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An interview with Sonya Wilson

We talk about the Deaf climbing community, communication and the challenges Sonya has faced in her life.

How did you discover Joshua Tree, and what makes it so important to you?

At 11 years old, I lost all that I had ever known. My mother died, and I was leaving my home to enter a new world so different from my own. It was a culture shock for me, going from Nevada to Southern California to live with relatives and start a new life. While I felt blessed to have people in my life, I struggled to find my place. I was lonely and longed to meet other Deaf kids like me. My family knew I had a deep love for the outdoors, so they would have me join camps and participate in group hikes with other kids from their church. We camped and hiked at different locations, and one was at Joshua Tree. I fell in love! It reminded me of home—my beloved Red Rocks Canyon that my Deaf childhood friends and I would spend hours exploring. I was less homesick, and venturing out in nature helped me adjust to life’s changes. The outdoors was a place I could gain balance, calm, wisdom, and strength and just be me and have a blast. Joshua Tree has a magic unlike anywhere else.

How did you establish your Deaf climbing community in the first place?

The outdoor industry (in-person and online content) wasn’t very accessible nor inclusive for Deaf and Deafblind people who love the outdoors. In 2012, I started an online Facebook group called ASL Climbing Network. My friends and I hosted ASL climb days at the climbing gym for my friends and the local community. I learned about the Red Rock Rendezvous, a festival event hosted by the company Mountain Gear. I had never attended a recreational festival before, and I was curious. The coordinators of the event and I worked together to find the best ways to provide the access and inclusion I needed. A group of Deaf friends soon joined me. We recruited wonderful ASL interpreters that I called “Outdoor Adventure Interpreters” (OAI)! Every year the group got bigger, growing into a close community of Deaf people who share a passion for the outdoors! When Red Rock Rendezvous stopped happening, we took our group to Joshua Tree. Once a year, my group and a local nonprofit, Southern California Mountaineers Association, collaborate to host the ASL camp and climb weekend. This November will be our fourth year.

Can you describe what it feels like when you’re climbing?

Nature, the outdoors and recreational sports lets me feel free to celebrate who I am. I have a life-long passion for adventures. Climbing rocks or mountains is so much fun! You learn a lot about your own ability. I am so blessed and so grateful for a rich life that I get to experience and share with others. Those who believed in me, me believing in myself and mother nature gifting us with the outdoors is what sustains and elevates me. My story is just one of many. I wish people would understand that if the access, inclusion was there, then people would see just how amazing Deaf people already are.

Why is climbing getting so popular?

American Sign Language translator: Meaghan Vehlies

Can you remember the first mountain that you climbed?

As a college student, I joined some friends and we climbed Mt Baldy and Mt Whitney in California. It was life changing, it opened my world and I was hooked! I have climbed them both often over the years since. They became my training mountains during different seasons. They reminded me of my childhood when I felt most safe and myself outside with my deaf friends. Such fond memories of those times. We often ditched school to explore outside in the Las Vegas desert, riding our bikes or hiking, scrambling anything we could around Lake Mead and Red Rock Canyon National Conservation area. It was a carefree time and my friends were my family. The outdoors was our refuge escaping from hard times at home and school. I hated being indoors so I would climb to the roof tops of houses and trees etc. The passion for the outdoors and mountains was instilled in me at early age. I did not know how to read English at that time so I didn’t know names of mountains or rocky buttes that surrounded us but we sure had fun!

When did your family realize that you were Deaf?

I was told by my grandmother that she knew I was Deaf when I arrived home from hospital, she saw me respond to her rocking chair vibrations and then stopped to call my name because I never responded. My mom was in denial for years until I was 5 and they tested me by hitting pots and pans behind me. This showed them clearly, I was profoundly Deaf. My grandma already knew long before then as she started hand gesturing to me and we had a "home signs". I entered a Deaf and Hard of Hearing program at 5 or 6 years old. I had 12 other Deaf friends. We became family to each other over the years. We all shared signs, stories and outdoor adventures. We were family.

Not being able to communicate via spoken language is hard to imagine for most of hearing people. How did you communicate and what were the biggest difficulties?

As far back as I can remember, I was always visual centric; I was an expressive child who had a preference for hands-on learning. For me, communication was via facial expressions, body language, art (I loved drawing!), and home signs and some ASL all mixed together. At home and in the classroom, there was no access to language, so I grew up experiencing language deprivation for part of my life. My mother never learned sign language. It is sad that she never got to know her own daughter, never truly connected. She did not see that I was actually a blessing and perfect already. The relatives I lived with were busy trying to help me get caught up in many things that I was very delayed in. Education had failed me in Nevada because the teachers and education setting were horrible for Deaf children in that area. My family, like many others, struggled to understand and accept that there was nothing wrong with being Deaf at all and that I thrived in a visually accessible environment which was the Deaf community. Language and communication are not always about what you hear or voice. Expression and communication are transcendent on so many levels.

How do Deaf climbers communicate?

American Sign Language translator: Meaghan Vehlies

What would you like to share about being Deaf with hearing people?

Being Deaf is not big deal. It is just a gift that enhances my life and my experiences in the outdoors. If I did not have the challenges I faced and continue to experience, than I would not have known where the needs are and what can be changed for the better. We all face stuff but what it so wonderful about the outdoors, is that it helps us reconnect with ourselves, learn about our own abilities and kicks our ass when we need it. So many people believe the misconception that being Deaf in life is a hinderance or a problem, heck no. The challenges only come up with those who choose to believe that. So either work with me to create a more inclusive and accessible world or get out of my way.

Sonya Wilson beim Klettern
Sonya Wilson auf einem Fels

With your ASL climbing camps you have already achieved a lot. Was there a particular moment when you knew that you and your community needed something like that?

Maybe the time when I was denied to join a guiding companies 7 summit package because I am Deaf, maybe the time I was left on a mountain alone while my group followed the guide to the summit, maybe the moment when my request for an outdoor video or movie to be captioned at an event was ignored or maybe the moments when choices about me were made without me. I saw and experienced where the needs are and had to do something. The work is never done to make the outdoor industry better than before. I experienced so many barriers, oppression, discrimination and audism caused by other people, that it was tough but I am tougher. It is important to empower others both Deaf and Hearing and raise awareness. I want more for the next generation of Deaf adventurers in the outdoor industry and recreational sports. Many companies and events claim to be all about inclusion, equality and diversity yet I don’t see quality access to content both in person and online. I rarely see the inclusion of the Deaf and DeafBlind communities. The Deaf Outdoor community is growing fast. It is time for the outdoor industry to take notice. There is so much more that can be done still.

Climbing and advocating for the Deaf community is only one part of your life. You’re also working as a teacher. Why did you choose this career?

Education has never been an easy, enjoyable path for me. I love to learn, but I often got tired of having to fight, advocate, and educate when all I wanted to do was go to college and learn. I thought education was for hearing people because I couldn’t get the full re- liable quality access and accommodations in college. In times like that, I wished I had the opportunity to attend a school with Deaf services or a school for the Deaf. Today, I have the privilege to be a teacher for both Deaf and hearing students. I became the kind of teacher that I never had but always wanted. It is so important for Deaf kids to have adult role models and others who they can relate to and communicate with in ASL. I never had that as a little kid, and I wish I would have. It would have changed my world and made my path so much better much earlier. Deaf role models for Deaf kids are magic and life changing!

What's your key message?

American Sign Language translator: Meaghan Vehlies

Follow Sonya Wilson on Instagram and Youtube

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