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Deaf Abroad

There is no limit on the ways travel changes lives and opens us up to the world around us. Traveling with a Deaf identity may seem tricky at first, but with a little extra planning it shouldn’t and won’t prevent you from enjoying moments abroad. As a student at Gallaudet University who is part of the Deaf community you are fortunate to already have unique “deaf connections” with international Deaf communities.


The unique “deaf connection” relationship is based on a feeling of Deaf similitude. It’s often called “Deaf Same” or “Deaf Deaf Same” in Deaf communities, which means “I am Deaf and you are Deaf, so we are the same.” The conception of likeness from “DEAF SAME” boosts a deaf person’s abilities to transcend geography, culture, space, and time, and creates a sense of a universal deaf community. It also helps to immediately create claims of affiliation between Deaf people from different cultural, economic, geographic, racial, and religious backgrounds.

There are a lot of inaccessible guides or tourist information for Deaf people, and very few guide services or centralized information resources are provided in sign language. However, Deaf people often use the power of “DEAF SAME” to help them travel or live in host countries. Using Deaf resources will help you understand what kind of rights and services are available in your host country.

Recognize your privileges and understand your rights

Despite our beliefs about what Deaf people should have the right to do around the world, we need to reach a balance of maintaining our identity and respecting the culture we are visiting. Sit down and consider how your Deaf identify might limit your experience of the world if you were not an American. “Deaf Same” doesn’t mean all deaf people in the world have the same rights.

In the United States we are fortunate to have the Americans with Disabilities Act and other laws to protect disabled people’s rights and requests for reasonable accommodations. Unfortunately, most other countries in the world don’t have strong disability laws. For example, if you need to access the hospital, there might not be an actual sign language interpreter on-call, and most countries require deaf people to pay for the interpreter instead of the government.
In the United States, Deaf people are used to being active and free to do anything. Yet, in some parts of the world, the role of a disabled person is to stay at home, hopeless about the future. While you are traveling, you might notice most of the administrator positions at Deaf schools are dominated by hearing people while deaf people face severe discrimination and are stuck with entry level jobs at Deaf schools.

Being culturally sensitive is an important step towards understanding and integrating into your host culture. Be observant of disability roles, customs, and norms. Getting to know Deaf people in the host culture can help you understand your observations and teach you how to navigate the norms and expectations.

Overcoming Language Barriers

Sign Language users are the real masters of cross-cultural communication. In contrast to what many people think, deaf people actually have the advantage of knowing sign language when traveling in other countries. American Sign Language is not a universal sign language, but ASL is useful for basic universal gestural communication.

A simple gesture might be crystal clear, but seem more complex for someone who doesn’t know sign language. For example, when you want to order a cup of coffee in a local coffee shop, you might start by miming three parts: “one”, “small”, and “drink.” Then you shake your head no or nod yes to pick the right kind of coffee when the cashier points to different kinds. This simple transaction could be difficult for a cashier who doesn’t know enough English to understand “I would like to order a small latte.” Your use of gestural communication made that purchase easier for both of you.

Gestural communication also helps members of the Deaf community communicate with each other. At international Deaf conferences, many Deaf attendees have different sign languages.Yet, they still manage to get their message across without any struggle or difficulty.

Just ditch the translation app and speaking. You will experience engaging directly with local residents when you use gestural communication. Non-signers might need time and practice to be good at cross-cultural communication, but signers are automatically masters at it. Gestures help to get your point across and allow you to converse no matter where you are in the world.

Deaf Travel Hacking

”Travel hacking” is a hot buzzword lately. Unlike computer hacking, “travel hacking” is completely legal and much less complex than an NSA spy algorithm. Travel hacking tends to mean the art of collecting rewards or points from credit cards or frequent flier memberships. When people sign up for a new airline credit card they earn free points and redeem these points for free roundtrip flight tickets. But what does this term means for deaf travelers or travelers with disabilities?

Did you know that in most of European countries visitors with disabilities can enter public museums for free or at heavily reduced rates? This information tends to not be advertised well or shown on the price list. You will need to ask if there are any concession tickets for people with disabilities. Museums offer free or reduced admissions because most of them can’t provide other accommodations for the Deaf. This hack will save you a lot of money!  Other hacks are probably available. To find them, all it requires is some creative thinking, a willingness to try, and excellent sleuthing skills.

*It is advisable to do some reading regarding culture-specific norms and attend orientation before your departure. Knowing about the culture-specific norms of disability rights in the country where you are headed is especially essential.


The National Clearinghouse on Disability & Exchange (NCDE) has a list of resources about the Inclusion of Deaf/Hard of Hearing Students in International Exchange.

Mobility International USA (MUISA) has a list of resources and stories about Deaf students abroad in ASL and IS (International Sign).