Touring While Deaf

I am writing this 30,000 feet in the air, not long after a flight attendant came by and asked me what I wanted for lunch and immediately began fingerspelling C-H-I-C-K-E-N or P-A-S-T-A. I was so pleasantly surprised at her signing that I looked up and said, Wow! Good job! We both had a laugh over that one.

You see, encountering sign from hearing strangers while on travel is something I have not come to expect, so it is always a pleasant surprise. Today, for whatever reason, my transatlantic flight ticket got marked as “DEAF” under the section “further details/comments,” so the attendants from check-in counter to gate to plane have been extra attentive to me. Sometimes I’m not sure how I feel about their solicitousness, such as when they ask me if I need special assistance to find my gate or the bathroom, but other aspects, such as the fingerspelling and additional communicative mindfulness, are what I wish I saw more when on travel.

I could write an entire series of posts about what it’s like to travel as a deaf person (truly!), but I’ll focus this one on a few aspects and will also start with an overt statement: it’s often not that big of a deal, folks. Even if there can be frustrations and inconveniences along the way. These mostly derive from the current nature of the world as a less than accessible place, but I’ve usually found a way around any issues that crop up, and being comfortable with thinking of different strategies to communicate with other people in a foreign country can be a huge asset, too.

In the last few weeks of travel around the UK and Ireland, and also in the last few years (during which I was fortunate enough to get to travel a good amount), I kept thinking about accessibility and how it shapes my travel experiences – specifically, tour experiences, guided tours, and public places that often circulate visitor information via auditory means. Everywhere I go, even when I am not on “travel” per se but perhaps visiting a guided exhibit or lecture at a local museum, I run into the same situation: I want to go into a museum or attraction and need to figure out how to make it accessible for me. Sometimes these events do not present a problem: most self-guided auditory tours have a transcript, which I think I would prefer anyway since it lets me read and understand the information faster and more completely! And, in the US at least, it’s possible to request an ASL interpreter in advance, or negotiate how to get one. Some (though not enough) places are aware enough to have ASL interpreting options already on hand.

But what about traveling abroad, where accessibility might be more questionable and where there certainly aren’t ASL interpreters even if I were to request them? (Remember, ASL is not a universal sign language.) What about spontaneous decisions – say, like my friends sometimes make when they decide they’d like to go to a museum exhibit or guided tour this afternoon, or tomorrow? What about the time and energy it takes me to 1) schedule going to a tour, 2) request an interpreter, 3) go through the process of getting said interpreter, which usually involves explaining my ADA rights to the contact person at said institution, unless said institution is really on top of stuff and has a system in place, no questions asked? Sometimes I don’t want to go through that. Sometimes the payoff honestly is not worth the effort.

This keeps recurring for me as an adult: what do I do when I want various tours, exhibits, and other educational public materials to be accessible? How do I respond? More and more as I get older, I realize how much I took this for granted when traveling as a child, and how fortunate I was (in a sense, even if everyone deserves this too): I would simply go to something, either locally or while on travel, and simply trust that my parents would be there to sign for me. It seemed so easy. Neither are professional interpreters, of course, but they sign and they communicate well with me and they can help me grasp the information I need. A few times, such as when we visited Disneyland or a national park with a guided tour or open talk, I recall my mother scheduling ASL interpreters – shout-out to some of those parks for being amazing about this. Otherwise, I just didn’t think about accessibility as much. Again, thanks to the nature of my family, this was a privilege some deaf people don’t have while growing up.

Now I do need to think about it, though. Now, for the reasons I just mentioned, I sometimes find myself in a bind. I’ve had friends ask me many times if I want to go to a non-accessible exhibit or venue, only to need to back out of our plans when I realize there’s no way for me to understand what’s being said – because of short notice, because it has happened overseas, because other obstacles ramp up. Often these friends will tell me afterwards, “I’m so sorry. I didn’t realize…”

Of course you didn’t, I want to tell them – not spitefully or bitterly, but just because accessibility provisions are often invisible or overlooked. They are not (yet) mainstream. These hearing friends have never had to deal with the extra worry about accessible content when on travel, so why would they realize it? Until they meet me and suddenly start thinking about the topic, that is. They’ve had the privilege of not having to think about it for themselves.

Another kind of dynamic does exist, though. Sometimes, I do have certain friends who, even though they don’t have to and even though I would in many ways prefer for them not to, so they can enjoy our day out or our travels for themselves (!!), have picked up enough ASL and nevertheless freely offer to sign to me to keep me updated whenever I ask, as we go on a tour or to a public exhibit together. These friends form a small subgroup of my friend circle, and as I get older I appreciate more and more their offer of communication, which also feels like an offer of deep-seated friendship. Moreover, I’ve learned that, among the best of them, they truly don’t mind. They know this solution isn’t perfect: they know they aren’t interpreters, they know they might not be able to sign everything, but they also know that even a little bit of sign can be better than a lot of lipreading and a lot of missed information. “You don’t have to do that,” I tell them – and, of course, they don’t have to, of course another setup with an interpreter would be better. After endless discussions, we are all on the same page about this. But sometimes the choice lies between not going to something at all, and going and knowing that a trusted friend will (and will want to) make sure I understand, if I ask. Why not?

Sometimes this is how a certain kind of understanding develops between me and my family and some of my hearing friends, in a world that is still behind the accessibility learning curve. These people and I know this world isn’t designed for deaf people, we know that at every turn I’ll have to go up to the customer service desk and ask if there’s a transcript available for this exhibition, or any kind of written/visual content, or that I’ll have to catch our tour guide before the tour begins and explain that I’m lipreading or watching my companion sign (sometimes to slightly confused looks). We know that sometimes, if my friends slip information to me in ASL, we’ll occasionally have to deal with puzzled looks from the other tourists, or that other people will approach us afterwards and marvel at ASL or marvel at the sight of my friend “helping” me – or, as two friends and I recently experienced while on a tour through some dark spaces, that we’ll have to try not to shine our iPhone flashlights inadvertently in other tourists’ eyes. (Ooops.) We end up learning these things. But, together, we’ll make the best of it that we can. What a patchwork access can be sometimes, and how it depends on people of all sorts - even if, let me reiterate, requesting institutional accountability and pushing for more actual access provisions is still important.

Learning to trust friends, and to lean on them when I need and want, but also learning to hold my own and assert myself in other ways and recognize when that is appropriate: these are two main ongoing personal lessons about travel. I’m hoping that more exhibitions and tours will get access right, eventually, once and for all, somehow – but, in the meantime, after another just-completed trip overseas, I’m feeling appreciative of all the memories I’ve forged with friends even when the situations we’ve encountered are stubbornly imperfect. If nothing else, some good travel stories have arisen out of the mix!