Most often, the work of the department is defined in terms of our role with K-12 public schools and Florida Colleges. But FDOE also manages programs that assist individuals who are blind, visually-impaired or disabled to succeed either in school settings or careers – encouraging independence and self-sufficiency.
The Department of Education’s Division of Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) helps people with disabilities get or keep a job. VR counselors work with people who have physical or mental disabilities who want to work, but have certain barriers in their way.
In recognition of Deaf History Month, observed from March 13 to April 15, the story below explains how VR helped a Florida citizen, who is deaf, leverage his experience overcoming his own disability into a successful business venture helping others live life to its fullest.
Thomas Koch grew up in Houston, Texas, and with most of his family members working for NASA at the Johnson Space Center, he dreamed of following in their footsteps and traveling into space. That is, until he took a trip to the Sonny Carter Training Facility and watched the divers training the astronauts underwater. Then and there, his career goal changed to become an Open Water Scuba Instructor. And not just an ordinary scuba instructor – Thomas dreamed of teaching other people who are deaf how to scuba dive.
Yes, Thomas is deaf, and when he was taking his early scuba lessons, he communicated with paper and pen (actually a slate). He knew that it would be much easier and less stressful to have someone who uses American Sign Language (ASL) communicate with the student divers who are deaf.
Twenty years later and with a little help from Vocational Rehabilitation (VR), he got his wish. Thomas never lost sight of his dream and is now the owner of Aqua Hands, a diving school that offers instructors who are fluent in ASL to train students who are deaf.
Thomas first came to VR in 2010 where he met VR Counselor Lori Fuller. VR provided interpreting services so he could complete his course work to become an Open Water Scuba Instructor. Lori explains that in the early days, it was a real challenge to find an interpreter who was also a scuba diver to work with Thomas.
“The interpreter has to be in the water with him to interpret for him, so it was hard to find someone who could do both.”
When his training was completed, he started Aqua Hands, based at Rainbow Reef Dive Center in Key Largo. He then began touring the country, teaching scuba classes to people who are deaf, as well as those who are not. After five years of teaching, Thomas has acquired enough teaching hours to reach the Master Scuba Diver Trainer Instructor level.
Thomas recently needed some additional help from VR, so he came back for more services. This time, VR set him up with Video Relay Interpreter technology. This is a TV screen that Thomas uses to call a live interpreter. It’s similar to Skype, in that the interpreter can be somewhere else, but Thomas can see him/her on the TV screen, read the interpreting and then sign back. This is helpful with teaching his students who can hear or who don’t know ASL.
Thomas’ business continues to grow and flourish. After five years, he now has nine independent contractors who work with him to teach scuba diving, CPR and first aid. He credits VR and Lori for their help in getting him started in his dream job and keeping it going.
“Lori has been a wonderful person to work with,” he said. “She has a big heart to make sure people get what they need in order to succeed. She wanted to see a successful deaf business and show the community that this is something we can do. It’s really great that she’s been able to help me achieve it.”
Thomas enjoys what he does and shares, “The reason I do this is because I like to travel all over America; but for me, the main thing was being able to set up my business so I can provide this for people who are deaf because some scuba instructors are not willing to teach them. More and more people who use ASL are taking the classes, and soon, we will be training instructors who are deaf.”
Lori feels confident that Thomas can make this happen.
“All I can say is Thomas is a go-getter, not afraid of new challenges. He makes things work no matter what, thinks outside the box, and his motivation is truly astonishing.”