Andrew Niven: How travelling around the world changed my life as a deaf person

Posted on October 17, 2017

On the 26th April 2011, I left the UK to travel around the world.

This was a lifelong dream for me, because I have always been fascinated with planes, countries, culture, and food. I was nervous and excited, and when I took off from Gatwick, I knew there was no going back.

I didn’t know then how much my journey would change my life as a deaf person.

My decision to travel was sparked by my father back in October 2009. One day, I was talking to him, saying that I wished I could travel around the world. He told me that there was nothing stopping me, if I worked hard and saved up. My dad told me to go for it!

Sadly, just six months later, in March 2010, my dad died suddenly at the age of 58. It took me a long time to return to my job and try and come to terms with losing him.

I worked many hours in a residential home, kept busy, saved up and then in October, my siblings and I were told that dad had left some money for us.

After Christmas, I remembered what dad had said to me and I booked my trip, using my hard-earned savings, and knowing I had what dad had left me as backup (which came in handy later on).

I bought a Round the World ticket for one year, including a Working Holiday Visa in Australia, where I spent the last nine months of my trip.

I also visited Barbados, Miami, California, Las Vegas, Colorado, San Francisco, the Cook Islands, and New Zealand.

While in Australia, I picked up temporary work, such as being a kitchen assistant, posting flyers, and working as a car attendant.

One funny memory is my interview for the kitchen assistant position. The lady who owned the café offered me the job but apologised for not knowing Braille!  I politely let her know that Braile is for Blind people not deaf people!

But, being deaf, there were times in Australia when I felt isolated. At that time I didn’t know any sign language.

One day, I met an interpreter from Perth, who invited me to an interpreter’s conference to get a taste of what they do.

The interpreter asked me why I didn’t sign. I explained that I WAS encouraged by my mum to sign when I was a toddler up to my teenage years, but I got embarrassed when mum signed to me in front of my hearing friends, and this memory stuck with me.

The interpreter then asked me if I learnt French or German at school and was I embarrassed by that? I said no, and at that moment I realised sign language is a language and is nothing to be ashamed of.

So I got in touch with the Deaf community in Melbourne and Sydney, and got involved with their social events and tried to learn sign language, Auslan – fortunately quite similar to BSL.

The Deaf community in Australia accepted me and I made lots of friends, and it was there, for the first time in my life, that I learnt about Deaf culture.

Kindly, one friend in Sydney and one in Perth welcomed me to their home for a few months. In exchange for buying them food and doing the cleaning, they taught me sign language.

There was one very frightening moment. One day, I was opening my bedroom window, and my hand went through it. I cut my wrist and I was losing blood quite rapidly so I was rushed to hospital by ambulance.  I spent three days in hospital and had an operation on my wrist. I was told I was very close to severing the tendons in my hand. Had that have happened, I might have had to give up signing when I’d only just started!

When I got out of hospital, the Perth Deaf community thought I had self-harmed myself!!! Convincing them I hadn’t was hard work – especially with one arm in a sling and only knowing basic signs.

I came home in April 2012 after one year away. I was a new person, eager to learn sign and hopefully find a job that involved signing.

Eventually, I found a job with a support agency that supported Deaf clients and I worked for them for three years, all the while learning every day and getting involved in Deaf events, mixing with the Deaf community.

I do remember asking for Coca Cola at one social night at Nottingham Deaf Society. But I signed it Auslan way which is a swear word in BSL!

It took some adjusting to go from Auslan to BSL but I am now a daily signer thanks to my housemate, friends, and work.

I sometimes find it a bit of muddle going from speaking and listening with my hearing friends and family to signing with my Deaf peers, but I’ve kept learning and I recently passed my Level 3 BSL exams and have just enrolled to do Level 6.

Today, I see what a beautiful expressive language sign language is and wish I hadn’t been so embarrassed about it when I was younger (sorry mum!).

My trip around the world gave me a sense of belonging in the Deaf community for the first time, and a new language.

Andrew Niven is 35 years old, and currently work as a BSL PA with his local council for an agency. He also volunteers at Nottingham Deaf Society. He was born profoundly deaf, and went to mainstream school from the age of 6 years old. He learned to sign when he was 28, passing BSL level 3 in August 2017. He is now hoping to take his Level 6 next year. 

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