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Deaf Scuba Diving: Making the Most of Your Experience

Deaf scuba divers experience the underwater world differently. Read on to learn what deaf scuba diving is like and how to be a good buddy to a deaf or hard-of-hearing diver.

Deaf scuba divers experience the underwater environment differently. Although there’s obviously no talking while diving, we still rely on our ears more than we think underwater. Read on to learn what deaf scuba diving is like and how to be a good buddy to a deaf or hard-of-hearing diver.

Learning to dive when deaf

Just as the daily experiences and communication needs of a deaf person vary for each individual, the same is also true for scuba diving. The term “deaf” as used here also includes the deafblind, hard-of-hearing, late deafened, deafdisabled, and other subsets of the deaf population.

No two deaf people are the same when it comes to communication and learning needs as they embark on their scuba-diving journey. For example, a deaf person may not be able to speak and primarily use sign language. Some may be able to sign and speak. On the other end of the spectrum, there are oral deaf people who do not use sign language.

Since most deaf people learn scuba diving from hearing dive instructors, they must pay extra attention to their communication and learning needs. Universities, for example, may bring in American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters for school-sponsored scuba-diving classes, free of charge. Ideally, one of the interpreters will also be a certified diver.

Elsewhere, however, dive instructors will take out a whiteboard and write down their messages and dive plan in-depth. They will make sure there’s agreement on the dive signs and assign prior reading materials in the deaf diver’s preferred written languages. Sign language interpreters are usually hard to find because dive shops don’t want to pay for an interpreter and sign language is not universal around the globe.

To sum up, deaf scuba divers and their instructors must address unique communication and learning needs to make the most of their scuba-diving experiences. Instructors and dive shops should ask them what they need, be patient, and put in the extra effort to communicate clearly. Deaf scuba divers must also speak up and advocate for themselves.

Communicating fully underwater in sign language

Usually when hearing people climb onto the boat after a dive, they chatter about all the underwater sights they’ve seen. But deaf divers may be more subdued because they’ve already used sign language to discuss the dive — while they were underwater.

Most divers think of time underwater as meditative, which is true for deaf divers as well. However, using sign language to make quick comments or converse underwater as needed is incredibly handy. Furthermore in emergencies, a signing diver can explain any issues in-depth to the other diver.

Find a suitable dive shop

There are a few deaf-owned scuba shops in the world, located in Florida and the United Kingdom. If your travel plans align, diving with these shops is a fantastic experience. Further, they can communicate with anyone, regardless of their hearing status. So, if one member of your party is deaf and others are not, these can be a great choice.

If you’re traveling elsewhere as a deaf diver, it’s important to plan ahead. Send an email to potential dive shops to notify them that you are deaf. Find out if they are willing and able to accommodate your communication and learning needs. If a dive shop hesitates to assist you or thinks of you as a liability, move on. Choose the shop that offers the most positive and accommodating responses.

Agree on communication methods before diving

Now that you’ve found a dive shop, you’ll want to meet the team upon arrival. For safety reasons, ask the divemasters and your buddies to go over the dive plan with you one-on-one setting. The procedures for pre- and post-dive briefings for the deaf and hearing are essentially the same with the exception that deaf divers will receive the information via written words or on a white board, or through an interpreter, if applicable. Make sure the dive team brings the white board with you wherever you go.

Ask them to draw a picture of the dive site, minimum and maximum depth, time limits, and any other relevant information regarding the dive plan. Also, don’t hesitate to ask them to write down all of their responses if you can’t read their lips or hear them. No deaf divers should be expected to bring their cochlear implants or hearing aids during the pre- and post-dive briefings.

Cochlear implant users

Cochlear implant users must observe a maximum depth limit, depending on the internal cochlear implant model. In general, the max depth is 130 feet (40 m). The internal cochlear implant device may fare better in warmer, tropical waters at deeper depths than when drysuit diving in cold water at the same depth.

Most cochlear implant users new to scuba diving worry that the underwater pressure will crush their internal device. That could happen but diving within ideal limits based on the underwater environment will help allay the risk. Cochlear implant users without other disqualifying health complications should check with their audiologists/ENT before pursuing scuba diving.

By guest author Sheila Xu

Sheila Xu was born profoundly deaf in Austin, Texas and received a cochlear implant at age 3, After graduating from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Xu moved to Padua, Italy. Sheila is a recreational oral and signing deaf scuba diver, avid traveler, researcher and copywriter.