In our country, hearing individuals likely do not encounter deafness or sign language in their everyday life. About 2-3 out of every 1000 people in the US go deaf before the age of 18, unrelated to common hearing loss due to aging. This causes a gap in understanding between the hearing and hearing-impaired communities, which can be exacerbated by lack of representation in media, politics, and culture.
Given our travel theme, I reached out to Sigríður Vala Jóhannsdóttir to hear more about her experiences with extensive travel as a member of the deaf community. Sigríður is a Cultural and Communication Specialist at the Icelandic Association of the Deaf and a graduate of Gallaudet University in Washington DC. She lives in Reykjavik, Iceland.
What are your top three travel destinations?
– Otranto, Italy
– Canaima Park, Venezuela
– Munich, Germany
What are common misconceptions about traveling as a deaf person?
That a deaf person traveling is very lonely — in fact in every destination, there is a deaf community waiting for a deaf tourist to be immediately accepted into. I basically have a home everywhere I go.
Another misconception is that the barriers would be immense, but a deaf person is a visual being, so traveling is, in my opinion, more natural for us than most hearing people who depend on their hearing and spoken language to get through their days. I am quicker to find clues that help me travel with less difficulties. When communicating with a foreigner who speaks no English, gesturing comes to me as natural and even fun. I can say that it is not so for most of my hearing friends and family.
What are some of the advantages/disadvantages to traveling while communicating through sign language?
Conversations – they continue as normal whilst being across a crowd, being underwater, through windows, or across train platforms.
Better seats – ‘Hello ma’am, welcome to our airline, I see that you are disabled, here’s a better seat and you get the chance to board first.’
A means of getting out of harassment – if someone is annoying me trying to sell me something or trying to get my attention, I either ignore them on purpose or simply start signing. They get the message and walk away thinking I can’t understand them. Also, most people feel guilty about taking advantage of a deaf person so I am less likely to be targeted.
When dealing with a signing tourist, people seem to tend to forget their manners. All of sudden they are free to communicate with us in gloriously insulting ways. For example, once on airplane after handing me over a cup of coffee, the stewardess grabbed her boob and squeezed it in anticipation that I would understand it as her sign for “milk”. I was mortified for her!
Independence thieves – people seeing me using sign language brings out the protective instincts in them. They want to look after me and do things for me because I just ‘quite can’t do stuff’. Ignorance again, I guess.
Do you prefer to travel alone or with a group?
I do not have a preference. It depends on the destination and the goal of the travel. On solo travels, I simply enjoy my own company, am with my own thoughts without anyone intruding, and have time to reflect. When I am traveling with other people, there is always someone else around to share in my good times. And there’s always someone to take my pictures!
What resources are important to you? What travel tips and tricks do you have?
Networking is important. The deaf world is not a big one so we have an advantage of quickly connecting to people from far away. I can easily ask my old classmate if he knows someone from Israel. Even if he does not, he will connect me to someone who does. At the end of the day, I am on FaceTime with someone deaf in Israel who is asking me if I want a tour of Tel Aviv.
It is essential to always ask for a receipt and count my change. In poorer or grumpier countries, they are always looking for ways to suck money out of tourists.
A practical tip is to always take along a notepad and pen. It is not always for booking a hotel room with the receptionist– I also use it to converse with the stranger next to me on train or at hostels. The best thing about this is that I get to keep all of our conversation. Memories of my travels come flooding back when I read them years later.
What do you wish people knew (while travelling or in general) about the deaf community?
There is a question I know hearing people would not dare to ask because they feel that it would be offensive, which is understandable– “if you have a chance to become hearing, would you?”. My answer is NO, I would not change a thing. I am happy and proud to be deaf. I have accepted that it is a part of me. I would not be where I am today and doing all the things I am doing. I would not have traveled or met so many people along my journey if not for my deafness. Although I am speaking for myself, this applies to many deaf people as well. So next time you meet them, have this frame in your mind that they are happy as they are.