. [My parents] knew I would get frustrated about a lot of different things.”

When she joined a triathlon club in Newcastle (NSW), Katie’s coach had heard of stories from another club who worked with visually impaired triathletes. Because of her condition, Katie is not able to see in the dark and the coach looked into catering to her sight needs at night when she has to train. In response, the local council then ensured the lights were on at night every time she was training.

“I never felt I was a burden or that I was making it difficult for them. It comes down to people, coaches, volunteers just being aware and facilitating, adapting, modifying and start listening to what you are saying and asking, ‘hey, what do you need? How can we make this better?’”

When Katie was 19 or 20, she served on the disability committee with her local town council committee. It was the first time there were discussions around how they could ensure people with disability in their community could access sport. This was the moment that became Katie’s lifelong passion to work in the space of equity around sport.

Growing up with her condition, Katie’s experiences echo that of children with disability, and parents would often try to ensure they access sport. “I think parents get frustrated because their child has Down Syndrome and the local rugby club coach is not supportive, or they have deaf or hard of hearing children and they’re trying to find something for their child. I would say to parents with children with challenges, there’s so many fantastic resources and programs out there,” she says.

“It comes back to being proactive and the people who are working in these roles within cricket, netball, basketball etcetera. Just think about how your organisation does inclusion and embrace diversity and how embedded is that in terms of your communications? Are [they] inclusive in the way [they] communicate with [their] different stakeholders? It’s just a case of everyone doing what they can and continually progress that notion around being truly inclusive.”

Katie is now a founder of Sport Access Foundation, a charity that gives grants to young Australians with a disability to play and participate in sport and a Board member at Deaf Sports Australia. Katie has made international accomplishments such as being a Gold medallist at the Rio Paralympics (for paratriathlon*) in 2016 and as a two-times World Champion. She is currently training at Triathlon Australia in Gold Coast for the Tokyo 2021 Paralympics.

(*A paratriathlon is a sporting event that consists of a 750m swim, 20km bike ride and a 5km run. Para-triathletes are tethered to a guide for the swim and run, and ride on tandem with their guide for the cycle section.)

Deaf Sports Australia is a national peak body responsible for providing advice, services, support and network with other stakeholders.

Media contact:
Lauren Townsend