Posted by on April 14, 2005 at 07:27:50:
A diving instructor and student, both deaf, use sign language to communicate. After all, underwater `nobody talks anyway.'
TAVARES -- Scuba-diving instructor Chris Zelnio helped student Shawna Grant check her gear before class at the Golden Triangle YMCA pool.
They reviewed safety rules and previous lessons, and discussed what was ahead for Tuesday night's class.
All without saying or hearing a single word. Both teacher and student are deaf -- they communicated with sign language.
But think about it.
"When you're underwater nobody talks anyway," said Randy Olson, an instructor and co-worker of Zelnio's at C&N Divers in Mount Dora. "Once we hit the water, we are all equal."
Zelnio, 30, has been hearing-impaired since he was 3½, when he was diagnosed with spinal meningitis. Because of the difficulty speaking when he couldn't hear, he hasn't spoken since he was a child.
A certified instructor for three years, he has taught at C&N for almost two years. The dive school hired him after he moved to Lake County to work for the National Deaf Academy in Mount Dora. He continues to work there as a mental-health technician on an on-call basis.
Zelnio also teaches diving to hearing-impaired students at the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind in St. Augustine one night a week.
He is one of only a few diving instructors in the country who are deaf, said Marianne Precker, a course director for the Handicapped Scuba Association based in El Prado, Calif.
Zelnio and Grant used handwritten notes to answer questions for this article.
Grant, 32, who has known Zelnio for a couple years, wanted to take her snorkeling experiences to the next level.
It's "easier because [we have the] same language," the Orlando woman said. "I would have taken [a] class somehow with an interpreter, but [it's] not as fun."
When Zelnio moved from California to Eustis, a friend who had taken lessons at C&N introduced Zelnio to the owners.
Chad Patterson, co-owner of the dive shop, said he was enthusiastic about the opportunity to offer instruction to those who are hearing-impaired.
"It was new and interesting," Patterson said. "Different and unique."
Zelnio learned to scuba dive when he was a sophomore at California State University in 1994. His teacher was a retired Navy frogman.
"I had an interpreter," he said. "The instructor was very challenging and put us under exclusive training. I enjoyed it a lot. However, at times [underwater] there were mistakes we made because we couldn't communicate. . . . "
"I had to study and communicate with those who could not sign and were training me to become a dive master towards instructor," he said. "There were obstacles along the way, but those I have worked with were inspired and always rewarded me as well [as] motivated me, even though we never were able to communicate [with] 100 percent efficiency."
Zelnio's father, Robert Zelnio of Wellington, said he always knew his son would work in some type of outdoor, recreational field.
While Chris Zelnio was growing up in California, he enjoyed swimming in the ocean, his father said. And when his family visited relatives in Illinois, he would swim in the Mississippi River.
"He was always kind of a go-for-it-type kid," he said. "He liked the water like most kids do. He was never afraid of it."
Robert Zelnio said his son was "always a happy, personable child. He was never demanding. When he lost his hearing, his personality didn't change."
Through the years, Robert Zelnio said, his son has had difficulty because of the communication barrier.
"He's had it tough as he has gotten older," he said. "He has met a lot of roadblocks because of his deafness. He's very fortunate to be working with C&N Divers. They seem to be making an effort to communicate with him."
He is a full-time employee and one of seven instructors at C&N.
The first level of training is the open-water course. It includes 12 hours of classroom work, 12 hours of training in a pool, and four open-water dives.
Instructors often teach together.
"I and other instructors work together," Zelnio said. "I help them teach their classes by providing my qualities underwater as it's more visual. The other instructors/dive masters help me with my classes as they observe and have experience in organization and structure."
At the St. Augustine School for the Deaf and Blind, there are 11 students ages 15 to 18 learning to scuba dive under the instruction of Zelnio, with help from other instructors at C&N.
Mel Goodall, director of student life and sponsor of the scuba club at the school, praised Zelnio's efforts.
"We have in the past worked through other dive shops through the interpreter," she said, communicating through a video relay service in which a sign interpreter contacts the hearing user on a telephone. "It's not been a smooth transition language-wise. The material is very intense. It's difficult for our kids to pass without the proper tools or methods."
Zelnio is "breaking down the material for them and talking to them in their language, using sign language. The language barrier is removed. He's able to relate to them."
Student Samantha Owens, 15, agrees.
"It's a very good opportunity [taking the class]," Owens said through the relay service. "It's nice to have a deaf person to be able to teach us instead of having a hearing interpreter."
Later this spring, the class will take the written exam and travel to Blue Spring in Volusia County and then to West Palm Beach to complete the open-water requirements.
"I'm more nervous about the diving part," she said. "There's a whole list of things that we have to do underwater."
Dive instructor Olson says he enjoys helping the youngsters at the St. Augustine school learn to scuba dive.
"We've [other instructors] always joked about Chris having an advantage over us because we have to surface to talk to our students and he just keeps talking underwater," Olson said.
Zelnio also teaches people who are not hearing-impaired. For those students, he wants to set up a weekly class on basic scuba-diving terms.
In sign language.
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