Tag Archives: Deaf travel

Should you really be giving me that little extra, just because I’m Deaf?

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Image: Artwork of a girl standing side-on facing the viewer, with a white rabbit hugged to her chest. She wears a brownish sleeveless top and printed teal bottom patterned with white and red circles. She has prominent red blushed cheeks and long wavy, dark hair tied in a high ponytail. On a background of soft yellow, bordered with green, white and red, is text reading, “Should you really be giving me that bit extra, just because I’m Deaf?” Beneath is written http://www.asphyxia.com.au

When I was travelling in France, my friend Jenine and I went into a bakery. When Jenine ordered, the guy serving us threw in a couple of extra pastries for free. Jenine blinked in astonishment. ‘It must be because you’re with me. I NEVER get freebies.’

I think she was right. You see, I get freebies all the time. Let me tell you about this lovely lady who works at my favourite op shop. The first time I visited, she took a shine to me. Even though she doesn’t normally work the checkout, once I’d selected my purchases, she rang them up for me specially. I almost died when I saw the total price. It was a quarter of what I expected to pay. ‘You ask for me, next time you come in,’ she told me. I do, and every single time I walk out of there loaded up with goodies that I’ve barely paid a cent for.

While this is a somewhat extreme example, I’m prone to getting special treatment everwhere I go. Airports, I am led straight through – I don’t wait in many queues. Discounts are mine for the smile. If I want to use a toilet in a shop and it’s against their policy, they’ll let me use theirs anyway.  Some of my friends know how to work the system. When it’s time to pay, they sends me up the front.

Why do I collect these privileges, when people like Jenine, who are so much kinder, more generous, thoughtful and deserving than I, never get them?

I can only assume it’s because I’m Deaf. People see me signing and feel compelled to go that extra mile for me. A sweet smile just seals the deal. A friend of mine with a Deaf daughter mentioned that her daughter gets free stuff all the time too. So do my other Deaf friends.

My attitude is this: scoop it up. Afterall, I have to put up with the suckier parts of being Deaf. Why not enjoy some benefits too?

But there’s something uneasy for me about all this. Deep down, I suspect that if the people dishing up the freebies to me really knew me, they wouldn’t give me a thing. I’m not as sweet and innocent as I look. I live in fear that they might discover the real me.

I’m also suspicious of what motivates all this giving. The only thing I can really come up with is that they feel sorry for me and want to give something to someone worse off than they are. It’s a laudable idea. We should all do it. But am I really worse off? I mean, there are some serious downsides to being Deaf, but there are some pretty good perks. The ones I’ve mentioned here are just the tip of the iceberg. If I could choose, I’d still choose to be Deaf. Really. I don’t know much about my Op Shop Lady, but I’m willing to guess that at that time I had a nicer life than she did. I mean, her life might be great, but she often looked kind of tired and worn down, whereas I normally felt inspired and was lucky enough to have a career that I couldn’t wait to get out of bed in the morning for.

It leads me to think it must be connected to the attitude our society has in general towards Deafness, that it’s a tragedy that must be fixed and helped at all cost. That Deaf people lead impoverished lives and are to be pitied and helped. And you know, this belief system just doesn’t resonate with me. Yes, I want society to change to be more Deaf-accessible, but I dont want people to think my life is awful just because I’m Deaf. Because it’s not.

For much of my life, things have been awesome – I’ve had great jobs, enough money and physical ability to afford to wait in queues and pay a fair price for my shopping and walk a bit further to go to the toilet. It was me who should have been doing the giving.

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International travel as a Deaf person

I thought I’d write a post about my experiences with international travel as a Deaf person. I find it surprising, how very different it feels to be Deaf in different places. Culture changes everything.

My favourite Deaf travel story

Let me start with my favourite Deaf travel story… I was travelling with my partner Paula, and as we checked in they figured out I was Deaf. There was some kerfuffle but we were released into the wilds of the airport. As we waited at the gate, Paula nudged me and told me. “There’s an announcement over the loudspeaker. Can all Deaf people and parents with children please come to the gate now to board first.” As you’d expect, there was a flurry of parents and kids heading to the gate. But strangely enough… no Deaf people.

This announcement highlights something I encounter over and over again. Well-meaning people who attempt to cater for my needs, but who haven’t actually thought about what it means to be Deaf.

A first encounter with Deafness

Let me tell you about Joe, who I met in a shop in France. He said something to me, which I didn’t understand, and my friend Jenine explained to him that I’m Deaf. No worries. Conversation with Jenine goes on. He asked her how we were enjoying the music festival.

She explained that actually we weren’t attending the music festival. “But why not? It’s free. You should go to the concert tonight.”

“Well Asphyxia can’t hear it.”

This hit Joe hard. Hand to his heart, sorrow on his face. He turned to me. “You can’t hear MUSIC?! But what is life without music?” (Or something.. the facial expression said it all – I didn’t catch his words.)

I shrugged. “It’s ok. I’m happy as it is.”

Then Joe has a deep idea. “You know, you could get a bionic ear. Have you thought about that? Then you could hear music.”

Let’s just pause here for a moment. Does Joe really believe I’ve gone my entire life, without it occurring to me until now, that the bionic ear (or a cochlear implant) is a possibility? Does he really think that now he’s suggested it, I’m going to go home and look into the idea? And, for that matter, does he think he’s the first to come up with such wisdom?

In fact, this is something I find intensely irritating, the need to discuss, regularly, with perfect strangers, the intimate details of what operations I might choose to have. I have, in the past, explained to people like Joe, that actually, a cochlear implant or bionic ear would do nothing for me since my ears work fine. It’s the nerves connecting my ears to my brain that don’t work. Which means I’d need a nerve implant in my brain. Forget it – I ain’t letting any surgeon poke around in there. But I’m sick and tired of explaining my medical situation to strangers.

My friend Anna came up with a marvellous response:

“Have you thought about having botox? I feel it would really help your situation.”

But sadly I can’t bring myself to use it. Joe meant well. He just hadn’t thought about Deafness before and I had the great joy of participating while he had his first, elementary encounter with the concept.

Yeah, so that’s Joe, in France. There’s Joes all over Australia too – I meet them all the time. It may well have been a Joe who made that announcement over the loudspeaker at the boarding gate.

Being Deaf in Norway and Denmark

Contrast that with my experience in Norway and Denmark. For the first time ever in my life, I was actually treated like a normal person. I found out recently that in Norway they teach the finer points of knitting and yarn management in schools. I reckon they must also do a unit or two on Deafness, because they seem to know that:

a) being Deaf does not mean you are stupid

b) rather than expecting Deaf people to lipread you so you can carry on as normal, you should attempt to communicate in a more visual way, such as through mime or writing

c) you don’t need to apologise to anyone for their Deafness, nor discuss their medical needs, nor even make a big deal about it at all.

The response, when I told a person in Denmark or Norway that I was Deaf was “Oh, right.” They’d then grab a piece of paper and write to me, or else point and mime to clarify whatever we were attempting to communicate about. And nothing was a big deal. I didn’t need to witness anyone’s heartbreak that I can’t hear the birds twittering or the free piano concert.

The finer points of Deafness seem to be common knowledge

In fact, even the finer points of Deafness seemed to be common knowledge. When I arrived to stay with my AirBnB host, she was already aware that Deaf people don’t tend to know how much noise they make. (Paula is always complaining about how loud I am in the kitchen, or how I inadvertently slam doors – because I can’t hear myself to self-monitor.) Daisy’s tour of her apartment, as she showed me how to use the shower and how to jiggle the key just so, included a recommendation that I not rustle the cutlery in the drawer as it’s particularly loud, and there’s a certain door that is very noisy so I should make the effort to close it quietly.

Wow. I’ve never met a person in Australia with that much awareness, other than those within the Deaf community. What was even more astounding is that Daisy did not proceed to tell me how she acquired her knowledge of Deafness. She didn’t say that she’d once had a Deaf guest who was incredibly noisy, nor that her mum’s second cousin can’t hear. The Deaf thing was just something to be dealt with along with everything else. Unremarkable. What a bloody relief.

Don’t expect me to lipread

In fact, I didn’t realise how much of a relief it was, until I landed in France, which is much more like Australia when it comes to responding to Deaf people. Whenever I told someone I was Deaf they’d point to their lips and expect me to lipread. When I made it clear I hadn’t a hope in hell of lipreading French, that was the end of the conversation. Well, from my end it was. From their end it was far from over. They proceeded to speak to me in French, at full speed, often turning away without making eye contact, and somehow presumed I’d understand.

The eye contact was appalling. I often communicate with a mix of mime and body language, but getting the French people to look at me so I could do so was quite a headache.

Talk to ME! (Not my companion)

At one point, Jenine was talking to our AirBnB host in France, and I had a question. Rather than put Jenine in the position where she had to ask the question on my behalf, I wrote it down on a piece of paper. I waited for what I hoped was an appropriate pause in the conversation, hoping I could catch the host before she turned away. Eventually I handed her the piece of paper with my question.

Her response? Even though I had a pen handy so she could write back, she didn’t even look at me. She simply made her reply to Jenine. They talked for a bit and then the host left.
What the fuck? Jenine did her best to explain. I find this so rude. What if I had had a follow up question? Why couldn’t the woman have communicated directly with me? It was around this time I gave up trying to communicate effectively in France, and started to assume I would just be ignored, which was mostly the case.

Being Deaf can be ‘special’

When I travelled to Morocco, it was different again. At that time I was with my partner, Paula. I’ve been told that there’s a Muslim belief that if you are born with a disability, then you are closer to God. Whether this is true or not, I don’t know. But a lot of people liked to touch me, for good luck. Rather than being ignored, I was special. Red carpet and VIP treatment. Everyone assumed that Paula was my carer, travelling with me simply to serve me. And apparently it was natural that, as my ‘carer’ she would have to sleep in the same bed as me. Presumably to minister to my needs 24/7. Wow. If I haggled at the markets, I got the best price. Even if I didn’t, I’d be given something for free.

The freebies are nice, I’ll grant that. So are the low prices (I get both of these to an extent in Australia too). But what I liked best of all, by a long, long shot, was that little taste of just being an ordinary person in Norway and Denmark. That was good, SO GOOD, I could almost cry thinking about it.

How to improve the situation

And that leads me to think, how good it would be, here in Australia, if we were to have a unit on Deafnes, and on other disabilities too, as part of our school curriculum. Or even better, if we had teachers out there who modelled all sorts of diversity, so that students could see and experience for themselves that actually, we ARE just ordinary people, and in many cases, our Deafness or disability is not even the most remarkable thing about us.

I do teach a lecture on this at Melbourne Uni, and I love it because I know that those students, who will shortly be teachers, will go out into the world ready to respond more appropriately if they meet a Deaf person, or a Deaf student walks into their classroom. But we need more than this. We need this stuff to be taught to everyone. It doesn’t take long. One lesson is enough to get the Joes of the world thinking so that they are ready when a Deaf person enters their shop.