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Scuba Diving and the Deaf: "Underwater Sign Language"

By Alex Hoeve

Envision a world where nobody can hear. The only way to communicate with each other is with hand signs. This world is underwater and very beautiful, and there are many species of animals to observe. The only way to travel there is using scuba diving equipment. Scuba stands for Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus, which recreational divers use throughout the world (NOAA, 1970). The scuba system is widely utilized for military, scientific, and commercial work purposes. Having free access underwater and seeing beautiful sea life makes scuba diving fun. Although scuba is an enjoyable activity, it requires divers to learn hand signs in order to communicate underwater. These hand signs create a unique language for the divers. In fact, the Deaf, who communicate mainly with ASL, have an advantage over the hearing because they use hand signs more often.

ASL (American Sign Language) was discovered in France and was brought back to America to start a school for the Deaf. ASL was developed by Thomas Gallaudet in 1817. After studying the Deaf in Europe, Thomas founded the first Deaf school in America. He created a set of standard signs for the Deaf to use. As more Deaf schools opened, American Sign Language spread across America. Since the popularity of ASL, there are many varieties of it around the world. Other places in the world, like Europe, have similar signs to ASL. However, there is not a single sign language that is used throughout the world. (Stewart, 2011)

Many scuba classes require you to learn hand signs based from American Sign Language (ASL). Most of the scuba signs rely on ASL signs to make them easier to understand underwater even with full gear loaded on the diver. Silent Bubbles, a scuba academy founded in 2009, provides PADI instructors (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) for the Deaf and the hard of hearing (Silent Bubbles, 2012). There are many other companies that offer PADI courses for the Deaf.

Using hand signs is the most common method of communication for scuba divers. However, there are other varieties of communication for divers. Some use an underwater writing slate. While the slate is inexpensive, the diver has to prepare the slate before going underwater. Because of that reason, many divers do not use the slate (Wikihow, 2016). Divers use electronic communicators so they can actually talk to each other. Even though it can be hard to understand what the other person is saying, it's still a good communication device. Some divers communicate with waterproof flashlights. Flashlights are used more often in deeper, darker areas of the ocean where hand signals are difficult to see. However, scuba divers would have to learn light signal signs as well as hand signs. Having those kinds of communication devices would be great, but they can fail more easily than hand signs (Wikihow, 2016). That's why hand signs are more efficient and they are always available.

ASL and USL (Underwater Sign Language) have different signs for the same thing. Sea Signs, another diving company, uses the principles of ASL and invents their own signs. Their signs agree with the accepted signs from books and agencies. According to WikiHow, divers use USL signs. Some of the most common hand signs used in scuba diving are: Ok, problem, ear problem, surface sign, up/down, slow down, go this direction, level off, and low air (WikiHow, 2016). Overall, different scuba companies use different signs, so divers must be sure that their diving partner understands and uses the same signs.

Hand signs are used by divers because they are easy, common, and most people can use them. The Deaf, who communicate mainly with ASL, have a benefit over hearing divers because they use hand signs more fluently. People who use ASL, can have a better conversation about what they see underwater because they know more hand signs than hearing divers(Utila Lodge, 2012). The hearing divers have to surface to talk about what they saw below because they lack complex hand signs. Scuba diving is a great sport for anyone who loves to go underwater and see the beautiful coral and different types of sea creatures. Scuba diving allows us to go to a world where communication is based on ASL and it is very useful.


Lewis, Frank "PADI Advanced Underwater Sign Language Distinctive Specialty" (5/23/2016)

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration "Scuba Diving" (NOAA) (10/3/1970)

Sea Signs "Underwater Communication" (1983)

Silent Bubbles "Scuba Diving" (2012)

Stewart, David.A, Ed.D. Barron's E-Z American Sign Language. New York; Barron's, 2011

The Scuba Site "Scuba Diving Hand Signals" (10/25/2008)

Utila Lodge. "ASL Deaf SCUBA Diving Courses With Gracie". Online video clip. Youtube. Youtube, 21 May 2012.

WikiHow "How to communicate Underwater when Scuba Diving" (5/16/2016)




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