Sidcup-born Mat Gilbert talks life as England's only deaf professional sportsman

News Shopper: Mat Gilbert with one of the UK's first wireless hearing devices. Mat Gilbert with one of the UK's first wireless hearing devices.

Mat Gilbert has come a long way since he drew his first breath in Sidcup 28 years ago.

The rugby player was born at Queen Mary’s Hospital in 1986 into a military family, with dad Howard stationed at Woolwich Barracks not long after graduating from Sandhurst.

At the age of two he left for Hong Kong and by then the degenerative hearing condition he was born with had started to take hold.

It wasn’t until Mat was five that doctors discovered the hairs in his inner ear were not growing properly, leaving him to scale the heights of professional rugby without ever knowing what it was like to play the sport without being deaf.

He told News Shopper: "You can’t really say I have adapted to play rugby because I have always lived very much in a mainstream environment.

"I am not coming into this environment like someone who grew up in a deaf society.

"I have not ever had hearing, both in my adult life and through my childhood."

Arriving at Bath Rugby via Llanelli Scarlets and Mogliani, the back row forward says it would have been tempting for him to hang up his boots long before he embarked on a fine professional career.

He said: "I think it’s very easy for people to put a barrier up and say ‘I have got a disability so I’m not able’.

"It would have been very easy for me to say I can’t do it, I’m deaf.

News Shopper: Mat Gilbert. SPORTSBEAT.

Mat in action for Bath. 

"But if I can inspire people to carry on that would be very rewarding in itself."

Mat heads up charity Action on Hearing Loss’s campaign calling on the public to be more deaf-aware.

It’s something that his team mates have to be at times, to help Mat negotiate what he calls the "high octane" environment of an extremely physically and mentally demanding sport.

He said: "They do give that extra detail to their speech and mannerisms when they deal with me.

"A lot of the sport is based on calling structures, with moves called off the cuff during a game. "But I’ve always said it’s my responsibility and I wouldn’t want to put other guys under pressure to carry me through.

"They have got enough responsibilities to worry about me."

Mat’s work with AHL and the Bath Rugby Foundation saw him narrowly miss out on the Aviva Premiership’s community player of the season this year.

He said: "I get quite a few requests for advice from other deaf people and children and their parents who aren’t very sure about their futures playing contact sports.

"It worries quite a few parents but hopefully they are reassured when they see someone like me."

Visit actiononhearingloss.org.uk

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