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Don’t be Afraid to Travel with Hearing Loss: How Communication can be Better Overseas

Photo by Agustín Diaz on Unsplash

I have traveled quite a bit over the course of my life. From family vacations – to mission trips – to several years working abroad in Indonesia and Ghana, I have tried to see as much of the globe as I can. I even met my husband in Ghana and got married there. Traveling is in my blood. But as someone with moderate hearing loss, travel can also pose some unique challenges. I always worry that I won’t hear my boarding call when waiting for my flight and end up in the wrong zone or miss my flight altogether (while I have gotten in the wrong group to board, I have yet to miss my flight). Here are some tips for traveling with hearing loss and some ways communication is actually easier overseas!

Don’t Be Afraid To Ask for Help

Gate agents are there to help you. If you worry that you won’t hear your boarding call, explain your situation to the agent. They can make sure you board on time and in your correct group. The same goes for train or boat travel. Even if you are in a non-English speaking country, most people who work in the tourism industry can speak English and are willing and able to help you. If you can’t find an agent, your fellow travelers are usually able to help. When I have traveled by train, there is always someone willing to tell me if I am at the correct stop. Generally, people are friendly and want to assist fellow travelers.

There are Usually Signs Everywhere

The airport always has signs directing you to your gate and letting you know your departure time and gate location. The same is usually true for train stations (but not always, especially in a developing country). But if you can’t find the signs to direct you where you need to go, there are always agents around that can help. Or you can usually find maps and directions in English inside the terminal.

Hand Signals: an Effective Form of Communication

When I lived in Indonesia, I walked everywhere. I would often get a bit lost as I was exploring and have to stop to ask directions from someone who didn’t speak English. I found if I said “Paris Van Java?”, the main mall in Bandung, the city I was in, they could always point me in the right direction. Even general conversations could be had mainly using hand signals. If ASL is your primary language, you can usually get away with writing down a few words and using gestures to explain yourself. On the plus side, many people in non-English speaking countries can write English better than they can speak it. And people are often more willing to have a written conversation overseas than they would in the U.S. Especially in Indonesia, I found there were a lot of people who jumped at the chance to practice their English, whether by writing or speaking. Teach them some signs and you may find a new friend who is willing to show you around and introduce you to new adventures.

Don’t Be Afraid To Ask People to Repeat Themselves

I say “What?” a lot. I’ve found that if I am constantly asking someone to repeat themselves in the U.S., they tend to get annoyed. On the contrary, when I don’t understand someone overseas, they assume it’s because of their accent. They are usually more gracious to repeat themselves multiple times or say something in a different way so you can understand them. They also don’t tend to dismiss you by saying, “Never mind.”

If People Don’t Understand You, They Think it’s Because of Your Accent

Because I can’t hear certain soft speech sounds, I don’t always enunciate my words properly. Or I may not pronounce a word correctly. While some people are understanding, others are not. However, when I am abroad, people just assume it’s because of my accent. I would say ‘American accent’ but I’ve frequently been told that I don’t sound ‘American’. Most people tend to guess that I am German by the way I talk and by the way I look (my heritage is mainly German so that makes sense). But I have never had anyone ask me if I have hearing loss based on my accent (or on the fact that I can’t understand them).

Find the Local Deaf Advocacy Group or Visit A Deaf School

Different countries have different resources for people with hearing loss. If you are in Europe or another wealthy country, the local Deaf advocacy group may have different resources for you as a traveler or be able to recommend places to go and people you can connect to. If you are in a developing country, there are often very few opportunities and resources for those with hearing loss. Oftentimes isolated, a person with hearing loss has little communication with their society and denied educational or work opportunities. By visiting a school or group, you can provide encouragement and connection. And you can advocate for change by your example.

It may seem intimidating to travel when you have hearing loss. But you will usually find that people are willing to help and it is easier to communicate than you initially thought. Don’t be afraid to get out and explore!

About the Author

Jenny Beck is a chiropractor and advocate for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community. She has had moderate hearing loss since a very young age. She is passionate about health, travel, writing and spending time with her family.