Back in June, I was lucky enough to complete my Course Director Training in the Dominican Republic. At the start of the course I had first day nerves. It took me back to the first day of my Open Water course and especially to the first day of my Instructor Development Course. As we went through introductions, I soon started to realise how easy I had it, as more and more CD candidates had translators with them. I could only imagine the anxiety they were feeling on the first day. Then out of the corner of my eye, I saw a man (Jeffrey Dunlap) with his back to the speaker, flying his hands around. I soon released he was signing to a candidate (Thomas J Koch).
I also noticed Thomas looked the most relaxed in the room.
Having taught a couple of deaf students in the past, I knew Thomas would be as good as all of us in the water. Being a CD isn’t about being a great diver under water, it’s about being able to communicate information and expectations in a constructive and positive way. Over the next 10 stressful days for me, and seemingly relaxed days for Thomas, you could quite clearly see this wasn’t going to be a problem for him. Looking in from the outside, the CDTC seemed quite easy for Thomas. His group always seemed to be having the most fun and, in my humble opinion, had the best marketing plans out of all the groups. If Thomas found the CDTC as easy as he made it look, Jeffrey and April Dunlap would of played a very important part as his translators.
Below is an interview with PADI Course Director Thomas Koch.
PT: “Congrats on completing the CDTC. You are the first ever deaf PADI CD. When and why did you start diving?”
TK: “I went to Sonny Carter Training Facility in 1995. The Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory is an astronaut-training facility operated by NASA and located near the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. I wanted to take scuba classes and be able to work at Sonny Carter Training Facility one day! However, I took a different path and became a Course Director.
PT: “We at PADI are glad you did! Who was your dive instructor for your open water course?
TK: “Ed Wieliczkiewicz, NAUI Instructor. He was the only person who accepted me as a deaf person taking his class. I have to thank him because it starts from Open Water to move up to the next level. I took Open Water and Advanced Open Water in two weekends. Then I decided to apply for more courses because I was so into it. My passion is for the underwater world.”
PT: “When and why did you become a PADI diver, and how did the materials measure up?”
TK: “Again, I was still searching for a dive shop to take me in. I moved from Texas to Washington, DC. The frustration came back. Then after a lot of checking around, I went to one shop and learned how PADI materials have subtitles for every DVD until you reach the Divemaster Course, so I decided to switch from NAUI to PADI.”
PT: “When did you become a dive instructor?”
TK “I decided to become dive instructor after few years of assisting and being a tank donkey and realizing I could give better direct communication between myself to another deaf/signer student than any other instructor. I wanted to bring the deaf community to the scuba world without them having to experience what I did: frustration. When I was looking for a place to learn to dive, they kept sending me to HSA, DDI, IAHD or other Handicapped Dive Organizations. I tried to educate those dive shops, explaining how we don’t need any assistance underwater because we could fully communicate underwater and be able to solve any problem underwater. It was us who needed to be patient with those dive instructors who cannot sign or communicate fully underwater.”
PT: “Why did it take so long?”
TK: “After being a Divemaster Candidate for 7 years (!!), my biggest struggle was finding an instructor who would have enough patience with me, because it would take lot of time to communicate. I went to 4 or 5 different dive shops trying to finish my Divemaster requirements. Finally, I finished and moved forward.”
PT: “How long have you now been teaching?”
TK: “I have been teaching for 12 years! Officially however, I’ve only been teaching for 5 years. The other 7 years I was the middleman for the dive instructors to deaf students, so I was pretty much doing the work for the dive instructors who could hear perfectly. Yet it was hard to complete the Divemaster program because the hearing instructor felt it was so hard to communicate, and it was the reason I decided to become a dive instructor myself.”
PT: “What % of your students are Deaf?”
TK: “I have taught and certified around 90% deaf and 10% hearing, but as for the IDC I have assisted, it was closer to 95% hearing and 5% deaf. I am looking forward to August IDC where I will have four new deaf Instructors, which is 33% of the total on the IDC.”
PT: “What challenges do deaf certified divers have when diving?”
TK: “The biggest challenge is being questioned whether or not we can dive?!? That is why I always encourage those avid deaf divers to take the Master Scuba Diver program, and when they go to a dive operation, they will respect them more! Sadly however, we have to be a “MSD” to prove we are great divers. Often, I have heard or seen stories where most of them struggle to actually get to dive. After the Divemaster and other divers just want to be their friends. They’re all amazed how we can handle ourselves underwater. Yes, the main thing is we do not use signals underwater. We have a conversation underwater. One good example: deaf divers get on the boat quietly and the hearing divers get on the boat talking so much. The hearing divers have to hold all those amazing things they saw until they get on the boat and say, “Did you see that beautiful fish, did you see… did you see….” As for the deaf divers, we already talked about it while diving.”
PT: “What is the funniest thing that has happened to you while diving?”
TK: “We laugh so much it can make us use up the air. There are so many funny things happening during my classes or guides. So which is the funniest thing? I could say, one hearing dive instructor approached me and said you’re so loud!! I was puzzled? He said you love to talk and you still talk underwater!!! Can’t you just be quiet?! Ha.”
PT: “You were quite loud on the CDTC. ;o) What are your plans now?
TK: “A huge challenge is coming in front of me. I know that I am the one and only Deaf Course Director in PADI worldwide. I want to empower more deaf instructors around the world to bring the deaf community to the PADI community. There are many stories out there where deaf people came to me saying “my dive shop won’t teach me” or “do you think I should go to the Handicapped Dive Organization”, etc. I do not want them to go through that experience again. I took a tough path to get to Divemaster. My mission is to have the Deaf community see PADI as the deaf friendly community, and that PADI welcomes the deaf with open arms. I have taught over 400 certifications in 5 years and it was hard! I need to add more deaf instructors so the deaf community can take their classes with direct communication. I am making plans to travel around the world and teach more deaf instructors. I know I will be doing 4 to 5 IDCs here in US and possibly one in Thailand, one in Malta or Red Sea and one somewhere in Central America.”
PT: “What would you like to see happen to the dive industry to help get more Deaf people diving?”
TK: “I want the dive industry to see how what a huge advantage it is having deaf/signer divers or deaf/signer professional divers in their industry. One testimonial I want to share:”
Testimonial: Jennifer & Lyle Vold – “Tom was already by my side…”
I got certified to be able to join friends on their scuba trips at a destination wedding – it was not something I had always dreamed of doing. I had some concerns but was up for the adventure. Let me tell you – Tom was such a good teacher that I ended up doing a few extra dives to get my Advanced Open Water certification and added on a Nitrox certification too!
He is very knowledgeable and has an approach to teaching that encourages us to think clearly, analyze our situations, and above all how to be safe — all so that we can be confident divers when we are ready to go out on our own.
On one dive, I started to ascend too fast and my ears started to hurt. I knew to go back down, slowly, until my ears felt better, but unfortunately went too far down too fast. The pain increased and just when I started to have a hint of panic, Tom was already by my side, bringing me to the right depth, telling me what to do. He was able to communicate clearly and calmly since we both use ASL. I don’t know what I would have done if I had a hearing instructor who didn’t know how to sign. I watched other divers on our trips, trying to gesture to communicate under water and felt bad for them – with Tom, he could tell us about the fish and plants, gave us detailed instructions and tips on how to improve our skills.
Overall, I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to be able to communicate clearly, effectively, and above all, calmly when under water – for instruction, information, and for our safety.
I can’t recommend Tom and Aqua Hands highly enough – like another customer said, GO for it!
-Jennifer Vold – coda CODA: Children of Deaf Adults (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Child_of_deaf_adult)
KT: “It is a huge community I need to educate. I know they might have never met a deaf person, so it is something they are very stand offish about. So my big job is to educate the scuba world about the deaf community and the deaf divers. They would be amazed or not.”
PT: “Thank you Thomas and congratulations again. I know you are willing to teach IDC all over the world. How can IDC centers around the world get hold of you?
+1 (727) 551-4426