by Corrina Veesart
I am a 33-year-old woman who is deafblind; I grew up loving a wide array of recreational and physical activities, including dance, cheerleading, yoga, rock climbing, swimming, tandem bike riding, exercising with gym equipment, hiking, and more. These activities have given me an outlet for when I’m frustrated, rekindled my spirit, and provided me with a sense of purpose. I am totally deaf with very low vision/blindness. I can see the shapes of some objects when the colors contrast sharply with each other, such as shapes in black and white; if lighting and contrast are good, I can sometimes make out the outlines of people or objects. My sense of touch and smell also inform me about the environment.
Throughout elementary and junior high school, I loved movement. I loved to spin and flip on the bars every afternoon during recess. I even won an award in junior high for the most inspirational student in physical education class. As a young child, I loved watching dance, though I had no experience with dance and didn’t have the kind of coordination in my body to understand and feel the rhythm. I didn’t even like music until I was older and grew to appreciate it through the opportunity to touch the instruments as they were played. I could also appreciate it by touching the singer’s throat with my hand and feeling the vibrations of the voice. In elementary school, a ballet company came to perform for us and I was completely inspired by the dancers. I sat still in a state of awe as I watched the jumps, some of which resembled frog leaps. Later, I hopped around, trying to imitate the graceful jumps of the dancers I had been watching.
My first ballet class was a spontaneous event. A good friend and I showed up for a ballet class in a local dance studio one evening. I was wearing baggy overalls and had no idea how to dance ballet. I was completely unprepared to take the class. Luckily, the ballet teacher, Michelle, made us feel at home right from the beginning. She simply rolled up my overall bottoms and began teaching me the basic steps of ballet as if it were no big deal to have a student who is deafblind in her class.
In that first class, and in every class that followed, Michelle included me with my fellow dance students. I had an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter, Robin, who provided communication and environmental information for me during class. She wore all black, which provided good contrast with her pale skin and the light colored floor and walls of the room. The sharp color contrast was important as it allowed me to see her hands signing against the background of her black top. Michelle, the teacher, chose an experienced dancer from the class to stand next to me, so I could follow her movements. The student also wore black from head to toe including a black long sleeved leotard or dance sweater, black tights, and black shoes. I stood close behind the chosen dancer to imitate her movements. Michelle regularly came forward into the dance space to correct me, relay vital information, or show me a certain move I had missed. My interpreter for the class used hand-over-hand techniques to show me the flow of certain ballet hand movements, guiding my hand or arm while it was over her own so I could trace how to perform the specific movement. Then she backed off and I danced as I had been shown, following along with the group of other dancers and the dancer in front of me dressed in black.
Learning ballet was not always easy for me. Even for a teacher as patient as Michelle, it was hard to include me in every aspect of the class. Her positive “you can do it” attitude and patience is what really helped. Because she didn’t know sign language, she devised various touch cues to help me understand what to do quickly and efficiently; for example, a tap on the leg meant “straighten your leg.”
Later, when I was taking classes at the local community college, I realized that not all dance teachers shared the same attitude. One teacher wouldn’t let me have a student dancer to follow. Others didn’t understand why it took me so long to learn the movements. Still others were intently focused on teaching the hearing-sighted (often more skilled) students and I couldn’t keep up. I remembered Michelle’s words at the start of many of her classes: “This is Corrina. She is deaf with a little vision. She is a great dancer and has taken my class for many years. If you know any sign language, she would love to chat with you …” and I wished I had better support from the other teachers.
Community colleges should support classes like Michelle’s as it is vital for all students in the community college setting to have opportunities to explore music and dance. I would love to take a dance class again in the future and I am thankful that I had such an excellent dance instructor who was willing to teach me.
The first time I tried out for cheerleading squad, I did not make it; I had never taken a dance class, and had no experience with that kind of body movement and body coordination. It was about this time that I grew to appreciate music by having the opportunity to touch the instruments. Music really helped me develop my sense of rhythm. Over time, I developed an improved sense of dance, movement, and body coordination. This, along with my ballet classes helped me develop confidence, improve my body coordination, and gave me an understanding of the rhythm of the body in movement. When I tried out again a year later, I made the team.
There were many steps along the way in my development as a cheerleader. One task was to get to know my fellow cheerleaders, and to learn to work with them. To this end, my mom and I sat with the team in a circle one afternoon in my school’s gym. We discussed how they could communicate and interact with me and we shared some basic sighted guide techniques, and other ways to support me. We had fun learning about each other and giving name signs to each person. We established respect, shared ideas about teamwork, and generally formed a connection and rapport between us. Without this communication at the beginning of the cheerleading season, I don’t think we could have developed the openness and support necessary for my success.
Learning the cheers was another slow process, but everyone was very creative and patient. In the beginning, it took an entire week for me to learn one simple cheer; my interpreter, cheer coach, and fellow team members worked with me continuously allowing me to practice a cheer over and over again until I had it right. The team used a hand clap to teach me the rhythm of the cheer and I learned to say the cheers and make the moves at the right time. Eventually, I was able to learn new cheers much more quickly.
My interpreter also helped me understand the games of football, basketball, and volleyball more clearly so I could relate to what was happening in the games and understand what I was cheering for. At halftime, when the others raced out to the field to perform stunts (which I was unable to do) I stood in a pose or excited the crowd by running across the field waving my pom-poms.
When cheerleading for football, basketball, or volleyball, one of my teammates stood in front of me in formation and signed “Ready, OK!” to cue me when to start giving a cheer so I could be in synch with the rest of the squad.
Through cheerleading, I showed my high school and my community that, with the right support system, deafblind people can do anything they set their minds to do. I was committed to being a cheerleader and understood it was a big responsibility and a way to serve my school and community.
My first rock climbing experience was at Camp Abilities, a one-week sports camp for children who are deaf, blind, have low vision, or are deafblind. Years after that, I climbed at a rock climbing gym in my hometown with my friend and interpreter-support person, Rachel, who is an expert climber. She taught me some basics and helped me learn to trust the rope. It wasn’t until I met my friend Jeff, a professional rock climber, and his wife Emily who is an ASL interpreter and instructor that I got more deeply involved in rock climbing.
Jeff is a professional athlete and engages in a wide array of athletic activities regularly, but rock climbing is one of his favorites and he describes himself as sure footed like a mountain goat. Jeff’s experience and skill level combined with his wife Emily’s ASL communication skills make them a team I trust to keep me safe on the rocks.
Jeff and Emily live in an area where there are lots of beautiful green trees and tall mountains that are perfect for climbing in the summer and for skiing in the winter. Like Jeff, Emily is an avid athlete and she belays for Jeff and me, and helps with communication since Jeff is still learning sign language.
Jeff climbs up the rock first to set the anchor while Emily supports me as I put on my harness and rock climbing shoes. Then, when Jeff is ready, he helps me tie my harness onto the rope; he trusts his knots better than indoor rock climbing gym clasps. Before we start the climb he reviews climbing techniques with me and reminds me to keep my butt out and to trust the rope. When I am ready, he attaches his rope to mine and we climb in tandem on the rock face.
Jeff lets me lead the climb just above him. It is challenging to hold on with one free hand and feel around with the other in search of handholds. Sometimes he helps support me by holding my foot in his hand when there are very few footholds, now and then suggestively tapping the rock to indicate a place where there is a good hold. We have developed touch cues to communicate on the rock; he signs, “Good” into my hand when I am progressing up the rock wall. The work is slow and scary at times as I often can’t tell how much further to go, how far below the ground is, or where the edge of the rock might be and this makes me feel breathless. When I am close to the top, I whale wiggle my way onto the top of the rock relying almost entirely on my sense of touch.
Rock climbing is a sport that requires precise support, skills, and awareness, so I am uncomfortable climbing with just anyone. With Jeff’s expertise, it makes for a safe and fun challenge.
I used to think yoga classes were all about hot rooms and sweating, which I don’t like, until my friend Emily took me to a slow-paced, easygoing yoga class and I realized how much I could enjoy it. The class was called Yin Yoga, where you hold the poses for five minutes. My many years of ballet and Pilates helped me with the poses, but learning how to relax and breathe deep into my body proved more difficult, as breathing is so central to yoga.
My third semester in college, I registered with a new yoga teacher, Kasey, who turned out to be fantastic. She has a light, easy personality and emphasizes the experience. Not only did her positive attitude reflect the spirit of yoga but she was also very skilled and in top physical condition.
My support person in that class had some ASL skills but was not a professional interpreter. She was, however, quite experienced with yoga. We placed our yoga mats side by side; she dressed all in black to contrast with her pale skin, and demonstrated the poses for me up close as I did my best to copy them. She developed touch cues to help me feel from her touch what to do so that I didn’t have to strain to see what was going on. She told me not to worry about my balance as others in the class were struggling with their balance as well. Most importantly, I learned that yoga isn’t about the past or future — but about NOW. Yoga is a journey; it’s about breathing, and getting to know your own mind, body, and soul.
I learned how to breathe through each pose, slow and deep into my body. Even when I missed some of the instructions, my support person tried to pick out what was most important for me to know, informing me at the end of every meditation session that the teacher had said “Namaste” which means, ‘Thank you for sharing the experience of yoga with me. Peace be with you.’
A few summers ago I taught a yoga class at Seabeck Deafblind Retreat to a small group of my deafblind peers. I found it tricky trying to include everyone. I realized how much I have learned and how much I have yet to learn. I asked my students for their feedback, and enjoyed being in synch with a group of other people who are deafblind like me, all doing our best to learn. I want to continue to improve my yoga techniques and skills because after each yoga class, I notice I feel stronger and my balance seems slightly improved; I suspect this is because as my body strengthens, it is better able to support itself. I advise other people who are deafblind to try yoga and learn meditation, relaxation, and breathing skills.
Note: This is an excerpt from the book Possibilities: Recreational Experiences of Individuals who are Deafblind, edited by Lieberman, Haegele, and Marquez.
Table of Contents
Credits, Introduction, and Preface
Rachel Weeks- Triathlon
Maricar Marquez- Running
Kristine D’Arbelles- SSP—Swimming Triathlon
Heidi Zimmer- Mountain Climbing
Cody Colchado- Power Lifting
Corrina Veesart- Ballet, Cheerleading, Rock Climbing, and Yoga
Emily Desfor- SSP—Outdoor Adventures
Kevin Frost- Speed Skating
Ryan Ollis- Running
Faye Frez-Albrecht- Soccer
Quinn Burch- Dance, Horseback Riding, and Running
Nicholas Abrahamson- Hiking the Appalachian Trail
Bruce Visser- Traveling
Jason Corning- Running
Sarah K. McMillen- Ice Hockey and Taekwondo
Angela Theriault- Running
Scott Keeler Bass- Biking
Maria Marquez Dykman- Wind Chimes
Conclusion & References