The visibility of Deaf travelers (or traveling with a hearing loss) is slowly growing on Facebook and Instagram, from a few hundred to thousands Instagram post on #Deaftravel hashtag or having a list of more than 5 Facebook groups. The media has given us access but to the media, we are nothing more than just inspiration porn. Although the representation of Deaf people or people with hearing loss is slowly being recognized in the mainstream media in the USA and many other countries around the world, we are still often poorly portrayed. It further perpetuates the stigma and stereotypes that impact on Deaf travelers or any travelers with disability.
Due to the stigma about deafness or hearing loss, it creates biases about Deaf travelers. Hearing people often wonder how would we communicate while traveling or ensure we’d be safe while traveling, and it’s the only humane thing to wonder about it. Hearing people* is the term that we use when referring those who can hear at the medical norm; basically, someone who is not DDBDDHHLD or have a hearing loss. Sometimes curiosity or bias caused Hearing people to make ableist or audistic language that is just not respectful. Even if when Hearing people don’t intend them to be offensive, it can do more harm than good. There 6 are things not to say to Deaf travelers (anyone who is traveling with a hearing loss) that can annoying or rude to them:
Telling Deaf people that they “have to” wear hearing aids or cochlear implants
We, Deaf people, shouldn’t be told by Hearing people that we “should be” wearing hearing aids or cochlear implants while traveling. It’s our rights whether we want to or not. Just like no one should tell a person what religion they should be following or telling a Disabled person whether they should use a cane, wheelchair, etc.
Some Hearing people argued it’s for safety reason but it’s often not the only reason. Here is another reason that we are often not really being told up front: it is for the sake of conveniency…which is usually for Hearing people. We often find ourselves in situations where it is expected of us to accommodate Hearing people instead of having them to accommodate for us (i.e. “you can read my lips, right?” “do you have someone [normal] with you?”). Repeating sentences, having written/typed communication or hiring an interpreter is sometimes out of questions for them. We already know the fears and concerns that Hearing people have for us, but many fail to realize that we are the expert of navigating our worlds than Hearing people. We do not owe it to anyone. It’s a personal choice. Sometimes there isn’t even a choice where many Hearing people think it lands on our laps easily but it’s not that simple: some of us are not capable to use hearing aids or cochlear implants. Secondly, hearing aids & cochlear implants both come with a large price tag. It’s not financially accessible for everyone. It’s ridiculously expensive that each pair of digital hearing aid cost$1500 – $3500 (and several health insurances do not cover hearing aids) or $30,000 to $50,000 for cochlear implants (if without insurance coverage).
There are diverse Deaf travelers that traveled with their hearing aids or cochlear implants. And there are also many that does not, and I am one of them (although I have traveled with it before). I survived 13 months of traveling in Asia without my hearing aids. I drove motorbikes and rented a car. I communicated with people by using my body languages and having written/typed communication. And here I am again, safe and sound. Surprised? I didn’t “have to” wear hearing aids. Personally, I just cannot imagine walking through the chaos with all the different noises going on. People talking, all voices are overlapping, the clanging of the metals, the honking, kids’ screaming, a machine’s running, music blasting somewhere near the corner – it’s all just so overwhelming. Fighting against the noise and trying to understand what a person is saying to me on the street is just so damn exhausting. That person’s voice is drowned out by all the noises anyways. I still even find myself struggling and fighting myself when a person is speaking English to me in a quiet area. It often gives me nothing but anxiety and headaches.
Without those noises or the people’s notion that I can hear “normally” once they see my hearing aids, I find it more relaxing without it. I have my hands that I can use to use gestures and socialize with others with a written/typed communication method. As a privileged person who can see (known as Sighted Deaf person), I can also use my eyes to explore the scenes, read people’s body languages, and I can see when I’m driving or motorcycling around in Costa Rica, Vietnam, China, etc. (I’m not implying that DeafBlind people cannot travel – because they most certainly can. Read here and here). I survived through the so-called false belief that I would not able to make it through without my hearing aids.
Only mentioning how frustrating and hard it must be for us to travel
“Wow, that must be so, so frustrating and hard to travel…” followed with a pitying look.
It can be awkward. If we try to dispute their presumption, sometimes their eyes still say, “how sad it is that you cannot hear.” Instead of believing that your presumptions are the sole evidence once you find out that we’re different, ask us questions. We understand if a Hearing person is trying to be nice or making a conversation but we aren’t seeking for sympathy (although some don’t mind it but please don’t enable it). We have memories to look back at our embarrassing or crazy moments, like where I bumped into two funny drunk men at the beach who rambled on about how amazing sands are. We become in awe with many different attractions, and our heart drops exhilarating activities (i.e. paragliding), or even falling in love with someone on the road. We do experience the joy, excitement, and growth while traveling, just like Hearing people.
We have a fair share of challenges but it’s not always so hard for us. Abled people have their own perception of what deemed hard for them that may not necessarily be hard for us. Aren’t we, human beings, quite amazing with adaption? We enhance greater skills in many senses: our eyes, nose, and touch (especially for the DeafBlind community). In comparison to Hearing people, many of us even have greater problem-solving skills when it comes to communication and language barrier. Watch Nyle DiMarco’s story on TedTalk – a perfect example. We also do experience joy and excitement while traveling. And the thing is, being Deaf isn’t what makes it hard for us. It’s the lack of accessibility and how the world perceives us.
Telling us that it is best for us to travel with someone who is “more normal.”
“I don’t think my son can travel without somebody normal,” a mother said to me in the front of her adult son, who smiled awkwardly as he scratched the back of his neck uncomfortably.
I could never, ever, fathom why a Hearing (or Abled) person would dare to say “normal person” in the front of us. Whether we like it or not, there’s no denying that we are viewed differently but saying “normal people” to us is like a slap to our face. Once people notice there is something different about us, we are suddenly not human beings anymore? And why is it that we people with disabilities are often seen like we’re helpless children?
It’s dehumanizing to say that to anyone with disabilities as if it’s our fault somehow for being Deaf or having other disabilities. This isn’t only the belief from some Hearing people because unfortunately, this is also the case for some Deaf people within our communities (DDBDDHHLD). It’s not uncommon to see much internalizing oppression. Several Deaf people were raised with a CAN’T list waving in their face constantly which often led them to internalized these beliefs. It affects them on different levels, including the fear to travel without someone who’s Hearing.
There’s nothing wrong with those who want to travel with Hearing people because it’s their own life, and it is what makes them feel comfortable. The problem is the stigma and misconceptions about our Deaf communities. Many Hearing people failed to notice the strengths (even blindly chose to) that we have and only look at what we don’t have: hearing. We are greatly underestimated, and we prove them endlessly how much capabilities we have.
“But why?” | Judging us for not wanting to spend time with you
I got some invitations by some Hearing hostel roommates to go out for group dinner or a noisy social event with them, and sometimes I’d decline. Although they mean no harm, they began urging me to join along with them. Sometimes I obliged to their pleas. When I still stand by what I said, then I can see the disappointed looks, judgments too. Why not? One confusedly asked me. I may seem pretty rude or aloof but that’s not the truth.
I love making new friends, but I have boundaries that need to be respected. I do have certain exceptions that I personally wouldn’t really try too hard to spend time with. Joining a group of people for dinner is a lot of work. Everyone’s voice is overlapping, and I cannot catch what they’re saying. Jumping to different lips from one to another, and I missed another person’s lips who was making a joke. Lipreading is not as effective as people believed. The group then begin to laugh. Wait – what they were laughing about? Either I’d fake myself a laugh (hahaha…ha) or I’ll ask someone what happen. It didn’t matter what language they’re speaking in – yes, even in English. Often time, I’d get a “never mind,” “I’ll tell you later” or a superficial explanation. Unsurprisingly, I’m just left out. That’s nothing new. Getting backhanded compliments or engaging with narrow-minded people who don’t want to believe that I’m Deaf, these add other reasons why I sometimes decline. And I’m not the only one who feels this way. Moments like this are commonly shared throughout the whole Deaf communities.
“But you are not really Deaf…”| Determining our identity for us.
I mean, it’s just unrealistic to expect to avoid this because this happens anywhere. But sometimes I’m just so damn tired of it though because of their insensitive attitudes toward me or toward the Deaf communities if they’re not willing to listen.
If a Deaf person, who speaks and use cochlear implants, told a Hearing person that she’s Deaf, Hearing people usually become skeptical. Some people couldn’t fathom this: how is it in the world can she be Deaf? She speaks and now cured with the cochlear implants? “Deaf? Really? But you can hear and you talk so well. So you’re not Deaf.” Despite her explaining and trying to educate them, they still insisted and dismissed her identity. Or another popular example is trying to explain why calling us “mute” is offensive. And then, “yeah, but you are not using your mouth. Still mute.” Um, did you not just listen to what I said?
First of all, cochlear implants are NOT a cure; they’re merely a tool. Second of all, speaking and hearing are two different skills. It’s ableist and audistic (not autistic). It’s damn exhausting. It’s demeaning when people act as if they’re in control of the person’s journey, especially someone’s identity, and don’t even try to listen to our stories with an open mind – this applies to a lot of people with disabilities. There are a lot more than just the cover of the book. We know our own journey. An Abled person should not decide how our stories should be. How we should be.
Calling us brave and being such an inspiration
Anyone who deems different than Abled people, we were often told how we inspired them or get compliments. Even the “compliments” that Abled people think it is okay to say, “If I’m Deaf, I don’t know what I’d do with my life” or giving me facial expressions where we may read their thoughts: wow, I’m really lucky. I should be grateful that I can hear.
I sometimes get these comments. I used to have these weird feeling when they try to make it as compliments. Compliments are nice but these just felt didn’t sit with me: they’re making compliments or comments because I’m Deaf. I’m inspirational because I’m different? I mean, I’m just simply existing and doing what Abled people can do. There are some difficulties that I face and will always need to overcome certain challenges (there is no ending to it) because of this world I live in. I’m only living a little differently where I need certain accommodations. That’s it.
I later learned that getting these “compliments” and being an inspiration for others isn’t right at all. It’s patronizing. Being Deaf and having the ability to travel (or to graduate with my Masters, to able is financially responsible even) was shocking to them. By being pretty “exceptional,” I reminded them how lucky they are and to motivate them to appreciate their lives more. Inspiration porn is harmful because it perpetuates us from being normalized. Inspiration porn also causes Abled people to think it is okay to objectify us and every other people with disabilities. This perception only continues to enable the society believing that having a disability is really a bad and shameful thing.
Now, let’s breathe. I’m not trying to scare you off here. These are just the things that we often encounter while traveling. And if you’re wondering, there are couple more things that considered annoying or offensive, you can read [what questions it is okay for you to ask and learn why the term], learn why the term, [“hearing impaired,” is controversial within for many people in the culturally Deaf community], and check out my Instagram highlights called, Deaf communities. There are also videos and articles that you can learn more from here, here, and here. With your willingness to become more inclusive and sensitive with your use of language, these suggestions can help you recognize your bias and how to treat us like human beings.