This REI Instructor Teaches Outdoor Classes in American Sign Language

Diedre Tanenberg grew up exploring the outdoors. The 33-year-old REI Outdoor School instructor was raised on the West Coast, where she acquired a passion for pushing herself outside, primarily through camping and whitewater rafting.

It therefore made perfect sense that one day Tanenberg would become an instructor for the REI Outdoor School. But there’s one thing that makes her classes unique: Tanenberg, who is deaf, teaches her courses in American Sign Language (ASL). After graduating from Sonoma State University in 2012 with a degree in environmental studies and outdoor leadership, Tanenberg landed a job at REI and worked her way up as a sales associate, eventually becoming the first Outdoor School instructor to teach classes in ASL.

While other Outdoor School classes are interpreted into ASL, Tanenberg is the only active instructor who is deaf and teaching in ASL—and thereby inspiring students who are deaf and hard-of-hearing to know that they can be outdoor adventurers like her. We caught up with Tanenberg to hear more about the courses she teaches and how she’s working to expand access to the outdoors.

Editor’s note: The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you first get interested in the outdoors?

I’ve always loved camping and whitewater rafting. My grandfather was actually a backpacker, a cross-country cyclist and a fisherman. I found out that before the REI Outdoor School was formed, he led some early classes for the store in Sacramento, California. He was also an avid composter, and I’m passionate about composting and waste management as well.

How did you get started working for REI?

I’ve been working for REI for five years. I started out as a sales specialist for the REI store in Santa Rosa, and then I transferred to the Corte Madera store where I was the sales lead in the camping department. Working in sales for REI was so fun—getting that hands-on experience with gear is so invaluable. You can’t get that kind of experience working anywhere else, and I knew I wanted to share it.

How did you make the jump from sales to teaching courses? 

I knew from day one that I wanted to teach classes in ASL. I happened to meet Steve Wood in an Outdoor School Map and Compass Navigation class and I immediately asked him how I could become an instructor and how we could make classes available for the deaf community. Steve was the one who suggested that I start out as a sales associate to get the experience and knowledge of REI’s products, and then apply for the Outdoor School. In 2016, I was finally hired as an instructor. I started out as a co-instructor for the Bay Area Hikes course, which was not offered in ASL.

Outdoor School Instructor Diedre Tanenberg at the San Francisco store. (Photo Credit: Shelby Carpenter)

Tanenberg at the San Francisco store. (Photo Credit: Shelby Carpenter)

My reviews were good from early on. To engage students, even though I wasn’t teaching classes in ASL, I would teach them sign language for things they might see along the trail—words like “bird” or “whale” or “butterfly”—and have them repeat those new signs to me at the end of the hike. Teaching those courses helped me figure out what was relevant and what wasn’t. It also gave me ideas for when I would eventually teach classes in ASL. For example, it can be hard to talk while you’re moving on the trail, so I found that I did a lot of instructing during breaks. I knew that the same problem with talking on the trail would happen when working with the deaf community, and that I might need to plan even more time for breaks to stop and check in and instruct my students.

What classes do you teach in ASL now?

So far, I’ve only done the Muir Beach Hike. My classes typically have anywhere from three to 15 people, depending on the time of year. During my classes, I teach about the Ten Essentials and the gear students need to have a safe adventure outside. I also teach some orienteering and how to use a map and compass. I give students activities, like identifying objects in their environment to help orient themselves toward home. I also like to teach ways that they can get involved in their local communities and volunteer—I think it’s really important to be a steward.

I have a class coming up at Angel Island and I’m really looking forward to that. We’ll ride a ferry over to the island together, and then have three to four hours to hike up Mount Livermore and then get back to the ferry. Eventually, I want to do full moon hikes and solstice hikes, and I’d especially like to lead an overnight backpacking class.

What are some things that are unique about teaching classes in ASL?

I think it can be really inspiring for students to see someone like me—who is deaf and a woman—leading in the outdoors. Some people might look at me and make assumptions that I’m not the outdoorsy type.

In 2016, I went with another instructor to host an REI booth at an expo for people who are members of the deaf and hard-of-hearing community in Pleasanton, California. People were so excited when they came up to the booth—I would share my stories and they would tell me about their own incredible outdoor adventures. One man I met had hiked the Pacific Crest Trail alone. Can you imagine being so out there and relying on all of your other senses since you can’t hear? People who are deaf already have to be hyperaware of their surroundings even when they’re not outdoors. Stories like this inspire me to think, “Yes! I could do that too.” It can be challenging for deaf adults to get the opportunity to get out there with full language accessibility, which is what makes me so passionate about my work at REI.

Do you think your work is challenging REI to approach things in a new way?

I’m changing the atmosphere of the Outdoor School by being more inclusive and showing that a deaf person can lead a class safely with another instructor who can hear. I think that accessibility is something that the outdoor industry needs to look at in general. It would be great if more gear and equipment was accessible to those who can’t hear. The Garmin inReach, for example, has been an amazing tool because it uses text-based emergency communications. It can connect to my phone so I can send text messages back and forth in case of emergency. I think having the inReach be accessible to those with auditory losses is a huge gain. I believe it will help rescuers know how to communicate with deaf people in the outdoors by having direct communication in this setting.

I would love to see REI take additional steps towards being more inclusive. I think any videos or social media should be captioned to be accessible to the deaf community, for example. I’ve seen REI make great strides in the past few years by captioning some training videos, but I’d like to see even more. I’d also like to see HQ create a tab on the page specifically for ASL classes.

How can people find out more about your programs?

Potential students can visit my Facebook page to find out about upcoming classes I’m leading and co-instructing.

Promoting accessibility for people who are deaf and hard of hearing is important to REI. As part of the reasonable accommodations that REI makes to remove workplace barriers for its employees, training videos are offered in closed captioning whenever that capability is permitted. REI also plans to build future training modules through a combination of e-learning and embedded video, both of which should offer captioning.