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Hearing Loss and Border Scrutiny: A Personal Saga By Lorne Smith


Is the SayWhatClub considered a subversive organization? More
specifically, is there a way to enter the United States for a SayWhatClub
convention without arousing international suspicion?

I live within five miles of the Canada-U.S. border and enter the United States
often for vacations, overnight getaways and day trips. The questions I get from
U.S. Customs officers are routine and straightforward:

“What do you do for a living?”
“Where are you headed?”
“Are you bringing anything you plan to leave behind, such as gifts?”

I just answer those simple questions and I’m on my way within 30 seconds.
Almost always. The exception is the one time each year when I try to clear U.S.
Customs to attend the SayWhatClub convention.

Customs officers probably interview about a thousand people a day, of all
nationalities, traveling for any number of purposes. Yet once a year when I
mention that I’m attending a convention of people with hearing loss, I’m met
with a stunned look that indicates the officer has never heard that answer

Why is it so hard for customs officers to understand that a person with hearing
loss would travel across the border to meet others with hearing loss? And what
harm could we possibly do? Do they think we’re plotting a silent revolution?

Last year, I faced the double challenge of trying to legally enter the United States
for a SayWhatClub convention while trying to beat long-weekend border lineups
that can extend beyond two hours in length.

I knew my plan of entry would require precision. To avoid the peak lineups, I
would cross under cover of darkness in the late evening. And to escape the
extra scrutiny that I always receive for associating with SayWhatClub members,
I would disclose my two main destinations but not my primary mission.

This would be easy, I thought. After all, my plan was to include a four-day SWC
convention in the middle of a two-week vacation that would begin with a trip to
Yellowstone National Park. When the border guard asked the purpose of my trip, I would honestly reply, “I’m going to Yellowstone and Denver.”

Those would seem like perfectly normal places for a harmless tourist from the west
coast of Canada to visit, unlike St. Louis, Philadelphia or some of the other SWC
convention destinations that I had tried hopelessly to explain away in past

The first part of my plan worked brilliantly. Arriving at the border at 10:25
p.m. on Friday, I found no other cars in sight. I could hardly contain my
excitement, but I dutifully paused at the two stop signs in front of the customs
booth to allow my car to first be scanned and then photographed.

As I pulled up to the booth, I noticed something out of the ordinary. Unlike the dour, gray-haired men who normally staffed the customs office in this highly conservative, rural American community, I was met by a fresh-faced, red-headed woman who was probably in her early twenties at most.

The questioning began as usual.
“What do you do for a living?”
“Where are you headed?”

I proudly delivered my well-rehearsed answer: “Yellowstone and Denver.”
Then came the follow-up question that ruined my plan.

“Are you meeting anyone there?” Uh oh. She got me.
“Yes, I belong to a group of people with hearing loss and we’re having a convention
in Denver for four days,” I replied honestly.

Things went downhill from there.
“What is the purpose of the convention?” she asked as she turned and
walked to the next window to look at my front license plate, her red pony-tail
bouncing behind her.

I wasn’t sure whether to answer while she had her back to me, or wait until she
returned. “I belong to a group of people with hearing loss and we get together once
a year,” I replied, as she turned and walked back toward the window where
she first met me.

She headed directly to her computer terminal and began tapping on the keyboard
without looking up, her face half obscured by the window, “What is the purpose of the convention?” she repeated, still looking at her computer screen.

Perhaps she hadn’t heard me, I thought. I stumbled through a variation of my standard answer.
“It’s a group of people with hearing loss and we get together once a year.”

“What is the purpose of the convention?” she asked again as she continued tapping at her keyboard.

I realized this was going nowhere.
“Perhaps if you’d look at me when you talk, we could understand each
other,” I thought to myself. I knew it was time to come clean and throw myself at her mercy. I paused. She looked up. Shrugging my shoulders, I threw my hands in the air and shook my
head.  “I’m sorry,” I began. (I hate that those words when discussing hearing loss, but they slip out when I’m frustrated.) “I’m hard of hearing,” I continued. “I don’t understand what you’re asking.”

“What do you do at the convention?” she asked.
Aha! She was making herself more clear by rephrasing the question.
I tried to hastily recall the convention workshop agenda in the three seconds I
had before needing to come up with an acceptable reply. “We have guest speakers and we do some sightseeing,” I answered as best I could without appearing to hesitate.

“So the purpose of the convention is socializing,” she stated in verification.
“Yes,” I sighed with relief. Mission accomplished.

Finally, I understood the purpose of her questioning. This was a pleasure trip, not a business trip. I wasn’t planning to deliver a paid lecture or sell products or attend professional-development workshops. I’m just a person with hearing loss who likes to get together with other people with hearing loss, for fun.

Why is that so hard to explain?

0 thoughts on “Hearing Loss and Border Scrutiny: A Personal Saga By Lorne Smith”

  1. Chuckling…imagine what goes through the Customs officer’s mind when they hear about a bunch of HOH people gathering for a convention. It would sound phony immediately…how would these people hear any of the speakers? Whatever for would they get together in the first place?? A quilting bee would be a better excuse to enter the country.

    Other explanation…maybe a similar organization is on the terrorist watch list. It would give subversives a convenient reason not to communicate if their English is poor.

  2. I do tend to worry that the customs officer is going to read me wrong if I don’t hear a question and think I’m looking guilty of something rather just not hearing his or her question

  3. Gee, and they wonder why people sometimes resort to lying to avoid the invasive questions! That would have ticked me off to no end!

  4. Boy Lorne, never knew you had to go through all that to come into the country. Hope you get the usual guy next time.

  5. I really enjoyed this post. I thought about how as you posted this I was being welcomed home in Washington DC— only to have them pull us aside minutes later to have our back packs sniffed by bomb-sniffing dogs– the very back packs we had just flown over the Atlantic with. Crossing borders can be nerve-wracking and even more so when you can’t hear. I was pretty sure I missed something when we were singled out for the sniffing. “Why are they doing this to us?” I asked my family. Lizzie bought wine in the Madrid airport I was informed.

    Missed you all, my deaf friends.

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