How to Optimize Your Deaf Travel Experience
Traveling as a deaf or hearing-impaired person can be frustrating and unsafe. Deaf travel is an even greater challenge when traveling outside the U.S., since there are often no explicit laws and services protecting or serving deaf persons. If you’re traveling overseas as a deaf person for the first time, you may find people overseas are not as understanding or supportive as those in the U.S.
However, The World Federation of the Deaf is working to change that. In the meantime, consider starting your overseas travel to more relaxed/kind cultures and established tourist routes versus remote travel or travel to more “demanding” cultures. Traveling to countries using English or with high use of English may help as well.
Although traveling overseas as a deaf person can be frustrating and unsafe, it doesn’t have to be. We have gathered a collection of helpful tips for deaf travelers that will make your next trip safe and fun. These tips are grouped into the topics shown below for your convenience:
Make Sure You Prepare
Make a checklist of everything you need — devices, chargers, batteries, cleaning equipment and instruction manuals — and then check off the list as you pack. This is a good practice for any traveler, but is especially important for deaf travelers because of the extra equipment required. It won’t only reduce stress, but it will also reduce the chance you leave something important behind.
Always carry a card describing your condition and let local staff/helpers/others know so they can be of help. Suggest/write out specific ways they can help you because they probably won’t know.
Is there anything deaf travelers need to have onboard that is normally prohibited? No, the items that are absolutely necessary for a deaf person to travel are not generally prohibited in most popular modes of transportation.
How to Communicate Well as a Deaf Traveler
The best way to communicate with other people while traveling is to travel with a hearing companion who can interpret for you, especially one who knows ASL and the local language. This is especially important in countries that speak another language or have strict laws.
For example, in some countries, it is illegal to take pictures of dams, utilities or inside of airports. Certain areas may be restricted such as schools, beaches, or even inside of factories. A hearing companion would also be helpful if you need medical attention overseas and cannot respond to questions.
If traveling without a companion, pen and paper is an effective way to communicate with hearing staff. Whether it’s the airport check-in desk, or a hotel reception desk – tell the staff that you’re deaf and request a pen and paper so you can have a written conversation. It may be easier instead to write on a note app on your phone. You can then show them your phone and they can respond in your note app.
Almost every country has English speaking staff and guides in places where there are many tourists. If a staff member doesn’t speak English, they will probably find a colleague who does, so you will unlikely find yourself stuck in a situation where there is absolutely no English language.
People overseas can be less patient with you or even grab you/try to make you do what they are requesting or insisting on. At least half of the problems people run into while traveling are a result of some sort of miscommunication or cultural miscommunication.
Sign language is another way for a deaf traveler to communicate. However, just like there are many different spoken languages, there are many different sign languages. In fact, there are over 400 different sign languages around the world. Every country has their own sign language.
It is important to be aware of cultural differences when using hand gestures. For instance:
- Pointing is considered offensive in some cultures. Instead of pointing, use an open hand gesture to ask if something is in a certain direction. Hospitality is important in many cultures, so don’t be surprised if someone offers to escort you to a destination.
- The “OK” sign is considered a vulgar gesture in countries such as Turkey, Greece and Brazil, where it is similar to flipping the middle finger in the U.S.. In some other places, it suggests homosexuality.
- A “thumbs up” sign in the Middle East, West Africa and South America essentially means “up yours.”
- In Greece, showing your palm to say stop is offensive.
Don’t be afraid to approach local people for information. They are normally happy to help. However, not all places will be understanding about deafness, so you may need to be assertive about getting help. It’s also good to be patient when meeting people. Make them aware of your deafness. Ask them to face you when talking and not to cover their mouth. Remind them that you may not catch what they say the first time.
Traveling with Hearing Aids
Remember to pack all of your hearing aid equipment and supplies, such as hearing aid wax guards, and the brush and wire used to clean the hearing aid. Bring an extra set of hearing aids (even older ones) with you on your trip if you have them. If not, bring the important spare parts and extra batteries. If you’re traveling internationally, you may need an outlet converter to charge your rechargeable batteries.
Place all of your hearing aid equipment and supplies in a waterproof case to protect them from moisture. Pack them in a carry-on bag so they do not get lost in transit.
Guard your hearing aids against wetness. This is especially important in humid climates. Don’t forget a small carrying case so that you can safely put the hearing aid away when you want to go swimming. As you know, sweat is bad for hearing aids, so the carrying case may be handy on the tennis court or golf course as well.
Going to the beach? Sand is lethal to hearing aids, so make sure they’re either covered by a hat or left at home. Saltwater will also destroy them.
Research and be aware of places around your destination that will be able to repair your hearing aids in case of an emergency.
Essential Technology When Traveling Deaf
Here are some cell phone or tablet apps that are useful for deaf people traveling overseas:
- Glide: the ‘fastest live video messenger app on the planet’ – for general texting and talking
- Google Voice: for transcribing messages (speech to text) – for iPhone only
- Whatsapp: for messaging and video calling
- FaceTime: for video calling conversations (iPhone only)
- Easy Talk Pro: a simultaneous speech to text app used between two Android users
- Dragon Anywhere: by listening to speech, the app translates speech into captions in real time.
Of course, apps that are helpful for hearing people are also useful for deaf people. For instance, you can use apps like Google Maps to navigate and find your way around. You can also type in ‘restaurants’, ‘petrol stations’, ‘shopping malls’ etc. and Google Maps will provide you with a list of them in your area.
Rideshare (or ride-hailing) apps are especially useful for deaf people. Open the app, enter your destination, see how much it will cost, book the ride, and wait for your driver to arrive. It’s all on your phone and you’ll see when your driver is here and what he/she looks like, their car make and number plate etc.
While Uber is the most commonly known rideshare app, some places use different apps, for example – Ola is used in India, Australia and New Zealand, Bolt is the option in Eastern Europe, and Grab is used in Southeast Asia.
Use Google Translate to type what you want to say. Google Translate saves the last few messages/most used messages you’ve used for easy, quick reference overseas. You can add a few before you even leave on your trip.
With all those handy phone apps at your fingertips, it’s important to have a power source with you at all times so your phone battery doesn’t run flat when you’re outside.
Here are some other proven technologies that have been used successfully by deaf travelers:
Videophones – Videophones are cell phones, televisions, other mobile devices and computers with video functionality and access to high-speed internet. Some services that you can use on your videophone include Skype, Messenger, FaceTime, Glide, OoVoo, and Google Chat. Before starting a videophone call on your device, double-check that you are using wireless. If you plan to use an existing cellular plan, know that the international charges can be prohibitively expensive. In some countries, such as Sweden and the UK, public access videophones are available in limited locations.
Video Relay Services – Video Relay Services (VRS) allow conversations between Deaf and Hard of Hearing individuals and hearing individuals over the phone. When using VRS, you need a videophone (cell phone, television, etc.) with a good internet connection to place a call via VRS. A VRS interpreter relays communication between the two individuals using sign language and spoken language. Video relay services are free in the U.S. Though not available in many different countries, VRS continues to expand.
Texting Services/Technology – When traveling abroad, you might find that text messaging and chat applications that use wireless connectivity instead of data plans make communication with family and friends easier and cheaper. Some popular options include WhatsApp, Messenger, Skype, GroupMe, and Kik among others. Additionally, you may find text-based communication technologies, such as Ubi Duo, to be helpful in communicating with hearing individuals.
Captioned Phones – Though not as popular as videophones and video relay services, captioned phone technology is increasing, particularly in the U.S. A captioned telephone typically has a built-in screen and displays everything that the other person on the call says in text (captions).
Dictation Software – Occasionally, you might find that text-to-speech programs on a laptop or smartphone, such as Dragon Dictation, are helpful in one-on-one situations where you are having trouble communicating with another individual. As a person is speaking, the text-to-speech program will transcribe spoken language into text.
Carry a set of T-loop hook headphones to help you listen to your music, audio tour guides (although ask if they have transcripts) and for any phone conversations.
Pack a Bluetooth device, such as a ComPilot, to pair with your cell phone. If you usually use a captioned phone at home, you want to be sure your cellphone is as hearing friendly as possible while you are away. This includes remembering to switch on your telecoil before you use the phone. A ComPilot will also allow you to hear recorded books or music on your smartphone. Each hearing aid manufacturer has its own branded Bluetooth transceivers.
Pack a power strip for all of your device chargers and bring an outlet converter. Make sure it’s the correct one for the country you’re visiting. If you forget, you may be able to purchase one in an airport or borrow one at your hotel.
Tips for Deaf Travel by Air
When you book a flight, try to book a seat up front where the flight crew can find you and communicate with you if needed. Airlines prohibit deaf and hard of hearing persons from sitting in exit row seats for safety reasons. Sign up for flight change alerts via text or email. If someone else books the flight for you, follow up with the airline to ensure you receive updated information by phone or email.
Notifying the airline of your hearing disability when you reserve your flight may allow you to pre-board the plane and give you a greater opportunity to let air stewards know your needs. You should always try to do this so you can request to be notified if the plane is delayed, going to be early, and of other pilot announcements.
They can also provide you with services — like giving one-on-one training about takeoffs and landings, emergency procedures, and writing things down so that you can read it, such as meal choices. Ask them to take note of your seat and to alert other cabin staff where you will be sitting.
If you request airport assistance (known as Special Assistance), an airport agent will tell you about announcements made on loudspeaker and flight changes, and will help you get from check-in to gate (or between connections) faster. On the other hand, Special Assistance may put you in a group of elderly and disabled people, or you may have to wait in the Special Assistance area, which might slow you down and keep you from doing other things before your flight. Your decision about this may depend on where you are traveling.
Bring all of your hearing equipment in a carry-on bag. Checked bags are sometimes lost. All your hearing stuff, as well as medications and other irreplaceable valuables, need to go in your carry-on.
Leave your hearing technology in place when you go through airport security so you don’t leave them behind. Hearing aids and cochlear implants do not have to be removed before going through airport scanners. Both devices will allow you to better hear questions from the TSA agent and even announcements at the departure gate.
Airports are noisy, however, so you may not be able to hear flight announcements. Ask the gate attendant to tell you when your zone is boarding (you’ll probably be offered pre-boarding).
During the flight, your own over-the-ear headphones will allow you to hear the in-flight entertainment without having to take off your hearing aid, as you would with the airlines’ free headphones. If you do take off your hearing aids, make sure you tell the TSA staff so they understand if you are non-responsive to instructions.
It’s important to let airport staff know you are deaf and ask for someone to alert you of any audio cues, notifications or emergencies. See https://tsa.gov/travel/special-procedures and select the “Deaf or Hard of Hearing” option from the drop down to see the Travel Safety Administration’s advice on air travel for the deaf.
Keep an eye on departure boards and other screens. Change of platforms or terminals or gates as well as cancellations or delays will usually be updated there quickly.
Tips for Deaf Travel by Bus or Train
Tell your bus or train attendant (or fellow traveler) in advance of your deafness so you don’t miss any safety announcements. Ask if they have materials you can use to follow along with instructions. Since visual directions may only be in another language, stop and ask someone for help understanding any rules/regulations that are posted.
In most of the developed world, buses have screens that inform you of the next destination they will stop at, so you’ll know when to get off by keeping an eye on the screen. Even in non-English speaking countries like Japan, for example, the information screens display text in the native language and in English. If there are no visible names for each stop, enlist the help of a nearby seatmate to let you know when a certain stop comes up.
In places like India and Mexico, many public buses are outdated. Some buses have no windows or suspension and get very crowded. In that case, stand or sit near the driver and ask them what the next stop is. You may even ask them to let you know when your stop is.
Tips for Deaf Travel by Car
Use a Bluetooth phone system to provide hands-free access to calls.
Ask passengers to use a remote microphone in order to deliver the conversation right to your ears. This allows you to keep your eyes on the road at all times.
If you’re the driver and you lip-read or sign/cue, teach your passengers to insert pauses in their conversation when your eyes are on the road.
Extra-wide rear-view mirrors can be installed in cars, making it easier to communicate with back seat passengers.
Improve Your Hotel Stay
It’s important to tell the hotel staff that you are deaf so they can alert you in case of emergency. You can inform them when you make your reservation or when you arrive. Hotels overseas aren’t guaranteed to have deaf kits, so if you are traveling solo, you may want to consider not using the bolt lock/chain or give them permission to enter your room. If traveling with someone else, always give them one of your room keys or have them text when coming or waiting for you.
It’s usually best to bring an under-the-pillow vibrating alarm clock to help you wake up on time. Many hotels have a visual signal alert for the doors and alarm clock. You can ask for the “ADA Kit” at the front desk or when you make your reservations. If you’re traveling without an alarm clock and the hotel doesn’t have a visual alarm kit, one way to make sure you wake up early is to down a couple of glasses of water before heading to bed.
Enjoy the Attractions and Dining Experience
When purchasing tickets to tours, museums, events or exhibitions, let them know you are deaf and very often you will receive a discount. You may be asked for proof, especially if you aren’t wearing hearing aids/implants. So, it may be worth bringing ID or a document that confirms you are Registered Deaf (such as a doctor’s note or an audiogram). You could keep a mobile screenshot of an important document if you don’t want to carry it with you abroad.
If you’re following a walking tour, try to move your way to the front to get the best view of the guide.
When going out for a meal with fellow travel mates, ask if they can go to a quieter place to help with listening.
Law Enforcement and Signs
When traveling internationally, are there laws or regulations that accommodate the needs of deaf travelers? It is best for deaf travelers to assume that the laws of the country they are visiting do not make special accommodations for them. In fact, law enforcement and border patrol overseas generally assume you are able to hear their warnings. Not heeding warnings by authorities or a passerby that sees you may be in danger, is especially important if you are in surroundings that are not familiar to you or in cultures that do not operate like your own.
Although you should always carry a card describing your condition, realize that border agents and police abroad may not want you to move or be reaching into a pocket. Not following their verbal instructions will cause them to be “on edge” and less sympathetic. In these cases, moving slowly and slowly signing (In ASL) that you are sorry that you cannot hear them should help them understand. Gesturing slowly “Can you write?” might help. Usually they will clearly indicate what they want you to do, or stop doing, and hopefully you’ll be on your way.
If the country you’re visiting doesn’t use English or uses a foreign script (Arabic, Chinese, etc.), you may not be able to rely on visual cues. For that reason, it’s best to stay out of fast-moving streams of people so you can carefully absorb the environment. The Google Translate app has a feature that translates signs that is helpful for translating signs and menus.
In Case of Emergency
Always carry a card with you listing any disability or impairment in case of accident or emergency. You can create a free one here: www.medids.com/free-id.php. Include “Deaf,” “deaf,” or “hard of hearing.” Include the name and phone number of your physician as well as a (hearing) loved one they can contact. Include your medical insurance information in case of an accident.
Due to a higher “risk” abroad, all travelers with a hearing impairment should consider a good travel medical insurance policy. Medicaid does not cover you outside the U.S.. Medicare does not cover you overseas either and the U.S. State Department recommends all travelers consider travel medical insurance and emergency medical evacuation before travel abroad.
Good Neighbor Insurance is recognized and listed on the U.S. State Department website as a travel insurance provider. For Medicaid users, you could also purchase a C-through-J supplement plan that will cover you for the first 60 days of a trip outside of the U.S.. However, getting travel insurance for under 60 days may be more affordable. And most people find it much easier to purchase. A good plan we recommend that includes pre-existing conditions is called Voyager Choice (sometimes also called TravelGap Preferred).
You can find excellent tour guides/interpreters/travel agents at any of these sites:
- Kerstin’s Deaf Travel – Tours and cruises organized for the deaf
- Hands On Travel – ASL guided tours around the world
- Ask Deaf – List of travel resources (car rentals, tours, hotels, etc.) for the deaf
- Deaf Globetrotters – Travel agency, also offers certified interpreters
- Passages Deaf Travel – Organizes all-deaf trips around the world
- Deaf Europe – Travel agency that organizes fully-ASL tours in Spain and throughout the rest of Europe.
SATH has a good page for both Deaf and hearing-impaired travelers – http://sath.org/how-to-travel-with-hearing-impairment-or-deafness
A great list of apps for your smartphone – http://www.hearingloss.org/sites/default/files/ASmartphoneIsaHearingAssistiveTechnology.pdf
Links for “Students on the Go”, A Deaf travel training manual in .Doc and .Pdf – http://www3.gallaudet.edu/clerc-center/info-to-go/transition/students-on-the-go.html
Travel Tips for the Hearing Impaired (AAO-HNS) – http://www.entnet.org/content/travel-tips-hearing-impaired
Air Travel by The National Association for the Deaf – https://nad.org/resources/transportation-and-travel/air-travel/
A great, personal resource for deaf international travelers – http://flightofthetravelbee.com/
Why deaf people love to travel – http://deaffriendly.com/articles/the-wander-list-why-deaf-people-love-to-travel/