Deaf and Daring

September 27, 2016

asl, deaf, Deaf Culture, sign language


ashley ashley-fiolek

Just in case you don’t follow motocross, meet the fastest woman racer in the U.S.

Ashley Fiolek … young, fearless, and Deaf since birth.

“I don’t think the casual fan appreciates Ashley as much as someone who has ridden a motorcycle,” says Fiolek’s teammate Andrew Short, who finished third in the 2009 AMA Supercross series. “The first time I saw her ride, I expected her to shift too early or too late. But she always keeps the bike in the meat of the power. It’s baffling how perfectly she shifts.” Fiolek’s deftness may baffle Short, but it’s not a surprise to those who understand how a body compensates for an inability to hear. “Because she was born deaf, Ashley knows only one way to perceive the world,” says Waheeda Samady, who treats the deaf as a resident physician at Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego. “Her other senses, like her vision and sensitivity to vibration, are more finely tuned than those of a hearing person. If we have full use of all of our senses, we don’t know how to block one out to focus on another. But Ashley is able to do that.”

In short, Fiolek relies on certain signals more acutely than hearing riders do. “Those sensations are available to everyone, but on most of us they’re lost,” says moto-Xer Drake McElroy, who spent 15 years racing motocross before switching to freestyle. “The motor sends vibrations up through the frame to the levers, from the soles of your feet to the insides of your legs to your torso and hands. Each contact point has a different vibration. Everybody feels it, we’re just not in tune to it.”

For Fiolek, riding a motorcycle has always “just felt right.” When she was 7, her dad, Jim, a former motocross racer, took the training wheels off her 50cc bike. “She rode for three hours that day,” he says. “Later, when she switched from bikes with automatic transmissions to manual, people wanted us to install a red light on her bike so she would know when to shift. But we never put an emphasis on the fact that shifting would be harder for her or talked about her limitations. We didn’t think she had any.”

According to ESPN’s Alyssa Roenigk, when word spread that a deaf rider had joined St. Augustine’s amateur motocross circuit, parents of Fiolek’s competitors reacted as expected. Some worried she would not be able to hear their kids riding closely behind her, while others balked at the idea that Jim and Roni would allow their deaf daughter to ride. Says Roni: “I told them, ‘It’s a dangerous sport. You can be concerned that I’m putting my kid on a motorcycle. But not that I’m putting my deaf kid on a bike.'”

Most concerns disappeared the instant the other parents saw Fiolek ride: Even as a 7-year-old, she was careful. And fast. “When Ashley was young, we had a lot of conversations about exiting the track and riding safely,” Jim says. “We did more drills, more training. I don’t worry about Ashley. She’s probably a safer rider than most anyone on the track.”

Later, when doctors asked if they would be interested in cochlear implants, the Fioleks said no. Cochlears would have made contact sports such as motocross more hazardous because the implant site would be vulnerable to a blow. But mostly, the Fioleks didn’t believe their daughter was broken, so there was no need to fix her.

Her goal now?  She wants to race with the men’s team. Go Ashley!

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About Evelyn

Evelyn Hunter is a SODA with years of experiential study in Deaf Culture. She attended Gallaudet University to immerse herself in this unique deaf world while working for the University and studying sign language to hone her skills. Evelyn has served in training, relationship sales, and marketing -- always seeking to expand awareness of Deaf Culture and the unique challenges the deaf face on a daily basis. The Sign Language Company has recently established a presence on Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and a website with a blog, as Evelyn coordinates the marketing and outreach efforts for the agency. Her goal is to attract new clients seeking exceptional service, while maintaining optimal relationships with clients who have selected The Sign Language Company for over 20 years.

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