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Rider denied chance to become a pro jockey because of disability

Nicolas Sorrell had been accepted into an equestrian program at Olds College in Alberta, but his acceptance was withdrawn.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Nicolas Sorrell spent months working with a free-spirited young horse named Sudden Bid. She would buck and kick her rider. She would push him into walls. She would leap into the air to throw him off. But he persisted.

Gradually, the horse and rider – who lost his hearing as a small boy in an explosion in war-torn Nicaragua – developed trust and then a bond.

Now, he wants to move her to the Woodbine racetrack, where her power and strength suggest the potential for a long and successful career. But Mr. Sorrell can't go with her.

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He doesn't have the licence he needs to become even a practice rider at a professional track. And the only school in Canada where he can get the training he needs to obtain that licence has rescinded the placement it offered him last fall, saying his hearing impairment would pose a danger to those around him.

Now 30, Mr. Sorrell works with horses at a farm west of Toronto. He can hear engines, sirens and shouting with the help of a hearing aid. And he dreams of becoming the first deaf jockey in Canada.

Those who have been with him in the barns and who have seen him ride say he has an uncanny ability with horses. He is fearless and firm, yet calm and gentle. They say his hearing loss has never been an obstacle when it comes to working with the animals.

"I just feel so lucky that I can communicate with horses. I can feel their vibrations. I watch their ears twitch. I can read them," Mr. Sorrell said, using his father, Scott, as his sign-language interpreter. (Nicolas was adopted from a Nicaraguan orphanage and brought to Canada when he was 10 years old.)

Two years ago, Mr. Sorrell realized the only way to advance his equestrian career was to complete the six-month jockey training program at Olds College in Olds, Alta. The college initially turned him down but urged him to reapply. So he did. And he was accepted in October into the course, which was to start mid-January.

"I was the first deaf applicant. They told me I was going to make history. They were going to learn sign language," Mr. Sorrell said. "I couldn't sleep I was just so excited. I danced around for months planning my life around going to the college."

He and his father purchased equestrian equipment worth thousands of dollars in preparation for the course. They got his hearing aids upgraded. They bought special straps so his hearing dog could stay at the college residence.

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But two days before Christmas, his father received a call from the college. It had hired an external company to conduct a risk assessment, which determined it would be too dangerous for an interpreter to be in the close quarters of a horse stall or to walk backward through a barn as he or she was using sign language.

The assessment was conducted without Mr. Sorrell being present and does not appear to have taken into account the fact that he can hear some sounds with the help of his hearing aids.

It just doesn't make sense that a barn would be unsafe for interpreters when it is safe for everyone else, he contends. "My dad is in the barn all of the time and there are wild horses kicking and bucking," he said. "I have been doing this for 10 years – I know how to react."

Olds College did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Scott Sorrell was so worried about how his son would react to the rejection that he waited until January to tell him the bad news. It was heartbreaking, said the elder Mr. Sorrell, to watch Nicolas open so many horse-related gifts on Christmas morning when the dream of attending the college and obtaining the jockey's licence was about to be shattered.

"Although I worried for my son, I was and am still angry with Olds College for stringing us along these few months," he said. "This decision forced my son to see his disability as a hindrance, blocked and crushed his spirit, when we have taught him to always focus on his abilities."

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Nicolas Sorrell says it is his duty to fight for the right of all deaf people to live up to their potential. But what he really wants is for the school to reverse its decision and allow him into the program – or for someone else who has the proper accreditation to offer him an apprenticeship that would allow him to get his licence.

For now, he is saying goodbye to Sudden Bid and hoping she does well in her new life as a racehorse at a professional track. "I just feel so sad," he said, "to see a horse that I have worked really hard with flourish and I can't be a part of it."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Gloria Galloway has been a journalist for almost 30 years. She worked at the Windsor Star, the Hamilton Spectator, the National Post, the Canadian Press and a number of small newspapers before being hired by The Globe and Mail as deputy national editor in 2001. Gloria returned to reporting two years later and joined the Ottawa bureau in 2004. More


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