Travel Q+A: Myths and Realities From a Deaf Perspective

One globetrotter sets straight misconceptions about traveling while deaf.

by Frida Oskarsdottir

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.

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What are some of the advantages/disadvantages to traveling while communicating through sign language?

Advantages:

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.

Disadvantages:

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!

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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.

 

 

Repeating the Past: Notes to a Holocaust Survivor

Revisiting letters from students to a Holocaust survivor in the wake of Trump’s travel ban.

By Gabrielle Sierra

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Felicia, in 2013, at the age of 94

My cousin Felicia Berland Hyatt was a Holocaust survivor who took great care and pride in telling her story. She spent decades giving lectures, speaking in documentaries and appearing on panels. She even wrote a book. But Felicia always said one of her greatest accomplishments was being asked to appear as a guest speaker at various schools in New York, discussing her life and answering students’ questions.

Felicia often said that her story, although painful, sad and terrifying, had to be told in order to prevent history from repeating itself. Just as she refused to have her concentration camp tattoo removed, she refused to let the millions of people who died during World War II disappear.

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Felicia, right, and a friend

As a guest speaker in K-12 classrooms, Felicia left her mark on many young children; she recounted a time and place and tragedy many had never even heard of. Some students wrote letters in response to her story. These letters showcase an incredible range of emotion, jumping from curiosity and disbelief to fear and sadness.

After Donald Trump signed his executive order (currently suspended) prohibiting people from seven Muslim-majority countries, including war-torn Syria, from entering the United States, I decided to go through Felicia’s letters and pull out a few that seemed especially relevant. The idea that this administration is capable of denying refugees sanctuary is chilling, and made all the more poignant by the fact that the ban was signed on Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Felicia died in 2015, at the age of 96, but I like to think that she would have enjoyed reading these old notes from students and sharing the hope I felt when reading them; hope that the stories she told these kids, now adults, will help us all as we face the challenges ahead.

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Felicia, an only child, was born in 1920 and raised in a town called Chelm in eastern Poland. Her parents ran a successful bakery and sent her to a public gymnasium (school), where she was one of four Jewish students admitted under a strict quota system. It was there that she learned to speak German, in addition to her native Polish and Yiddish, a skill that would save her life more than once.

In 1938, her father sensed that war was on the horizon and traveled to the U.S. to set up a new home for their family, but Poland closed its borders before Felicia and her mother could join him. They, along with other residents of Chelm, were placed in a ghetto, where they remained from 1939-1942. The night before the final liquidation of the ghetto, Felicia and her mother escaped and went into hiding.

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In the following months, the women took shelter with two Polish families before being forced to hide in barns and abandoned buildings. Eventually, they decided to separate, a strategy they thought would increase their chances of avoiding capture. It was the last time Felicia would ever see her mother.

Felicia made her way to Krakow and secured false papers. There, she dyed her hair blonde and found work as a housekeeper for a local SS Officer and his family who risked their lives in an effort to help her survive. In 1943, Felicia was discovered and sent to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.

FeliciaLettersScanned-3.jpgOnce in the camp, Felicia survived a series of close calls, including a last minute removal from a group being sent to the gas chamber. Her education and ability to speak German and Polish proved to be of value to the Nazis, who assigned her to be a barracks bookkeeper. In this position, Felicia was able to provide a few reprieves for other prisoners; at one point, moving a group of young sisters into low level positions similar to her own. Over 70 years later, one of these sisters would attend Felicia’s funeral in New York City and tell us that she and her siblings would not have survived without the reassignment Felicia was able to provide.

Auschwitz was a death camp and people were being killed all around Felicia every day with no end in sight. She decided her best hope of survival was to escape. In November, 1944, she found her opportunity. She snuck into a group being sent to a work camp in Stare Mesto, the Czech Republic. She remained there until the camp was liberated in April 1945.

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After the liberation, Felicia sought to reunite with her remaining friends and family, only to discover that her mother, as well as countless relatives and friends, had been killed. She decided to travel to New York to reunite with her father, but this proved to be a great deal more difficult than she had imagined.

The United Nations was sending children to reunite with their families in the U.S., but being in her early 20’s, Felicia was too old to qualify. She was told to go to Sweden, where they were helping survivors settle into new lives. She remained there with friends for over a year but still wanted to be near her father. In 1948, she obtained an American transit visa, intended to allow her a brief stopover on the way to Canada. When she arrived in the U.S. she skipped her connecting flight and remained in New York. She eventually moved into an apartment with her father.

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Felicia may have reunited with her remaining family, but she still had to find a way to stay in the U.S. She was investigated by the FBI under suspicion of being a Nazi or communist. The agency raided her apartment and tracked her movements. Felicia enrolled in college, but was told by refugee agencies not to have any books on Marxism in her home and was warned not to take any philosophy classes, as those ideas could be viewed as subversive.

Finally, in April, 1954, Felicia was sworn in as a U.S. citizen. Until that point she lived in fear of being send back to Poland or having to flee. Years later, she would tell our family that it was this moment, the moment she was given the protections of U.S. citizenship, that she finally felt safe. Although, her nightmares about the camps, the smells and the sounds, would never cease.

Looking through these letters, it is hard not to be moved by the sympathy, horror and sadness expressed by the children Felicia spoke to. Perhaps some of these students were present during the protests that sprung up after Trump’s executive order, or spoke out with a call to a local official. I know that Felicia would find comfort in knowing that even one student was influenced by the story she told in their classroom, and that her mission to prevent history from repeating itself still resonates today.

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