Wednesday, September 28, 2005

A Hands-On Adventure

From the newsroom of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Honolulu, Hawaii, Sunday, September 25, 2005 .....

A hands-on adventureTactile sign language helps a deaf and blind couple express their excitement about their first trip to Oahu

By Helen Altonn

Ken and Annie Sting of Seattle can't see or hear, but they had the time of their lives visiting Oahu through touching.

They experienced Hawaii's culture, plants, history and marine life through tactile sign language.

"And they really like the smells of things, like leis," said Holly Delcambre, volunteer interpreter with the couple. "Plumerias are a big hit."

Ken Sting, 65, recently retired from the Light House for the Blind, a sheltered workshop in Seattle, where his wife, 58, still works. Their trip here Sept. 13-22 was a retirement celebration.

They left Thursday talking about returning for three or four weeks. "It's been a great experience," Sting said through Delcambre.

"It is so beautiful here," said Annie, explaining her impressions of Hawaii were formed by Elvis Presley's "Blue Hawaii" movie when she still had vision.

The two have Usher syndrome, an inherited disease resulting in hearing loss and retinitis pigmentosa, an eye disorder causing vision to worsen over time. Balance problems also may occur.

There are three types of Usher syndrome, according to the National Institute of Deafness and other Communication Disorders. The Stings have type 1, one of the most common types, said Delcambre.

People with USH1 are profoundly deaf from birth. Children begin to have vision problems by the time they are 10.

Annie has "a tiny itsy bit of sight," Delcambre said. Ken has a guide dog, Skinner, he left at home.

The couple uses tactile sign language, holding another person's hands and using movements to converse."They do sign language on their hands or my hands," Delcambre demonstrated. "They feel the shape and movement. You can express a lot of emotions through your hands."

The couple was clearly excited as they used their hands to describe playing with Sea Life Park's hybrid dolphin-whale Kekaimalu and her baby, Kawilikai. The wholfins performed, splashed them with water, nuzzled and kissed them.

"I got to kiss a dolphin. Can you imagine that?" Annie said through interpreter Tracey Clark. "I loved touching it and feeling the flippers. I'm so thankful to be able to do this."

"Dolphins are very smart," her husband said. "I got to put my hands on his back and he came up and gave me a kiss ... The skin is so soft."

He said he feels the adventure "was a blessing from God."The Stings were on the go every day with Delcambre and Clark, both longtime friends and traveling companions, and interpreter Rogelio Rios, who just graduated from high school. His father is deaf-blind and he wanted to check things out to see if he could bring him here, Delcambre said.

"Ken's impression was it's really a good place for people who are deaf-blind to come because people are really friendly and helpful and there's so much to touch.

"Although he's "kind of a shy guy," she said he's talking about giving a lecture on his Hawaii experience to a deaf-blind class in Seattle. He has a lot to tell.The couple, married 19 years, danced to vibrations from speakers at the block party on Kalakaua Avenue. They fed the fish at the Byodo-In Temple, rang the bell and felt it ringing. They smelled flowers and touched the long needle as a woman made leis outside their hotel.

At Dole Plantation, they enjoyed a train tour and felt pineapples, which they had thought grew on trees.

They loved Iolani Palace, Delcambre said. "People there were so nice. They had a bunch of things to touch at the end," such as wood from the flooring, curtain fabric and a piece of crystal from the chandelier.

They touched names on the wall at the Arizona Memorial, looking for Sting and Annie's maiden name, Thomas, but found neither. They met a 94-year-old Pearl Harbor veteran who signed a book for Ken and the three posed for a photo.

They went to the swap meet three times. "They really got into that, feeling everything and talking to people," Delcambre said. Ken, signing with Delcambre, said he found two hula dancing dolls with batteries to take home that were "a bargain" for $14.

They felt a coconut at a stand, drank the milk with a straw and then ate fresh sliced coconut. "They really liked that," Delcambre said. "Especially Ken. He was going on and on about how they don't have that in Seattle.

"They felt a lot of different fruits and vegetables at Chinatown, tasted sugar cane and touched live squirming catfish.

They thought the Polynesian Cultural Center "was really fun," Delcambre said. "The people there were really wonderful."

The most exciting part, she said, was the Samoan exhibit where one of the men did a special demonstration allowing Ken to feel him hopping up a tree with a strap around his feet.

The couple also was intrigued with how bananas grow in a bunch on a tree, she said.

A woman demonstrating weaving showed Annie what she was doing and gave her a woven hat and the couple learned how to weave a fish in the Tonga area.

Among other memories they're taking home:

They went to a noodle house and were sitting at the counter when birds flew in, Delcambre said. "It was like a different thing for us.

"They sat on their hotel balcony during a rain thinking the whole day was ruined and then, unlike rain in Seattle, it stopped.

They managed to get to the beach between excursions, Delcambre said. "Ken kept saying, 'Is Jaws here?'

"Turtles swam up while they were having a picnic lunch at a beach near Sea Life Park, she said. "Annie was very thrilled with that."

The couple had a surprise birthday party Tuesday night for Clark with a passion fruit, guava and pineapple "rainbow cake" Ken ordered at a bakery that morning, Delcambre said. The couple gave her a little Hawaiian pineapple-shaped container they had purchased at Dole Plantation.

Their "trip of a lifetime" ended with a luau Wednesday night.

© Honolulu Star-Bulletin 2005