Colleen Geier has swum with the dolphins, and she’s gotten paid for it.
Geier is neither a dolphin trainer nor a marine biologist, but she is certified as an American Sign Language interpreter. One of the places she’s worked is on cruise ships, which means she gets to interpret and participate in any activity her Deaf client wants to try — including swimming with dolphins.
Geier, who is head of the ASL department at Goshen College, is a nationally certified interpreter. Before coming to Goshen in the summer of 2010, she worked full time in Chicago, where she interpreted in a wide range of venues, including medical appointments, concerts, college classes, plays and business meetings.
Geier had a friend who had been interpreting on cruise ships for many years and often asked her if she would be interested in interpreting a cruise with him. Initially she couldn’t fit it into her schedule, but in 2009, “I finally went on a cruise with him and loved it,” Geier said.
“Because of the Americans with Disabilities Act, anything that’s available to the general public has to be made accessible to people with disabilities,” she said. Therefore, when Deaf people make a cruise reservation, they can request an interpreter, and the cruise line finds and pays for one.
The first time Geier worked on a cruise, it was for a two-week international trip. “I had never been on a cruise ship; I was afraid I was going to get seasick, and I jumped into a two-week cruise, which was crazy,” Geier said. The cruise began in London and went to several ports in Europe, including one in Iceland, before ending in the U.S.
Geier said that the stop in Iceland was what “really hooked me” on cruise interpreting, “because how many people do you know that went to Iceland?” While there, the couple she was interpreting for went to the Blue Lagoon, one of Iceland’s most famous attractions. “We were there just to see it,” Geier said, “but I made sure I wore sandals that day so I could take my shoes off and say I walked in the Blue Lagoon.”
“I also got to interpret a cruise to Alaska, which for me was phenomenal,” she said. “I loved everything about Alaska. … Unfortunately, everyone always wants to go to the Caribbean, and I hate being hot. So I was complaining, ‘Oh, I have to go to the Caribbean again,’ and nobody had any sympathy for me.”
Geier’s cruise clients have included Deaf couples, Deaf people traveling with their hearing family and groups of 30 to 40 Deaf people vacationing together. Geier interprets for anything her Deaf clients need or want on the cruise ship, which could be if they want to see a show or go to a lecture, if they need to go to the doctor or if they generally have any questions they want to ask someone. “You never know,” Geier said. “Some people want you to interpret all the time, and some people are like, ‘Yeah, go away, I’m relaxing here; see you at dinner.’”
Geier also interprets for any on-shore excursions that her clients decide to take. “I have no idea what they’re going to choose,” she said. “I have done really boring ones, and I have gotten to swim with dolphins because that’s what my person chose.”
Geier emphasized that just because she is on a cruise doesn’t mean that all the activities she interprets are exciting, but one that stands out was the chance to go helmet diving.
“You wear this ginormous helmet that makes you look like this old astronaut, and it actually has a hose to the surface that’s pumping air in,” she said. “They only go down like 20 or 30 feet, but you can actually walk on the bottom of that part of the ocean. If (the guides) see any little animals, they bring them to you so you can touch them.” Even though she wasn’t required to go underwater because no one could talk verbally there anyway, she still had the opportunity to participate and ended up enjoying it.
“It was really cool,” Geier said. “I don’t think I would have even thought about trying it, but since my Deaf clients wanted to do it…”
Each time a Deaf person goes on a cruise, the cruise line pairs an experienced interpreter with an inexperienced one. “So almost all the cruises I’ve done I’ve been working with a novice, somebody that I have to teach about cruise interpreting for sure, and some of them are brand new interpreters too, which is challenging,” Geier said.
The experienced and novice interpreters share a room during the cruise even though they have never met before. “So I usually ask for the person’s email address, and I at least email them and have some conversations ahead of time so I feel a little bit like I know them,” she said. “Plus, if they’re new I can give them some advice about what they should remember to bring and what they need to do.”
When Geier, who has worked for Royal Caribbean and Celebrity Cruises, works on a cruise, she gets paid in cruise vouchers rather than in cash. “If I do a one-week cruise, I get a voucher worth a one-week cruise,” Geier said. “And I have saved them and done family vacations, which is fun.”
Some other cruise lines pay their interpreters a certain amount per day rather than providing them with vouchers. “Actually, Royal Caribbean is changing how they do it, so they may be getting rid of vouchers, which would make me very sad,” Geier said. “If you’re just earning money, I could take a week off of work and go interpret in Chicago and earn more money, so getting to enjoy the cruise even though you’re working and then getting the voucher is worth more for me.”
Geier estimates that she has interpreted around 12 cruises thus far, and has gone on two personal vacation cruises because of the vouchers she has earned. Last year, she and four family members and a friend went on an 11-night Hawaiian cruise using vouchers that Geier had saved up.
“I interpreted cruises for two or three Christmases in a row because I was trying to earn vouchers,” she said. “So I kept missing Christmas to be in a cruise ship in the Caribbean or some place with someone else’s family, but it was fun.”
Geier does not have any future cruises lined up at this point, but the first couple she interpreted for on the two-week European cruise recently asked if she would be available for a future cruise and put in a request with the cruise line. “So, we’ll see if they remember to request us and if the cruise line actually asks and if I can fit it into my schedule,” she said. “It’s a European one again, so I’d love to do it.”
“With interpreting, you know, there’s a lot of mundane, same old things that you interpret,” Geier said. “Like any job, it’s like ‘Yeah, here I am again,’ but there’s just so much variety and so many opportunities. Like who gets to go on a cruise with work?”