Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Travel blog 19 June 2013 Post-Singapore thoughts: flying Deaf

This is a follow on from the first flights I took in 2009 to Amsterdam, without hearing aids. That was a significant moment for me because it marked my coming-out as a deaf person.
The ISB9 conference in Singapore allowed me to consolidate and explore some new identity spaces.
 Let me go back to the flying part here. The academic discoveries are in the academic blog.
I decided to fly without my hearing aids this on trip, but with a few extra changes. First I wore my dogtag, and showed this to the cabin crew when I boarded/seated. I felt comfortable identifying myself this way. Partly because I had already mentioned on the reservation that I am a deaf traveller, so the airline already knew to expect a deaf passenger. That ‘rule’ of no more than 4 deaf passengers allowed still rankled me, if there were 5 different passengers seating all over the plane, with an interpreter would the airline complain? I think not. And if there are more than 5 deaf passengers as a group, say going on a sport tour, would they be disallowed, usually one person (an organiser/guide) in the tour group is able to communicate with the hearing cabin crew. Sigh, that is frustrating. I did not fly with someone (a hearing person, such a partner or my parents. My dad used to explain to me what is going on, so I always wore my hearing aids so that he could do that for me, even if I missed out what was said in full). Now, this was the opportunity to travel in silence. I would not have done that with my dad, he does not sign so we would not be able to communicate. Thus I had a hearing-like/hard-of hearing identity with him, and for him, but what about me, who am I inside? And this trip presented the delicious choice between sound and silence, what would I choose, and in the future too? For me, it was fairly simple to choose to travel in silence since I wanted to explore this territory for myself. You know, if it did not work out, then I could always fall back to wearing hearing-aids again.  
On board, I must admit that I did not identify myself very clearly or well on the first flight, but improved on the return leg. What worked for me was meeting the cabin crew when they are less busy, and I am seated, with my ‘deaf’ dogtag and signing that I am deaf. And asking cabin crew for paper to write down anything, such as please tell me any important PA announcements, emergency info, coffee, meal options, if I have not already written down my requests. This worked well with some and less well with other people. The trick, I found is to do it slow, steady and little fuss and with a smile, not to make them feel uncomfortable in any way, and it was a delight to see that working. Cabin crew are usually hearing people with the same lack of information of deafness and lack of contact and skills in communicating with deaf people.  I think that airlines need to do much more deaf awareness training, and I would love to do this! I will come back to this theme later.
When I arrived at Bangkok, I had an amusing moment. I was almost last to disembark, and when I reached the air bridge I saw a Thai staff holding a sign with my name on it, and a wheelchair! I smiled. I am deaf not disabled, and I think that the message that I posted on my reservation went through, but Thai and most airlines are unaware of how to deal with deaf passengers. I need assistance, yes, and I took some courage to admit that upfront. But I really needed assistance with communication so that I do not miss the next flight, or get lost in a foreign place or not understand the instructions when someone is talking. I wrote down that I need assistance with transit process, where to go and what to do. They quickly removed the wheelchair. The person assigned to help me had no idea how to help, but was willing to help. But I made an error, I paid him for his service, I thought about this afterwards, it was not a service that I should pay for. Plus he was so apologetic later when he found me in the boarding area, since I found out the hard way that the gate had changed. Oh well, I learned much from this experience, I hope the airline staff and he did too.
One of the decisions I had to make was where to put my hearing aids. I decided to put them in a small round metal container with cotton wool that fits comfortably in my pocket. Then would I wear them at any time during the flight and airport transits? I have to admit that not wearing them in a setting where I had always worn hearing aids felt odd to me, I felt more aware of myself as a deaf person, and somewhat naked without them on. There was something missing, and that is way I chose to pack them in a box and carry them in my pocket so at least I knew exactly where my hearing aids were. The last thing I wanted to do was leave the box in the seat pocket went leaving the plane. Sign, the lack of subtitled movies was a let-down. Actually, I found a couple of foreign language films with English subtitles, but these were too hard to read on these small screens, the quality of the picture was poor. So I missed out on movies, at least I knew this would probably be the case so I brought my Kobo Glo with me and found reading a book much better way to pass the time.  
Even with my hearing aids off, I enjoyed flying because I could feel the roar through the cabin wall, and that gave it a sense of flying. Once I felt comfortable with where they are, I relaxed. And found that it is ok being deaf. I was more conscious of myself without them than with them on, weird! But I noticed that I loved the freedom from sound, especially noises. The only noise I wanted to hear was the roar of the Rolls-Royce Trent 700 at full power at take-off. And I allowed myself the luxury of this in Bangkok on route to Johannesburg. Since there was no one seated next to me, it was easy to slip my hearing aids on and enjoy this wonderful sound for a few minutes. Once I had satisfied my need to hear this, I was content to pack them away for the rest of the flight. On the first flight, to Bangkok, I did not have them on for take-off, (yes, there was someone sitting next to me, so I would probably have blown the ‘deaf man’ image for her). This is one of my favourite parts of flying. Although I had a window seat, the takeoff at Johannesburg was definitely a let-down for me. The thrill from the noise was missing, which is why I decided that one of the take-offs would be with hearing aids on, which duly happened later. In that sense, I enjoyed the benefits of being a bilingual deaf person and exercised my choice to hear and be deaf when I wanted to, on my terms. The tricky part was being deaf for so long, and amidst hearing people when lots of communication happened during the flights and arrival and departures. I am relieved to say that I managed this and it went much better than I expected. So much so, that when I arrived in Singapore airport for flight back to Bangkok, I checked in early and announced that I am deaf to check in staff. She promptly got help from a person there and he really helped me a lot; he (Benedict) could sign (ASL). Wow, that made my day, and the boarding went smoothly thereafter, I felt a lot more at ease. And I met a friend of his also working at the airport. Ahh, that was a highlight. And this was made all the better while watching the ‘golden rain’ display. I did not feel alone, and revelled in the power of sign language. It is a balm for deaf souls and a bridge of communication in foreign lands.  

 This has been a really good experience of finding more of myself as a deaf person, and finding the courage to live as a bilingual deaf person. Like Sarah, in Children of a lesser god’ movie, I found that I am not nothing without my hearing-aids, and that I did not shrivel up and blow away like a dried-out leaf. I learned to be strong, be brave, smile and enjoy living in both worlds. And let life as I experience it to happen.  

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