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Travel Story by Ian Reynolds

  Travel with a difference

Why do deaf people travel? For the same reason as everybody else – a taste for exploration and adventure as well as a desire to experience new and different cultures.

There are some differences between deaf and hearing travellers, which may not be apparent. The obvious ones are the ability to hear and how we communicate. But these are negated to some extent when travelling to countries where English is not the mother tongue. Other differences that may not be perceptible are the powers of observation and an ability to overcome obstacles that may arise.

Deaf people are as culturally diverse as their hearing contemporaries. With regard to communication some rely on speech alone, some on sign language, and others a mixture of both.

Deaf people face many barriers in society and will have faced discrimination at various stages throughout their lives. Many develop an inbuilt coping mechanism enabling them to handle any setbacks, which are part and parcel of everyday life. So when facing problems overseas this mechanism comes into play and what may seem like a crisis to the typical traveller will not be much different to a deaf traveller who will have faced similar scenarios at home.

The nature of travelling is such that deaf travellers are seen as equals and they may often find people abroad far more helpful than at home! This may seem bizarre but the language barrier in foreign countries puts all travellers including those who are deaf on a level playing field. Deaf people can be better equipped to deal with communication difficulties because it will be second nature to them. By the use of notebooks, sign language and/or gestures a deaf person will be able to convey their message in a visual manner and strike up a conversation. For many hearing people this is an alien concept and will go against their natural instincts, as they are reliant on speech and sound.

Written conversations act as an ice-breaker and are often a source of amusement. Questions from Russians such as, “It’s your happy bornthday (birthday) tomorrow?” and, “What does your tarzan (tartan-Scottish) look like?” are always good for anecdotes at parties.

Humour plays an important part in communication as misunderstandings do occur. In Mongolia Helga’s driver cum guide said that he had to pull over to visit the “ovoo” by the roadside. Thinking it must be the Mongolian term for loo, Helga averted her eyes and respectfully looked the other way. After getting her attention the driver indicated that Helga should also pay a visit but she declined. He persisted and eventually she realised that the “ovoo”(1) was an object of cultural significance. When Helga explained her original interpretation this resulted in much laughter.

Hearing people may talk about the sounds and smells of a bustling market or bazaar whereas for the deaf person it is all about the sights and smells. It is the visual images that stick in the mind for deaf travellers and they will notice things that the typical traveller will often miss due to their observation skills.

Many deaf people attend boarding schools for the deaf and the composition of these schools are such that it is not unusual to find pupils from all over the UK and Eire. Many of these pupils will have travelled to school either by air or train so become accustomed to the vagaries of travel from a young age.

In addition, lifelong friendships are established at school and maintaining contact often means travelling great distances. The social activities of the Deaf community see events being held in different parts of the UK. Many will not think twice about taking a long distance train journey or a flight to attend them. For example, many converge on Wolverhampton every June, either to take part in the open 5-a-side football tournament or to socialise with others during and after the event.

Having spent their formative years at boarding school deaf people will have achieved independence enabling them to adapt effectively to different situations.

Different sign languages, like spoken languages, use their own grammar and syntax. A few examples are British Sign Language (BSL), American Sign Language (ASL) and Japanese Sign Language (JSL). In much the same way as the spoken word in English is different to its equivalent in Japan the same is true of the signs in their respective sign languages. However, deaf people from different countries who can sign find it easier to start a conversation than their hearing counterparts. For example, when on vacation in Greece Ian had a 2-hour conversation with a young man from Syria who did not speak one word of English and vice versa. Sign language was their mode of communication and the use of hands, facial expressions and body language conveyed more than words ever could. Would this have been possible between two hearing people in a similar situation?

There are many international Deaf events. Examples include the Deaflympics held in Melbourne, Australia in 2005, and the World Congress of the WFD (World Federation of the Deaf) held in Madrid, Spain in 2007. There are numerous other events linked with sport or arts and culture. These occasions enable deaf people to interact with others from all over the world and there are no barriers to communication. Although they may not speak or sign the same language they are able to communicate via the visual medium of sign language.

Mixing with local deaf people overseas has its advantages. Communication is easier and it provides an opportunity to learn more about their country and culture. This was illustrated when Helga visited the Che Memorial in Santa Clara, Cuba, where all the tourist information is in Spanish. Two local deaf people acted as guides giving Helga full access above that of hearing tourists with no knowledge of the language. Ian was spoilt for choice in Hué, Vietnam when two Deaf-run restaurants adjacent to each other vied for his attention and custom. Being the only deaf customer in a Deaf-run establishment had its perks as Ian was given the lowdown on Hué as well as the loan of the family bicycle!

Deaf people will find ways to make it easier for them to access information. In Tibet and Mongolia Helga hired a driver/guide with good written skills in English in preference to a group tour. But sometimes these are necessary to visit certain places such as the Galapagos Islands. Selecting a smaller sailboat, which accommodated 12 people allowed Ian to escape the larger groups on the bigger cruise ships.

On the Trans-Siberian Express fellow passengers were concerned for Helga’s safety because she had her own compartment and would not be able to hear people enter at night. They needn’t have worried because Helga lodged her feet against the door while asleep and would be alerted immediately if someone opened it. This also acted as a deterrent to the amorous advances of any Russians!

Being deaf is no barrier to travel as you are often treated as an equal and the inability to hear is not an issue. In a nutshell, foreign travel may not hold the same fears for a deaf person due to their experiences at home.

(1): An ovoo is a pyramid shaped collection of stones, wood and other offerings placed on top of a hill or mountain part as a shamanistic offering to the gods. It is customary to walk around it three times in a clockwise direction to ensure good luck for your journey.

Date Submitted:
18 Dec 2008

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