Donna Williams: “Deaf help Deaf.” Discovering my Deaf passport

Posted on July 4, 2013

In March and April, in the space of a few weeks, I first travelled to Nepal with Elmbury Expedition, then on my own around America to visit ASL poets as part of a project called Deaf Explorer.

The Elmbury Expedition are a group of more than 20 people who raised funds throughout 2012 – 2013 to support schools for the deaf in Nepal; the trip was to see where the money would go and to further establish links between schools for the deaf in Nepal and Bristol.

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It was an absolutely amazing trip, and well as realising how much we have to be grateful for (to be covered in a future post) I realised I have access to a very special passport.

This passport held good in America too, on the other side of the world, and from talking to other deaf people who have travelled far and wide, it seems this passport will be accepted anywhere. It’s invisible, intangible and requires no stamps, but it’s real and it exists.

It’s my Deaf Passport.

The procedure for using it was simple. All I had to do was wander around a public place and sign with a friend. Eventually, a passing local would notice us signing and come up to introduce themselves: “Hi, are you deaf? Me too! Where are you from?”

From there, adventures would happen, from being led to a local (or not so local) deaf club, to a tour of the local deaf establishments, to invitations to cafes with deaf clientele to invites to deaf people’s houses. The warmth and generosity of the people I met in Nepal – and America – cannot be understated.

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Sign language was the great leveller. I don’t speak a word of Nepalese, but I chatted to deaf masseurs, loom weavers, carers, cleaners and teachers equally and whilst it was tricky at first, with the help of a friend who knew some Nepalese sign language I started to pick it up and after a while I was able to communicate independently, at least well enough to answer questions on why I was in Nepal.

People were always curious to know where we had come from and as far as I could tell, delighted to meet others who could sign. Conversation was stilted and full of mistakes, but with signs and gestures, we could usually get past them. It was brilliant. I was able to get a unique insight into life in Nepal that I suspect is not afforded to the average traveller.

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My Deaf Passport had other benefits. One deaf man invited us – by then, a group of three, everyone else had gone river rafting (not with my knees) or trekking (ditto) – to his family home north of Kathmandu. Seventy miles as the crow flies, it was a three-hour mini-coach ride up and around and down some mountains, on a very bumpy and twisty road, where the coach was never more than a couple of feet from a sheer drop and certain death. The views were fantastic.

On some corners where we got a little close to the edge I had the chance to reflect on my life, on others, I simply shut my eyes and hoped for the best. Obviously, we made it unscathed, perhaps due in no small part to all the lucky charms hanging from the rearview mirror and all the Buddha postcards tacked to the dashboard. I digress.

Those other benefits of the Deaf Passport – information and assistance from experienced locals. It seems that for the mini-coach, there are fixed fares, and whilst the price for the average traveller was pretty high, the fare for disabled passengers was a lot lower (naturally, this was written in Nepalese on a sign in said mini-coach) and the deaf man who was guiding us successfully negotiated this lower fare for all four of us. When we thanked him, he simply replied “deaf help deaf.” I found this such a simple, yet powerful statement of solidarity.

Once we arrived, he showed us around the town and took us to his family home, where we were treated like old friends. We were even invited to stay, and we did – that day was one of the most amazing we had in Nepal; the mountain ride, seeing Bidur, swimming in the river Trisuli, getting caught in a squall, meeting and chatting to a warm welcoming family who made us feel like honoured guests, eating real Nepalese food and generally experiencing a beautiful – but also enlightening – side of Nepal.

Would any of it have been possible without our Deaf Passport?

It worked in America, too. Again, all I had to do was sign with whoever I was with, and passing deaf people – or hearing signers – would present themselves, and so it was that I met and chatted to a CODA who worked as a guard at the Chicago Institute of Art, a nice couple who were wandering around the park in Chicago, a random guy on the street in New York, a shop manager at LaGuardia, a shop assistant in DC and an airline employee at Ronald Reagan airport.

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In all of these cases, deafness and sign language gave me an instant connection with whoever I was talking to. It didn’t matter where we were from or how different our lives were; we had something in common and a way to communicate.

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I don’t know that much International Sign Language, but gestures, a common ground, a willingness to learn and a keenness to communicate across the language barriers go a long way. Visiting Nepal and America would have been amazing trips on their own, but with the help of my Deaf Passport, they were fantastic.

Donna Williams is a Contributing Editor to this site. She is a Deaf writer and blogger living in Bristol and studying part-time in Cardiff. As well as being a postgrad student, she’s a BSL poet, freelance writer, NDCS Deaf Role Model presenter, and occasional performer. She tweets as@DeafFirefly

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