Sunday, December 26, 2010

Deaf divers illustrate how sign language is an asset in undersea world

From The NY Times:

After sunset one evening in August, Wendy Dannels prepared for the first night dive of her life off Moalboal, a resort town on the Philippine island of Cebu. She was on a 10-day diving trip on a boat called the Philippine Siren.

Ms. Dannels was visibly anxious before her dive, fumbling with her gauges and checking and rechecking them. Soon, she disappeared into the murky depths for just under an hour.

But after emerging, she was all smiles. She said she enjoyed the dive in the dark immensely, citing close encounters with crab and shrimp.

“My favorite part is the sparkling lights at night, the phosphorescence,” she said later through an interpreter. When you turn off your light at night and move your hand in the dark, she explained, the water shimmers with small, glowing bits of plankton. “The diving is a bit of an adventure,” she added.

Like about half of her shipmates, Ms. Dannels, 42, is deaf. She lost her hearing at 14 months when she contracted spinal meningitis. The diving trip was on her “bucket list” of things to do before she dies, she said. She found the tour on the Siren, a live-aboard ship, by searching the Internet for the terms “deaf” and “sailing.”

Her day job is teaching engineering at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

The company that runs the Siren, Worldwide Dive and Sail, has been organizing regular trips for deaf and hard of hearing divers since 2004; it’s one of a handful of dive companies that offer specialty trips catering to divers with disabilities. The company typically runs one such trip a year, to diving destinations in places like Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines. (Its next trip is scheduled for September 2011 in the Maldives.)

The company’s founder, Frank van der Linde, got the idea for the trips after working on the Thai island of Koh Tao with Naomi Hayim, a British dive instructor who is deaf. Both Mr. van der Linde and Ms. Hayim serve as instructors on the trips, on which they try to insure a balance between deaf customers and those with normal hearing.

“You don’t want to be called the ‘deaf boat’ or whatever — it is just an extra service that we do,” Mr. van der Linde said. “You need to take a bit more time in explaining, but you get so much more feedback out of it, nice feedback, and get satisfaction out of it.”

Having started to teach himself sign language after meeting Ms. Hayim, Mr. van der Linde now tries to make sure all the guests interact with one another on the trips. Each member of the crew is given a sign language name on the first night, and the hearing guests are encouraged to pick up at least the basics of the sign-language alphabet.

“A lot of people are not comfortable with having conversations with deaf people because they never have before,” Mr. van der Linde said. “You see it already after the first day — the ice is melted and people start to communicate more.”

The first specialty trip, in 2004, almost met with disaster. That group, which included two deaf divers, as well as a paralyzed diver, was in the water at Richelieu Rock, a well-known dive site in the Andaman Sea off Thailand, when the tsunami struck.

“It was like being in a washing machine,” Mr. van der Linde recalled. “We went from 18 meters to 2 and back to 15 meters in less than 60 seconds. The whole dive took only 14 minutes.” Luckily, all the divers got safely back onboard.

On the Siren, each of the dive briefings is led by a guide using a large map; they are also encouraged to talk a little more slowly than usual, for easier lip-reading. And there’s an interpreter who communicates the information by sign language to the deaf divers who sign.

Of course, not all communication is based around the dives. Each evening, the interpreter tells the guests in sign language what each dish is for dinner and generally helps communicate between travelers with normal hearing and those who are hard of hearing. There’s also sufficient lighting throughout the ship to allow the deaf clients to see signs or lip-read. Deaf guests also typically get a discount of 20 to 25 percent off the price of a trip since, Mr. van der Linde noted, many deaf people have lower-than-average incomes.

The deaf divers say they appreciate being included in all the communication on the trip.

“When deaf people go diving in normal places, they normally are the only deaf person in the group, so they tend to struggle to understand what is happening around them,” Ms. Hayim said. “Here they feel very comfortable, and the communication is very natural. They feel safe and can be themselves.”

Paul Williams, an Australian, has been on three Worldwide Dive and Sail trips. A former dive instructor who is deaf himself, he has taught both deaf and hearing students and has traveled the globe to dive. Since he can lip-read and sign, he said he enjoys talking with both hearing and non-hearing guests on trips that bring the two together.

“It’s more fun with deaf people, and you can mix with the hearing people,” he said. “I’m not comfortable with people who talk too fast, so with hearing people it is a bit difficult. Here they have a white board and map, so it’s much better for the dive debrief.”

Since each country has its own sign language, which can be as distinct from one another as spoken languages, the trips cater to people who use both American Sign Language, spelled using one hand, and British Sign Language, which uses two. The trips have also attracted deaf divers from Australia, Germany, the Netherlands and Canada, the divers getting by with a mish-mash of different sign languages.

Although communication on the surface may be a bit more complex for deaf divers, they actually have something of an advantage underwater, if they’re able to use sign language. They can have long conversations; most divers with hearing are limited to a system of around 30 diving hand signals. Ms. Hayim said she often has to interrupt deaf divers chatting away underwater, to get them to focus on dive instructions.

Another deaf diver on the Siren, Lesa McAbee-Harris, a postal clerk from Asheville, N.C., often travels with deaf friends and tries to include specialized diving trips whenever possible. She and her (hearing) husband, David Harris, have dived in the Galápagos and in Belize.

“Hearing people often say I’m lucky being able to communicate underwater,” she said. “Welcome to our silent world.”