THE SILENT WORLD
In 1953 Jacques Yves Cousteau wrote and published a book called “The Silent World.”
It is a story of undersea discovery and adventure, of first men to swim at record depths, of a world believed to be silent and inaccessible to humans unless attached to a heavy helmet and equally heavy boots and lines to the surface.
I grew up thinking that the underwater world was exactly that, a soundless place. We now know that this underwater world is far from silent. When immersed beneath the surface, the noises are expanded by virtue of the media we are exploring, making the bubbles we exhale sound louder, the breaths we inhale sound deeper and the underwater activity of the reef sound similar to the one of a busy street in a city. It’s a world of pops and crackles, snaps and swooshes; it never stops stimulating our senses throughout the dive.
The only one to become silent in this world is us. Limited by the water density, our vocal cords do not function, and we are not allowed to produce distinct sounds like the ones we pronounce on the surface. We are bound to a few guttural noises, possibly few vibrations, and we make up for this deficiency with a handful, literally, of signs using one or two hands.
For years I worked in this environment through the limitations of my hand signals, at times using a slate, very seldom using a full face mask to be able to communicate.
Until one day I connected with the real “silent world” the one above and below the surface, affecting about .40% of the US population. Thomas J. Koch was attending the same preparation to become a PADI Course Director as I was. With him, I discovered the world of ASL (American Sign Language), and it opened up my mind to a new language and way of communication. While listening to his story, I came to realize that in our society we are very much oriented to the verbal aspect of communication. It is a world designed for the hearing people, where those who are different are at times deemed incapable of connection and communication.
Although speaking loud and clear, Thomas was one of those who struggled to be heard. Strangely enough, even in the underwater community where communication by traditional methods is limited, he found it very hard to access the professional levels. He was deemed not safe or not “complete” enough to be able to handle the requirements for a diving professional. He was told that, he could not hear the “safety recall” system or the cry for help from a diver and that he could not perform as an effective Divemaster. The materials to prepare him and others from the deaf community, interested in growing as divers, were not even up to the task.
Thomas never gave up. He worked very hard and very passionately to find his way, he insisted until he found people who believed in him and helped him grow. I am fortunate to have been able to connect with him when I did. Thomas was the patient and dedicated teacher who allowed me to access his world. He never lost his belief that I could learn and he never stopped repeating words over and over again until I could memorize them. I watched his patience with amazement. I realized that beneath the surface, us hearing people fail to communicate and be understood, we become limited. We honestly need to learn how to listen better. Listening should no longer be made of pronounced words but of attention to all nuances of a language simply spoken differently. Barriers are only present when we decide to build them and hide behind them, but they do not necessarily need to stay up once we find a way around them. Thomas was my inspiration and leader for finding a way around those perceived barriers. Once the vocabulary grew, I would ask myself in a very noisy world, of excited chatter about this creature or that creature, about this behavior or that behavior. It became exciting to explain everything right there and then, like a live chronicle of the reef events, sharing in the moment, watching with amazement in the eyes of my divers, the smiles broadening under their masks and regulators. Communication didn’t have to wait for us to surface, didn’t need to be written as short messages on a slate; through the deaf community, my world expanded rather than constricted.
As I watched in awe, I realized that I had so much more to learn in order to be able to communicate further. The lack of hearing didn’t hinder the deaf divers; it actually put them at an extreme advantage compared to me.
The lessons learned expanded beyond the deaf community. The realization that the world is built only for certain kind of people and everybody else has to adapt became very clear.
Function, ability and disability assume all new roles and meanings if looked at from the different point of views. The society we live in has been built to fit in certain boxes, and if we don’t fit in, we are deemed “broken” or “incomplete.” If we took the time to look at the world from a different kind of box, our perception would change, and the roles could be reversed. Perhaps it’s time to step outside the boundaries of confinement or a label and enter a world where each person has something to offer at a different level.