Bon Voyage? The World of Travel through Deaf Lens 

by Saudamini Pethe

In an attempt to look at the transport accessibility and travel experiences of Deaf individuals, Ms Saudamini Pethe, MA, LLB  pursuant sheds light on the challenges that such people face every single day. Commenting on society’s inability to create an accessible environment for Deaf travellers, this blog provides insights as to how these challenges can be resolved and provides suggestions and recommendations that can bring forth long term accessibility for the Deaf population.

Can you imagine holding a piece of paper to a complete stranger passing by, and asking him to vocalize what is written on it? Or ask them to answer a  phone call because you are unable to talk on the phone? These and several such  incidences are real-life happening for us, the Deaf community at large! The challenges that inaccessible apps offer, is just a glimpse of the wide range of barriers that we as Deaf travellers have to face each and every day when we try to commute to various places.

Travelling is in this sense is a tedious activity psychologically if not physically for the deaf individuals in India. It means that the travel experience may not be a  daunting physical activity, but it does certainly mean relying on the kindness of strangers, as mentioned in the earlier example. Even if it means using a public transport space such as Railway or Bus stations, there are no accessible modes of dispensing information either in signages or through the medium of Indian  Sign Language.

In this age of advanced technology where anyone can book a cab on their smartphones, and get doorstep services, inclusion and accessible services still remain a distant goal. Every single time a Deaf individual makes a cab booking in the app the cab driver gives a phone call asking for the destination. For someone who cannot speak on the phone, it is a very distressing feeling of helplessness. In addition to this, the navigation is not always exact and the driver has to be guided to reach the exact spot. Unless someone hearing is around while I hire my cab, guiding the driver becomes a herculean task. It again means resorting to help from neighbours or even passers-by who then guide the driver.

In the case of public transportation, there are attitudinal barriers where the transport staff lack awareness and therefore behave impatiently. Most of the time Deaf are mocked and made fun of for not being able to speak clearly. Other times their concession and free passes are not recognized and they are made to get down from the buses unless they pay. Sometimes Disabled reserved seating is also not given easily to Deaf people by fellow travellers because they don’t look  “disabled”.

The recent COVID-19 pandemic compelled wearing masks which further made it difficult for the Deaf to understand or lip read the speech of hearing people. While masks hinder communication even writing is restricted as many times written communication is not possible because the staff is not literate enough.  Also, people are not comfortable sharing pen paper, or mobile phones during  COVID times. And it also makes negotiation of fare difficult when a Deaf person tries to hire an auto-rickshaw from the road. Last-minute announcements about change in platform number of the arrival of a train at the station are not accessible to Deaf individuals. They have to rely on the movements and can realize the change by reading the gestures of fellow travellers.

Add to this the fact that not all deaf users are able to read. It essentially means that a mere installation of signages is not the one-size-fits-all solution it is thought to be. It would be advisable to use digital advertisement hoardings to display gifs denoting destinations in  ISL. The Deaf community has specific signs for specific destinations and if we take the help of technology we can surely provide gifs or something like that in ISL  to denote the destination on the display board, at railway and bus stations as well as on metros. Even the app can use this technology to improve accessibility for Deaf users.

The last important point that needs mentioning is the accessibility challenges that Deaf people face while signing up for an app or for transport services.  The majority of these require verification calls and again means resorting to a hearing person to take the call and verify. If the app or service facility can provide an option that can allow Deaf users to send a selfie holding their id card, it would reduce this stress of answering the phone and provide Deaf friendly services.

When it comes to disability, be it physical or mental trauma, the person has to face humiliation simply because of inaccessible surroundings. The Rights-Based Stance of the UNCRPD in 2006 has mandated to take a positive perspective towards the disabled population. This means the problem is caused not because of a person is disabled but because the society in which they live has barriers and lacks accessible facilities and services.

It is evident from the discussion that we have a long way to go when it comes to gaining accessible transport and travel platforms. One way to ensure this is to involve the Deaf experts and leaders while conducting accessibility audits and make sure that their feedback and suggestions are documented.  Implementation of these suggestions, as well as sensitisation and training for the staff of public transport about how to interact with Deaf passengers and travellers, can also increase in change of attitude of the people and provide better accessibility.

Given the circumstances and awareness about Indian Sign Language happening in the country, I wish to end this with a gleam of hope for the Deaf and the entire disabled community as well and look forward to a better world where independent travelling will exist, not just as a dream but a reality.


About the author: Saudamini Pethe is the first Deaf Woman (DLAW Fellow) pursuing Law in India. She is a prominent Deaf activist and member of several disability rights organisations.


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