Meet a DeafBlind traveler who feels the world solo and with a Support Service Provider.

Slowly, people are learning that people with disabilities do travel too but there is still not enough awareness. Some people still believe that traveling may be too difficult for Disabled people, especially when more than one important senses are affected or “impaired,”* like Tony Giles, who is a well-known DeafBlind traveler and visited all seven continents.

*I’m including the quote for ‘impaired’ because not everyone, within the community, agrees with the word ‘impaired.’ Just so you know, this using “Hearing Impaired” is generally considered to be offensive to culturally Deaf community. Opinions vary among the Deaf communities about using the term, “disabled.”* 

But not every DeafBlind traveler share the same experiences as Tony, because each has their own experiences. Unlike Tony Giles, a DeafBlind male (whom I met last summer) communicate through Protactile. In the last few years, the DeafBlind community has been spreading awareness and to say “hey, we exist too!” within the Deaf communities. 

For Through Their Eyes series, this blog post will be focused on Kevin’s journey as a DeafBlind traveler. In this case, it’s should be called through his touch, not “through his eyes.” Within Kevin’s permission, and his friend, Lia Chapman, I’ve translated the interview from ProTactile (PT) & American Sign Language (ASL) to written English for this series. So, who’s Kevin? 

deaf and blind traveler
ID: Kevin is standing in the middle of the bright blue and clear shore
deaf and blind travel
ID: Kevin is sitting down next to a brown-skinned asian 80s or 90s year old female

Kevin Southworth is a DeafBlind White American in his 40s who travel the world through touch. A backpacker, who knows ASL and ProTactile, has fallen in love with Asia. With his blog, Feel the World, he aims to change people’s perceptions about DeafBlind travel, encourage the DeafBlind community to travel, and to educate local Deaf people about the DeafBlind community. He sometimes travels with his friend, Lia, who is also his Support Service Provider (SSP).

Where has he traveled?

The United States and Canada.

Mexico.

Bahamas & Puerto Rico.

Denmark, Finland, Norway, Lithuania, Switzerland, London (England), Austria. and Germany.

Japan, China, South Korea, Hong Kong, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Maldives, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Philippines.    

Australia.

deaf blind travel
id: Kevin is smiling at the camera with his sunglasses on and is holding his cane. A waterfall with blueish pond is shown behind him.

Before you learn about Kevin’s journey with Lia, you need to know a few certain things first.

ProTactile (PT) is “based on touch. Sign language is communicated through touching, including visuals, feelings, and facial expressions. All of those are communicated through touching” (Roberto Cabrera, a well-known DeafBlind advocate). 

What’s the difference between PT and ASL? 

“ASL is more visual. Sighted people can use it. Utilizing their space and facial expressions. ProTactile, on the other hand, is based on touch.” -Roberto Cabrera

*note: some DeafBlinds may still use these terms: tactile sign language, tactile ASL, or ProTactile ASL (PTASL). However, some DeafBlind advocates say it’s not PTASL, it’s ProTactile. Please check in with them for updated information. 

A Support Service Provider (SSP) or a CoNavigator means: 

Lia: Support Service Provider is like a guide. A SSP can accompany a DeafBlind person around to ensure their safety.

Kevin: and SSP also interprets for DeafBlind. They’d look at the surrounding and interpret it through ProTactile. This helps a DeafBlind to visualized and understand what they’re seeing. Some DeafBlind person has a low vision, and what they’re seeing is blurry to them. This is where the SSP interprets it. Some DeafBlind are fully blind, then the SSP would need to interpret the details, such as the mountain, the beautiful river, etc. – a very detailed interpretation. Then they can visualize it.

Lia: They want to feel and touch what’s the world is like. They’ll touch and feel an object to understand what it is. I’d interpret and explains the object that he’s touching. SSP also includes ProTactile (PT) cues. I’d sign the PT cues on his shoulder that has its meanings: “yes,” “no,” “laughing,” and more. This is to tell him if I’m nodding, shaking my head, or if I’m laughing. He’d also hold one of my hands while signing so he’d know what I’m saying is I’m talking to him or someone else. 

Kevin: When talking to another person, PT cues help. It will tell me what are their reactions, since a DeafBlind person may not able to see the person’s reactions (nodding, shaking head, etc.)

Hi!

Hi! I’m Kevin! I’m a DeafBlind world traveler. I’ve traveled with a SSP and traveled solo. My travel blog, Feel the World, is about my experiences while exploring the world through touching and feeling as a DeafBlind person.

his friend: Hi, I’m Lia! I’m a Deaf world traveler. I’m Kevin’s friend and his SSP.

Kevin: We’ve traveled to many countries together and Asia is where I’ve have fallen in love. However, many countries are behind on technology and everything (relating to DeafBlind & Blind devices), especially Asia. There are no services for the DeafBlind community in their own country, so this means I need to be with a SSP first before traveling solo. The SSP would be traveling with me, so I can learn the environment and meet different Deaf people.

deaf blind backpacker
Kevin is smiling at the camera with a black shirt, hat and sunglasses. Lia, a female with black glasses, is sitting next to him, who is smiling at the camera.

In case if DeafBlinds are reading this, what are your experiences with communication and your communication methods?

When I was meeting with (Deaf) people, they didn’t know how to communicate with me because they feel intimidated because I cannot see and wasn’t sure how to do it. So, I’d teach them how to communicate through using ProTactile (PT). They’re unfamiliar to PT and feel awkward with touching. Their awkwardness didn’t stop me; I’ve become more assertive to have them to become comfortable and used to PT but it did take some time. I taught them about DeafBlind culture and train them to become a personal local SSP guide until they’re ready.

After that, I can then go traveling solo to these countries. I’d meet the same Deaf people that I’ve trained and already know how to interact with DeafBlind people. I went to Asia for 10 weeks as a solo traveler. Traveling these countries was amazing and a big accomplishment of mine.

When interacting with Hearing people, most of the time I actually use my phone to have a typed communication. But that is only if that person knows English. Otherwise, if that person does not know, then I cannot communicate with them. But I also sometimes can use gestures, like for example: if I see something that I want on a paper, I just pointed at it on the paper to show it to them. Then the Hearing person would say something and use their fingers to point at different directions. I couldn’t see what they’re saying, so I’d show them my cane to show them that I’m Blind. They’d understand and then grab my arm to take me to the direction to where I wanted to go but sometimes I am with my friends. My friends can assist me in communicating with Hearing people most of the time. However, with Deaf people, I can communicate with them by myself.

deafblind travel with assistance
id: Kevin and Lia are smiling at the camera. Behind them is the Neuschwanstein Castle (in Germany).

What are some of the challenges that you and Lia have both faced with?

Kevin: One of the biggest challenges was in Asia. The challenge is communicating Deaf people there because they have their sign languages in different countries. There was the difficulty of communicating, so I had to learn their sign language to work on communicating. 

Lia: Yeah! I’d try my best to understand their language (example: Thai Sign Language) while engaging with them. Once I understand what they were trying to say, I interpret it to Kevin. When Kevin answered back himself through ASL, then that local Deaf person doesn’t understand what Kevin was saying. I have to explain to Kevin what was happening (that local Deaf person doesn’t understand) then I’d tell Kevin to wait. I then have to translate from ASL to gestures to explain what Kevin was saying. 

Personally, what’s challenging for me is when I had to fight to break DeafBlind’s barriers. For example. There was a time when Kevin and I swam with the dolphins. When we arrived, the dolphin trainer noticed something different about Kevin. The trainer was stunned, like petrified. I could see it on the trainer’s face that he wasn’t sure about Kevin. So, I then told him, “Well, he’s DeafBlind.” Then the trainer said, “no, no, no.” The trainer said he can’t do it. He kept saying “can’t” repeatedly and it made me feel upset. I told Kevin what was going on and then Kevin became mad. He was pissed off about it and I told him, “let me take care of it.” The trainer and I were arguing for a while and finally solved the problem. I asked the trainer “how much time?” (for the dolphin to start swimming). The trainer said 5 seconds. I told the trainer that he can count. It’s simple as that. it’s not that hard, right? So, I asked Kevin “so, can you count?” Kevin puzzledly said, “of course!” So, I explained everything to him and he understood everything once Kevin went to see the dolphins, I was really nervous, and the trainer was really nervous too. Then Kevin was spending his time with the dolphins his experience of swimming with the dolphins was successful! It went perfect. We proved the trainers wrong that he can do it. 

traveling with disability
id: Kevin and Lia is posing and smiling at the camera with a local Deaf Filipino. All are wearing souvenir t-shirt of the Philippines flag

What are your goals every time you travel?

Kevin: My goal is to change their perceptions of DeafBlind people. For example, when I was in the Philippines, Deaf people usually feel awkward with me. I continued to be assertive and show that I can socialize with them and go out with them too. They gradually became comfortable with me. I tried to show them that they can hang out with DeafBlind people, like me. I encouraged them to find their local DeafBlind community and to hang out with them too. Because every time I visit different countries, I don’t see any DeafBlind people there. I wondered, where are they?? Deaf people tell me that DeafBlind isolate. and that’s not okay. It’s challenging to meet the DeafBlind community while traveling.

So, I tried to teach Deaf people about SSP and DeafBlind education, so they can understand us better. I’ve taught over 3,000 Deaf people; I just hope that they continue to show interest in their DeafBlind community. I want to continue to provide DeafBlind Education and train new local SSP so they can support their local DeafBlind community and DeafBlind visitors.

traveling while blind
id: Lia and Kevin are smiling at each other while zip lining in the mountains
deaf culture
id: a selfie of Kevin, Lia and with a local Deaf group at Starbucks

What's the benefit as a DeafBlind traveler?

Kevin: That’s a good question….well, touch and feel. There are certain situations where Deaf people and Hearing people cannot touch. They’re unable to touch certain things because they can SEE. That’s their privilege, but what about me? I cannot see it. So, they’ll allow me to touch things because that’s only fair. For example, when I went swimming with dolphins. The trainer was explaining the dolphin’s body, its eyes, ears, and everything else while showing the dolphins. And the crowd can see it all, but for me, it was hard to see. So, the trainer realized that and told me to come closer and grabbed my hand so I can touch the dolphins. I learned the dolphins’ body through touching and it was amazing. Through touching, I can visualize it and share the same experiences with others. To touch and feel is my benefit.

What you need to know about traveling with a SSP:

Kevin: it’s important to find someone with a similar personality with similar interests. That’s really important, because if there are conflicts between you, then you’d have a lot of problems with SSP while traveling – you wouldn’t want that. For example, A DeafBlind person loves to go out hiking, and that person wants to hike more in Asia, which means you have to find a SSP who loves hiking too. 

Fortunately, Lia and I have a lot in common. Lia loves doing anything. It has never been a problem with her. She also enjoys doing many different activities and meeting different people. So, she’s a perfect match. It’s amazing. 

Lia: He actually first tested with me before traveling the world which was in Hawaii for two weeks. I gave it a try which resulted in him continue traveling the world. 

Kevin: Yeah, I decided to go to Hawaii for two weeks, and I asked her if she could be my SSP. She didn’t know what SSP means, so I explained to her and she went for it. During our visit to Hawaii, I was impressed with Lia. She could do anything that I also would like to do too. Although her SSP skills were good, she still had to improve in interpreting skills which she gradually improved! I was very sacrificed with my experiences in Hawaii because of Lia. 

Thus, we traveled to Asia which won my heart. Asia won my heart because of Lia who guided me around and provided visual interpretation. It was amazing. 

traveling while deaf and blind
id: Kevin and Lia are wearing Traditional Bavarian Clothes and holding a pint glass of beer at Oktoberfest. Both are smiling at the camera.

Your messages for DeafBlind people who want to travel:

Kevin: I really encourage DeafBlind people to travel the world with their SSP. I can see that many DeafBlind are really scared. They refused to go because they think it’s not safe or whatever reasons there are. But I’d tell them to do not to listen and depends on what the news is saying. 

I suggest you find an SSP who is familiar with traveling around the world. Someone who connects with you and go with you. this way, a DeafBlind can break their fears. and become familiar with traveling. and then you’d fall in love with traveling. that’s the best way. I met about 6 DeafBlind who finally traveled to Asia. I’ve encouraged DeafBlind that they are capable to travel too. But if it’s their first time, then I’d advise going with a SSP. They did go to Asia and fell in love. They did meet some local Deaf people who I previously interacted with and trained.

Lia: I hope that you can travel like us! See you later. 

Kevin: Touch you later.

Thank you, Kevin & Lia, for sharing your stories!

Within our Deaf communities, Deaf travelers are gradually getting recognized and gaining awareness. There is a sense of connection where we can share the perks and challenges of traveling as a Deaf person. However, some of our experiences cannot be relatable for the DeafBlind travelers or DeafBlinds who want to travel, because we have the privilege to see. I am, what they called, DeafSighted. 

Just like I cannot really relate in many ways with Hearing travelers who have the privilege to hear. According to few DeafBlind travelers I’ve spoken with thus far, some DeafBlind are fearful to travel and have no idea how would they able to navigate if they were to travel. This is where DeafBlind travelers come in. This is WHY it is SO important to have diversity in the travel community

Resources to learn more about DeafBlind community

traveling with disability
id: Kevin is walking with his left hand on Lia's shoulder

The USA’s well-know DeafBlind advocates & leaders are:

Jasper Norman (co-founder of ProTactile Theatre)

Yashaira “Yash” Romilus (Co-founder of ProTactile Theatre)

Jason Corning (DeafBlind entrepreneur, advocate and CEO of Three Monkeys Communication)

Sarah Morrison (a DeafBlind consultant at ProTactile Connects)

Roberto Cabrera (a DeafBlind advocate / Educator)

and more!

DeafBlind Autonomy

*DeafBlind community & allies can join

DeafBlind Thoughts

*DeafBlind community ONLY can join.

If you are DeafBlind traveler, please leave a comment on this blog! We’d love to know more DeafBlind travelers!!

traveling while deaf and blind
deafblind travel

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