Friday, July 31, 2020

The Traveling Deaf - Covid Times

Prior to my recent trip to Mexico on a Wedding Familiarization Trip... 

I was faced with the dreaded question - Do I really want to go to Mexico? What if I can't hear someone talking to me with these masks on along the way there? How am I going to deal with the situation? Will I get pushed aside by someone and sent to a government facility for lack of better answers that I didn't truly know what I was answering to?  You can imagine the many thoughts and questions I had prior to going! I seemed to worry MORE about this than contracting COVID-19! 

Go figure....

Some who know me well know I use a cell phone sometimes. Do I use it well? Sometimes yes. Sometimes no. It depends on the situation. Yet we have text messaging, facebook messaging, zoom and a whole host of other ways in which we can communicate.  

Masks are an issue! 

Masks have turned into a glitch for many traveling Deaf individuals. Hey, even me. Whether you are choosing to be Deaf (because you choose not to wear a hearing aid or get a cochlear implant), are simply Deaf (and not choosing) or a Cochlear Implant user. Either way you're still Deaf!! The Cochlear Implanted individual is just simply reminded of it during these traveling COVID, SAFETY and MASK times. Whether its a simple trip to the convenience store or a trip to  Mexico! Thus, my reasoning for the "What that hell, I'm going anyway" response. I'm facing difficulties today no matter where I travel to but I am getting better in my own response to these incidences. Like all Deaf anyway we have had to learn to conform because no one else is going to conform to our Deafness because they choose not to change their way or even make an effort. We have come to expect it (although it doesn't make it right...)  but that won't make it so. Rome (like release of education and acceptance) was not built in a day!

The masks used by most are fully covering the mouth area making it impossible to lip-read.  While lipreading is not my only vehicle for communication with others, it is a huge help. When it used to be something I HAD to use (Prior to being cochlear implanted and simply using a hearing aid), it became something that aided me after becoming cochlear implanted. I still rely on it. If it's not available to me, then I need to concentrate quite hard to make sure I'm "getting everything".

For those of you that do not know me personally, I am a "Deaf Travel Agent". And I do specialize in Deaf travel. While it's not the only area of expertise I specialize in, it is my go-to. When I became a Travel Agent I wanted to be there for EVERYONE. It did not matter who you are! A lot of travel agents can say they want to do the same but I'm sure not with the same empathy or understanding that I have. 
 I feel I have special experiences in travel that made it more possible to understand without a doubt what it's like for the Deaf to travel. Combined with my absolute LOVE for traveling and all things travel so here I am. 

 The Deaf can travel ANYWHERE like you or me but they are also limited to WHERE they feel most comfortable traveling and HOW. The world has not yet advanced to the point where American Sign Language is everywhere. The world has not yet advanced to the point in education where it "hits home" to the hearing on how to work with anyone that has any degree of hearing loss. We are all different but to differing degrees we experience differences compared to you. A lot of you do not have any idea what you need to do to help us. Many just turn and run (walk or avoid) the other way. SO for those hearing customers have had built up the courage to work with me, I thank you "for not turning away simply because I am Deaf". You have made me a believer that we can all work together.

Even though I am a Deaf Travel Agent I am for all intents and purposes a Cochlear Implanted wearing Deaf Travel Agent. My cochlear implant is what I like to call "bionic hearing".  Does anyone remember watching the Bionic Man as a kid? I do and I love referencing myself as just that. I feel special to know special things not everyone knows!

So what is a Cochlear Implant you might ask....and what is it currently doing for me? The photo here shows what my cochlear implant looks like (even the color!) and a photo similar to how I wear mine.

I know it might look like something out of the space age and you're probably thinking - why the heck would she wear something "So gaudy" or noticable and "What does this have to do with travel?" and for those that are Deaf (and you may say "not like me")  - Why did she wish to change what god made her? Doesn't she love Deaf culture and being Deaf enough to "stay Deaf"?  -  Yes, I love Deaf culture and yes, I am STILL Deaf! No matter what. It is what it is. You can't excuse it away, make excuses or decide what I am and what I am not. I am proud to be who I am. It wasn't about changing the way God "made me". How do you know what "he made me" for I am still a person not that much unlike you? 
I still have feelings and thoughts and live a life not that much different from you. Hearing or Deaf.

This little piece of technology allows me to hear sounds I never heard before. Not just create sounds louder like a hearing aid would but actual sounds related to specific things that make very specific noises for very specific reasons. How much people take sound for granted! Definitely NOT I. I now love to hear music, peoples voices, the dog snoring, my child coloring with markers, the wind whistling or the rain pattering on my roof. I can now "recognize" those sounds. And yet, there are still a lot of sounds I don't know what the heck they are or where they came from!

It takes me a while to "get used" to what those new sounds are. I had to train my brain from the moment I became implanted to figure out what sounds were and how communication relates to the world. I had years of aural habilitation, practice reading unabridged books and watching lyrics to music on youtube. This has allowed me to hear voices in a way I could not hear before. I had the help from hearing individuals with this. I was fortunate and lucky that the cochlear implant has worked for me the way it has. Not everyone may have the same luck. I had to re-learn how to communicate with the Hearing Society and Hearing Culture (yes you do have your own culture much like we do!). And I am still learning! Boy, do I love learning....

Getting a cochlear implant was a personal choice, one I do not feel other Deaf should criticize as we are all different and wish to experience different things in our lives. As a person I am a bit of a risk taker and I believe we should try to live life to its fullest for life really is too short. My environment here in Maine is not like what my environment was in Washington DC during my Gallaudet college times where I had more choices in how I communicated or related to others. I CHOSE to become implanted years after moving back to Maine because " I was ready". 

So onward to my experiences as a Deaf Travel Agent of late.

This might spin you out of control in your mind thinking "well she can hear now what's she complaining about..." I'm not "complaining" about anything. I just wish to show the world that I am STILL Deaf for all intents and purposes and the Cochlear Implant is not perfect. I HAVE BEEN affected by the whole mask wearing thing during these uncertain COVID-19 times. I feel DAUNTED by these masks!  Not because I don't believe they work or because I don't want to wear one or don't think anyone else should wear one but because they have become a hardship for me.  Yet it has also challenged me in a way nothing else has to date! I decide as I sped off to Mexico, I was up for the challenge! I faced my fear and here are my observations....

1) At the airport, I still have the ability to "pre-board" the plane.  For that that have any kind of disability (and please do not go into this spiel of I am Deaf and Deaf is not a disability world...) the fact is if you cannot hear, you are Deaf. You need assistance to some degree. It doesn't make you stupid, careless or anything else. You just simply need assistance for some things. End of point.

With regard to social distancing however I didn't really know "Where I should be standing" on the little markers in this "pre-board" line at my gate. Did I have my own "pre-board" social distancing line to follow? My own boarding number? Short answer..... No, I did not. I asked what to do (during Covid times now) and was told that I would just be taken on with the other pre-boarders. Nothing had really changed from before except....I could still social distance in my own manner of speaking. No numbers, just plain common sense. 

Did others social distance from me? Those doing un-American type things, no not everyone did. But I've faced that in the grocery store too so what-tha-heck. Social Distancing in the US of A folks needs work at best. No matter where you go. We can control ourselves but we cannot control everyone else - who decides to make bad choices that not only affect them but affect us too. So here's a good one for the woman in the airport I came to dislike - keep your mouth shut and don't spit or talk if you are going to take that face mask off during lunch! Same difference. Be courteous of others! Either way, the airport did the best they could with regards to social distancing. Still, and this goes for the American's everywhere and not related to Deafness at all, but you need to learn how these place markers and your plane ticket is related so you are standing in the right spots!! One thing that the airports could learn is probably to place the numbers seen below on the above white square boards affixed to the posts instead on the yellow spot markers. Well since they aren't in any process of doing that... yet... make it your business to learn how it works. On your ticket you are given a boarding position. You are no longer given just a gate number and seat number. Seat number no longer matters. But I'll get to that in a moment. This boarding position number is the same number you are supposed to be standing on in line. So learn and pay attention people. Social Distance!!

2) Open Seating is now available. 

For anyone with a disability of any kind or for sake of not offending another individual who wishes not to reference themselves as disabled in any way, this open seating business combined with pre-boarding business is pretty darn great! Once I was on the plane I could sit anywhere I liked as long as it wasn't the middle seat.  If I wanted to sit up front in row 2 I could choose to do that. Row 1 was reserved for the Stewards/Stewardesses of the plane so move your butts out of that seat!  How this helped me was that although I could not hear the loudspeakers on the plane or even in the airports for that matter and my eye sight is failing, I still had a keen eye on the people aiding others while on the plane and they knew when I needed help and when I did not. I could be one of the first ones off the plane or the last. Since I could not read their lips much like I can't for anyone on the loudspeaker and it takes an INCREDIBLE amount of work to try and hone in on what the loudspeaker is saying amongst all the plane and people shuffling noise, I didn't feel the need to. I didn't feel that I was really missing out.  I was up front what did I care? I had eyes and I knew when to get off the plane. I knew where my exit row was. Even a stewardess said Thank you to me in ASL. I was good and I felt comfortable and relaxed. I even fell asleep! (and I wasn't afraid to stay asleep through exiting of the plane...)

3)  Some employees made exceptions and lowered their mask.

I'm not saying everyone did this. But there were exceptions where I continuously said "What? I cannot hear you I'm Deaf and you're wearing that mask" or "I'm sorry but I cannot read your lips and I need to in order to hear you". This happened at the check in desk and until they saw my own notes that I wanted placed on my ticket saying that I am Deaf they just didn't seem to get it. Until they did and it was stalling their work so they lowered their mask to say "I can take your bag now..." or "go to gate number...". Obviously I can read a ticket...and if you'd pointed to my bag I could have gotten the hint to give it to you.

I am not afraid to say what I have to say on my travels. I get my point across. In this respect they were willing to accommodate in their own fashion and by their own ability in comfort by slightly lowering their mask (I guess they saw this as their only solution at the time or speed was an issue - sometimes our brains don't always think the right things to say or do in the moment). By lowering their masks slightly enough to see their lips,  I could read their lips and then covering their mouths back up again. Was this safe? You may be saying NO. Would airport personnel (HR) had a field day on it? Probably so.  At least they tried to communicate with me and knew I needed the information. Were there better options to this? Yes. A few. Take this for example:

This is the ClearMask

It's not the only mask out there as a solution but it's a good one.

I know they might not be economical for all to purchase but for large airports, resorts and the like, trust me, you can afford it! So why aren't you using them? I suppose like anything else, we are the afterthought.

This happened on very FEW occasions for me. I did meet a few who were unwilling to lower their mask even for a second. This was even more annoying for me. I then had to learn quickly that if I wanted their masks to stay on and they were unwilling to lower it, then I had to take action and lean in REAL CLOSE to hear them. Point my ear toward their mouth and concentrate to listen. Thankfully I'm glad I had that ability. For those that do not wear a cochlear implant I can see the issue!! Was this safe? Probably not. Were there better solutions? Well enough said. You get the idea.

I did what I had to do and they did what they had to do and somehow I made it to Mexico and back. I might not have got to hear everything, understand everything, but I made it home without getting put into a government facility for simply being Deaf. This, I was originally afraid of over being afraid of catching COVID-19. Remember! 

4) No one asked me questions through immigration and security (unless I did not follow the rules... those known or not known) which was a HUGE change from before COVID-19.  

Security and immigrations employees simply wanted me to lower my mask for a moment (communicating this by lowering their own mask) in order to show them that my face looked the same as on my passport photo.  It took all of 1 minute to occur and then I was on my way. I wasn't asked where I was going, how long I'd be there or what my business was there This was a nice change!! And I felt relieved for it was one of my biggest concerns prior to leaving Maine.

The only issue I remember having was on my way home from Mexico getting through security to get to my gate and having vanilla packed in my carry on and not my checked luggage. 

If you can avoid doing this folks, please do. Buy your souvenirs while on the island during your stay and not as an afterthought as I had this time. For lack of a better excuse I just had no time to do this during my FAM and at my own lack of thinking in the moment I purchased as an afterthought. So that TSA employee had to ask questions and again, I explained my situation. Again, mask lowering, social distancing. The guy knew social distancing was key in mask lowering. Nice move. 


Like those little unknown fillers in our food products we have additives to this as well. 

My experience is not like everyone else's but for the Deaf (all Deaf...) we would be EXTREMELY appreciative if you selected your masks carefully!  Hey, even if for understanding safety sake and we do care about our own safety just like you may. I don't expect miracles. I'm just simply HOPING people out there will READ THIS and CARE. Everyone seems to care about the BLM movements, LGB movements, Politics, Roe Vs Wade and what have you.... Can you CARE about us too perhaps? We are tired of being an afterthought....CARING about us has been all we ever wanted.

And for my Deaf friends out there, I hope this article helps you feel safer about traveling. Take the risk. We can't change the choices some people make. It doesn't matter if we are Deaf or Hearing or whatever we are. We can for all intents and purposes learn to go with the flow in life in order to find enjoyment rather than sadness or fear.

As a Deaf Travel Agent, I can most definitely have your plane tickets written to MAKE SURE they know you are Deaf at the airport and I can most certainly let them know at the resorts and hotels. While I cannot guarantee the stupidity of some Americans in thinking you need a wheelchair at the airport gate (how the heck did they ever come to this conclusion right?!) I can say that people out there ARE learning. We still need to communicate. So communicate yourselves freely!!

Your Travel Agent
Tammy :)

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