Note: When the word Deaf is capitalized, this tends to refer to Deaf as a culture or community. When lowercase, the word tends to refer to being deaf physiologically.
Sonya Wilson’s dog jumped up onto her lap, wanting to get in on the video call.
“I just adopted her,” Wilson signed, “She’s Deaf too.”
As I replied with “cute!”, the American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter took her index and middle finger and brushed them downward against her chin to translate my response.
Wilson has been climbing for most of her life, but she didn’t have an easy start. As a child, she was the only deaf person in her family, and, lacking resources, her mother wasn’t able to learn ASL to communicate with her. Wilson attended a Deaf and Hard of Hearing (DHH) program in Las Vegas, Nevada. Students in the program were periodically integrated into classes with hearing students for selected subjects. Wilson describes this program as an unhappy and inaccessible place, no accommodations were made for the deaf students who were integrated into the hearing classes.
“I had to learn to cope with a lot of challenges on my own,” Wilson signed. She loved to be outside, always climbing on top of cars, houses, and anything else she could get a hold on. Around five years old, Wilson remembers climbing out of her window and up to the roof of her house, “I felt a sudden change that moment,” Wilson described, “I was watching the yard tree gently sway, and the stars and moonlight shining. I was looking out onto the desert and that moment I’ll never forget. I felt safe, a calm stillness, and at home with nature. … I had full access to the outdoors and I didn’t need to hear.”
This realization changed Wilson. She started to get outside more frequently, climbing trees and rocks. Wilson got her first formal climbing education when she was 19 years old as part of a class she took while attending Azusa Pacific University. The class aimed to expose students to a variety of outdoor recreational activities. Now, over 30 years later, Wilson continues to climb and seek out adventures. She was the first Deaf climber to attend Red Rock Rendezvous, a rock climbing festival in Nevada, and she got many more Deaf climbers to attend the event in following years. She’s lost count of the number of times she’s climbed Mt. Whitney. Her favorite crags around her local Los Angeles area include Joshua Tree, Stoney Point, and Malibu Creek.
While she has accomplished a lot in her years of climbing, Wilson knows she could have accomplished more with increased accessibility and open-mindedness from the climbing community. After speaking with different Deaf climbers from around the country, there is a resounding call for outdoor and climbing brands, gyms, and individuals to help increase accessibility and inclusiveness for the Deaf community.
Accessibility and making people feel welcome can start with something as simple as people being willing to say hello. Caitlin Mosholder is a Deaf climber and teacher from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She encourages the hearing community to be open-minded and to not be afraid to communicate with Deaf people. “Once the hearing community and Deaf community partner, it’s deeper than just climbing,” Mosholder described, “it’s cultural awareness, language acquisition, really A-Z on understanding different communities.”
Climbing gyms could help lay the foundation for setting aside assumptions and creating this partnership between the hearing and Deaf communities. Tonya Stremlau, a Deaf climber and professor at Gallaudet University, detailed to me some ways gyms could begin to improve their accessibility. When learning to climb, Stremlau had to learn most things on her own through YouTube videos, since the classes weren’t accessible to her. “Especially for learning advanced skills,” Stremlau signed, “I feel like my climbing has developed at a slower pace because the clinics for learning those different techniques have not been accessible.”
Some gyms have already taken steps to increase accessibility for Deaf and Hard of Hearing climbers. Mesa Rim Climbing Center’s Mission Valley, California location is one example with a section on their website on adaptive climbing and their offerings. For Deaf and Hard of Hearing climbers, they offer a once a week rock climbing class with a coach fluent in ASL. The Earth Treks Climbing Centers are other examples of climbing gyms who advertise that their intro to climbing classes are also available in ASL in their Rockville, Maryland, Crystal City, Virginia, and Englewood, Colorado locations.
Captioning services for videos, ads, and other content would benefit more than just Deaf people, including children, older adults, and people learning English. As Christina Cox, a Deaf Squamish, British Columbia-based climber explained, “captioned content not only creates accessibility, it creates acceptance!”
Many Deaf climbers have put in the work of increasing accessibility themselves by starting their own local groups, mainly organized through Facebook. Examples of these include ASL Climbing Network, started by Wilson in LA, and Climb Deaf DC, founded by Paul Khouri and Derek Braun, two Deaf climbers in Washington, D.C. These groups create a space for Deaf climbers to connect with each other and build their community. But more can be done.
Wilson is ready for the outdoor community and industry to make a change. “The time is now for everyone in the climbing and outdoor community to team up together to find new opportunities to create a more welcoming space for every climber,” Wilson explained, “There are so many communities out there, so many people who have been in the outdoors that aren’t being recognized. This needs to be made equal and accessible. The only way to learn how to do that is talking to the people who experience it themselves.”
For Wilson’s 50th birthday, she’s hoping to climb El Cap. “I want to see all that beauty from up high,” she signed.
Sonya Wilson is a Deaf climber, high school teacher, and founder of the facebook group ASL Climbing Network based in Los Angeles, California. As a life-long advocate for accessibility and inclusion in the outdoors for all, as well as a passionate outdoor enthusiast, Wilson contributed her knowledge through experiences to this article.
Examples of Facebook climbing groups:
Organizations to check out:
Video captioning resources:
Live transcription apps:
Feature image: ASL Climb Day group signing “I love you.” Image by Sonya Wilson.