I’m a lightly seasoned traveller: I’ve swum with sharks in Mexico, walked the Great Wall of China, zoomed around mainland Japan on a Shinkansen, slept among giant spiders in the Australian rainforest, and I’m on a first name basis with western Europe. For those whose curiosity runs deep, the list of places I’ve presented myself can be found here.
Last month, I read an insightful post by Stacey of Deafinitely Wanderlust about the barriers she faces travelling as a Deaf person and wanted to share my perspective.
Why would I be interested in reading about what it’s like to travel as a deaf person if I’ve experienced it myself?
I don’t have that one-size-fits-all Deaf Experience: none of us do. What we deaf people do have in common other than our shitty or non-existent hearing is the burden of representation.
Oh, to be the first deaf person a hearing person has ever met… On a good day, I’m swoon-worthy. Mostly, I am diffident. There may have been occasions where I’ve ruined somebody’s impression of the Deaf community by exhibiting too much sass.
When I’ve transported my sass to several different countries, I’m usually there as a solo traveller. I avoid staying at resorts because I have this idea that these places attract some of the world’s biggest douchebags: the type of people who drink endless quantities of alcohol out of yard-long souvenir cups. For the same reason, fuck cruises: I’ll get traveller’s diarrhea the authentic way, thank you.
Still, I gotta sleep somewhere. I used to stay at youth hostels, but they seem to have been rebranded as simply “hostels”. The attractive thing about hostels is how nearly every one of them provide a space for their guests to mingle. The walls of these common rooms are often decorated with tips from the hostel staff, who are usually either locals or knowledgeable expats. It’s where I am able to get up-to-date tips from other travellers. It’s also where I get interrogated about my deafness the most.
My disability gives other travellers the chance to deviate from the standard questions: “Where are you from? What do you do for work? What places have you visited? Where are you headed next?” My deafness becomes the conversation centrepiece.
The number one comment I get from fellow travellers?
“Wow, it must be hard to travel as a deaf person!”
Is it… really? I mean, I’m a perpetual linguistic minority.
I think people overestimate the level of accessibility I receive in my hometown. For instance, if I were to take an unfamiliar bus in Vancouver, I wouldn’t be able to ask the driver verbally, “Does this bus stop at Pacific Central Station?” I’ve attempted communicating with them by typing on my phone, but none of the drivers have ever been accommodating.
I am already used to not having every single bit of information accessible to me at all times. I’m already accustomed to being surrounded by people speaking a language I do not understand. I am confident with using communication shortcuts, like pointing to a destination on a map when buying a train ticket at the counter. I’ve learned how to read people’s body language eg. if a full train all of suddenly empties at a particular station, I wouldn’t know what the fuck is going on, but I would know it’s my cue to exit.
The times I’ve travelled with a hearing companion, I’ve noted their tendency to overlook signs and instead rely on verbal information.
Hearing friend: “The lady told me the bus station is thataway.”
Me: “You mean as indicated by this large sign?” *points at sign*
I’ve definitely found myself in some messy situations while travelling, but in these instances, I don’t believe the ability to communicate verbally would have helped.
Although I am well adapted for foreign travel, being deaf has complicated navigating airports. Nowhere else could you find the biggest language diversity in one building; yet, airports seem to be employed mainly by people who cannot handle even the slightest communication barrier.
I’ve always made a point to inform the attendant at the gate of my needs the moment I arrive. I have always done my best to explain that I must be informed of announcements in writing because I have zero hearing and do not lipread. If I’m lucky, they’ll pretend to care and offer me earbuds when I’m seated on the plane.
I’ve read about deaf people being denied a seat on their flight because they were travelling without an attendant. I’ve never been offered a wheelchair, but I definitely believe my fellow able-bodied deaf travellers when they say this has happened to them.
The most traumatic experience I’ve had at an airport was when security gave me a surprise pat-down at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol. I gestured to the male agent that I was deaf, and he took this as an invitation to pat away without explanation. Fortunately, he missed the cocaine-laced revolver that I had tucked underneath my left armpit.
Aside from the air travel aspect, I feel like being deaf has given me an advantage when travelling. How about you?
1987: Netherlands, Germany, and Belgium. My first international destination (aside from the USA) was heavily supervised by two adults as I was only 3 and a half at the time. I have faint memories of Rotterdam, Den Haag, and Volendam but that’s about it.
1999: Switzerland (Davos), Germany (Frankfurt, Munich, Dachau), Italy (Pisa, Florence). This was a chaperoned school trip which meant I didn’t pay for it, nor did I have the responsibility of figuring out how to get around.
2008: France (Paris, Versailles, Lyon), Switzerland (the following cantons: Basel-Stadt, Zurich, Schwyz, Bern, Luzern, Zug, Solothurn, Grisons, Aargau, Ticino, Vaud, Geneva). This was my first self-funded solo overseas trip. In Switzerland, I connected with a Swiss friend I had met 9 years earlier who was amazing enough to drive me all over the country.
2010: Beijing, China with a side trip to Luanping County to see the Jinshanling Great Wall. This was the first trip that required immunizations, and a visa. I flew in and out of Beijing alone, but for a week I was accompanied by a friend who was already there.
2012: Netherlands (Amsterdam, Almere, Deventer, Den Haag, Utrecht, Maastricht, Otterlo, Leiden), Belgium (Antwerp, Ghent, Bruges, Brussels, Namur, Dinant). Another solo trip, but I also spent a few days with a friend who had moved to Almere.
2013: Australia (Sydney, Avalon, Brisbane, Cairns, Cape Tribulation, Airlie Beach, and the Whitsunday Islands). Solo trip, but for the Sydney portion, I stayed with a friend who lived in Avalon.
2014: Japan (Tokyo, Kyoto, Nikko, Nara, Naoshima, Mt. Koya, Magome, Matsumoto, Hotaka, Fujikawaguchiko, Kawasaki). I explored Tokyo and Kawasaki alone but travelled with a friend the rest of the time.
2016: Mexico (Playa del Carmen, Valladolid, Chetumal, Calakmul, Bacalar, Tulum, Akumal, Xpu’ha), Belize (San Ignacio/Cayo District, La Democracia, Caye Caulker). I stayed with a friend who had moved to Playa del Carmen, and spent the rest of the time travelling with a different friend. Valladolid was the only city I visited on my own.
2018: France and Spain. A 1000+km bicycle tour of the Pyrénées and the Costa Brava with my partner.
2019: Patagonia. (The Valdes Peninsula, Puerto Madryn, Trelew, Punta Tombo, El Calafate, Los Glaciares National Park, El Chalten). Travelled with a friend the entire time.
Canadian provinces: Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Nova Scotia. I’ve lived in: BC, Alberta, and Québec.