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Community Spotlight: Climb ASL

An interview with Keenan Gao and Shelby Geldon

1/5/2023 4:03:39 PM

Two photos side by side. Photo 1: (left) Keenan, a Chinese Hard of Hearing woman, standing on the blue rock climbing wall. (right) Shelby, a white Hard of Hearing woman, standing on the blue rock climbing wall. Both are smiling and looking at the camera. Photo 2: Two women sitting on a bench in front of a gray, white and blue wall with geometric shapes. Shelby (left) is a white, Hard of Hearing woman and Keenan (right) is a Chinese Hard of Hearing woman. Both a smiling and looking at the camera while showing the ILY sign.

A conversation with Keenan Gao and Shelby Geldon, co-leads for Climb ASL, a local bouldering club. Interviewed by Kaitlyn Mielke.

Hi Keenan and Shelby, thank you for joining me for this conversation. Would you share a bit about Climb ASL? How did it start? Where did the idea for it come from?

Shelby: Keenan and I had gone Rock Climbing at Minneapolis Bouldering Project (MBP). We both loved it and Keenan mentioned we should start an ASL event here because like socializing with others using ASL. We put up a Facebook group and invited anyone we thought might be interested in climbing and signing! Eventually we met Fonz, who runs the OutClimbMN club at MBP. Fonz saw us signing and waved us over. He knows ASL and helped us become an official club at MBP. MBP then reached out and took steps to learn more about how to make MBP more accessible for the Deaf, DeafBlind, and Hard of Hearing (DDBHH) community.

What kind of activities and events do you do at these meetups?

Shelby: Most days we just meet up and climb together. We will also teach you how to climb and fall if you have never been bouldering before. Other times, we bring food and drinks for everyone to eat after climbing and have some social time. We do this occasionally and we celebrate some holidays. We have had a Halloween meet up where we dressed up and climbed and had snacks after. Then we plan to have another holiday climb in December, a New Year's day climb and we will celebrate Chinese New Year as well by having some activities and food.

What types of folks do these meetups attract? Who can get involved?

Keenan: Short answer: If you consider yourself to be a person who tries to be kind and inclusive, then we want you no matter how you show up in life. If you aren’t sure if you’d fit in or have the ability to drive, one of our members will come pick you up. Otherwise, we do not have space for people who are uninterested in kindness/inclusion.

Long answer: Our membership is very intersectional: we intentionally create a safe space for BIPOC and LGBTQ+ individuals. We actively encourage families, young children, and grandparents to join us but the regulars tend to skew younger from teens to 30s. People can get involved regardless of their signing ability or climbing ability — we will work to actively include you in the conversation and root for your accomplishments.

The most interesting thing about our members is that many are in various stages of acceptance/comfort with their own identity. Not just their deafness or hearing loss, but also their own queer or questioning identities, their different stages of life (some members are middle schoolers, some are in their 70s). For many younger people, Climb ASL is the first space they’ve experienced where they are interacting regularly with other people close to their age or with a similar identity as them. For example, we have HoH people who’ve never learned ASL before, socializing regularly with other HoH people. We have members who are unsure about their pronouns, and we encourage them to use what feels right “that day.”

We also have a range of signing abilities, from knowing zero ASL to fluent. For hearing people, we have many show up that had zero exposure to DDBHH people, never took an ASL class before, and didn’t know how to fingerspell their name. It is rewarding for them to experience our space and decide they want to keep coming back, and seeing their signing skills progress over the course of several months. For HoH people who sign, many will simcom with them (talk and sign at the same time) to ensure they can still access the conversation. People often pause the conversation to check if people are being left out, and take the time to individually explain jokes and recap what was said.

Our climbing abilities are diverse too. We have people who are rock climbing instructors themselves scaling the hardest problems at MBP, to people who come for the community but don’t climb at all!

Our members fall all over the spectrum for both deafness/hearing and vision spectrum.

Among our DDBHH regulars, we have many lesbian, gay, trans, non-binary, and queer members. Our queer members sometimes outnumber the straight members — we’re happy that they feel our space is safe/inclusive enough for them to keep showing up.

We also have diversity in terms of people’s relationship with their identities. Some are fully comfortable with their identity. Some HoH members have never learned ASL or never socialized regularly with other HoH people before, and are starting to learn how to be comfortable moving between the hearing and Deaf communities.

Among our hearing regulars, we have interpreters, Teachers of the Deaf, people with auditory processing disorder, people who have a Deaf coworker or a friend and want to learn ASL, and even many people who had zero knowledge of ASL and never took ASL classes that just started showing up and slowly learning sign language and being able to converse over the course of a few months.

We also encourage newbies to join — regardless of bouldering experience, their comfort level with their own DHH identity, or their signing skill.

I see that Climb ASL has teamed up with several local nonprofit organizations - can you tell a bit more about those community collaborations?

Keenan: Yes! We have one collaboration with MBP themselves, and one hopefully future collaboration with the American Alpine Club.

With MBP, we began a summer camp for DDBHH youth at Minneapolis Bouldering Project. It was a 6-class series on how to boulder, split into two ages groups: younger kids (5 to 12yrs) and high schoolers. We had about 30 students join in total. Each age group had a team of two ASL interpreters and the climbing instructors also leveraged several iPads for auto-captioning.

With the American Alpine Club, they approached us with interest to train Deaf/HoH climbers to rock climb and ice climb. Shelby and I did not have outdoor or ice climbing experience, and the AAC expressed interest in training us and our Climb ASL members. We worked with AAC to set up an outdoor rock climbing class at Taylor Falls at the end of October, with volunteer ASL interpreters and tablets/phones for auto-captioning. Several of the AAC instructors ended up being sick and we unfortunately had to reschedule, but we hope to continue partnering with them to develop rock climbing expertise within the DHH community.

How can new folks get involved with Climb ASL? Do they need to have experience in bouldering to join?

Keenan: The DDBHH community is historically marginalized from rock climbing, since many organizations are unwilling to help provide consistent accessibility. This includes the lack of willingness to provide interpreters or captioning for climbing classes, festivals, competitions, and events. As a result, we see that many DHH do not have any experience, and we also don’t expect people to be experienced!

Shelby: No experience is needed! We have had many new climbers come that have never climbed before. We show them how to fall safely and how to navigate the gym safely. Climbing is a dangerous sport so we start slow with the basics first and encourage new climbers to try the easier routes first until they feel comfortable falling and working with the wall. We also share climbing tips like keeping your arms extended to conserve energy and a lot of people think climbing involves just using your arms but really it's using your feet and legs too. I still can’t do a pull up or pull myself up well due to arm strength, but because I have a lot of muscle in my legs I can finish a lot of routes by using my legs.

What does the future for Climb ASL look like? What are the goals you’re hoping to see happen?

Shelby: In the future we want to set up accessible outdoor rock climbs. We have been working with an organization to help us get outdoors, but we face some barriers such as funding for interpreters when we have hearing guides. We also hope to set up climbs at other climbing gyms or events and give people experience with Bouldering (which does not use ropes), Top Rope Climbing (uses a rope), and competition climbing with either Bouldering or Top Rope. In the past we have also helped set up a Deaf and Hard of Hearing Youth Summer Camp and we would like to continue doing that and seeing that improve.

Keenan: My ultimate vision is to develop an ecosystem of rock climbing expertise within the DDBHH community with the hope of our members eventually being able to teach classes. Just imagine… people joining rock climbing classes led by an instructor from their own community, in a way that is fully accessible to them. That is why we put in so much effort to tackle the entire pipeline: getting DHH kids and teenagers into accessible climbing classes early on, encouraging kids and families to join our weekly meetups, providing training opportunities for adults, and providing priority registration for BIPOC and DeafBlind individuals and want to be able to help put newbies through training/classes and encourage them to grow their love and

In developing the pipeline, we recognize that we often need to train people from the very beginning. A pipeline means we recognize that we often need to train people from the very beginning in order to put them on a path to becoming future instructors. actively trying to encourage everyone

Please share any memorable moments or anecdotes that you remember from these meet-ups.

Shelby: For me I just love seeing people connect. There have been times when our group was climbing at the gym and a DHH person saw our group and got excited to connect with other DHH climbers. We have had kids and their families that are DHH see us signing and come chat with us. We also see other people around the gym that are learning ASL. I love seeing how many people can connect over using ASL and our love for climbing.

Contact Info

Website/Facebook: ClimbASL Facebook group page
Instagram: @ClimbASL
Phone: N/A

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