Thursday, September 1, 2011

In move toward accessibility, Washington state trail described for deaf-blind hikers

From the Kitsap Sun in Wash.:

SILVERDALE, Wash. — With their toes at the edge of a bridge straddling Clear Creek, Connie and Steve Garrett peered over the rust-colored railing at the salmon stream flowing below.

The couple smiled as they crossed the bridge dotted with sunlight peeking through the trees. The barely 70-degree temperature and cool morning were a welcome change for the husband and wife who live in Tempe, Ariz. where they recently experienced a record-high temperature of 118 degrees. When it gets that hot, it's like being inside an oven, Connie Garrett said.

The pair are in Kitsap County for the week as campers with the 33rd annual Seattle Lighthouse Deaf-Blind Retreat. Attendees are legally blind and have some degree of hearing loss or are deaf. Seattle Lighthouse is a nonprofit that provides employment, support and training opportunities for people who are deaf, deaf-blind and blind with other disabilities.

The Garretts traversed the trail Thursday with volunteer interpreters Allen Reposh of New Jersey and Joanna Walker of Oregon and Caryn Tenin of Seattle, another deaf-blind camper. They were part of a larger group of retreat participants that came to walk the trail.

The crunch of their feet along the dirt path was the only audible indicator that anyone was walking the trail behind the Goodwill building. But anyone fluent in American Sign Language would have been overwhelmed by the chatter as their fingers and hands flowed with conversations about the beauty of the surroundings.

"I love to hike and look around at the beautiful trees," said Myra Hatala of Long Beach, Calif., through interpreter Merryn Givens. "It's just beautiful."

The retreat has been held for 26 years at the Seabeck Conference Center and offers adult attendees the chance to be with old friends, meet other deaf-blind people and participate in daily activities like bike riding, trail walks, kayaking and visit places like the Clear Creek Trail and an oyster farm. It draws participants from around the country and the world. This year, some campers came from as far away as Germany; last year, a group visited from Holland.

Participants also attend workshops on relevant legislation and learn about technology and devices that can help them in their daily lives. This year, one workshop focused on communication techniques that allow campers to talk with more than one deaf-blind person at a time.

Deaf-blind people have varying levels of communication skills and sometimes an interpreter is needed to facilitate conversations. Techniques like sign language or touch are used to communicate, but some people feel isolated because they can't pick up on visual and audio cues exchanged during conversation.

Touching on the arm, shoulder or leg lets a deaf-blind person communicate to the deaf-blind person they're talking with that they are engaged in the conversation, said Paul Ducharme, Seattle Lighthouse Deaf-Blind Community Class and Retreat coordinator.

Ducharme, who was speaking through interpreters Paul Deeming and C. Traub using sign language, organized Thursday's visit to the trail after a friend suggested it would be a nice experience for retreat participants.

"Deaf-blind people like the smells, the senses, the feeling to be outside," Ducharme said. "It's still very nice to be out in nature."

Experiencing the plants along the trail, including lavender, Queen Anne's Lace and the wildflowers were highlights of Ducharme's visit, he said. Lavender was his favorite scent, which was evident by the sprig of purple popping from his shirt pocket within sniffing distance.

His impression of the trail after an hour-and-a-half?

"It's not long enough," he said.