Traveling Deaf and Fearless

By SoFe Travel Editors
Posted on

“I tear down preconceived misconceptions that people with disabilities ‘cannot’. This concept drives me to show the world that the only thing a deaf person cannot do is hear.”

Meet Chelsea Lew, a 30-something American who is a force of solo travel inspiration. Its not because she happens to be deaf (although that makes her and her story even more amazing), she travels with a bravery and a resourcefulness that define the solo female traveler spirit.

This interview is part of her story.

Chelsea Lew in Bali

Give us a sense of how much you travel in your life.

How does a nomad answer this question? Let me put it this way. My mom texted me recently and said she was going through her phone and trying to delete information that was not relevant. She counted 43 residences/addresses for me since I graduated college in 2009. This doesn’t include where I was living/staying when abroad. 

I’m Jewish, so when we turn 12/13, we celebrate becoming adults. Most people have big parties, almost like a wedding. My dad asked me, do you want a party or do you want to go to Africa. Um, forget the party, let’s get my passport ready!

When was your first solo trip? Where did you go and what were some challenges and amazing moments? 

I guess my first “adult” solo trip where I didn’t fly with anyone I knew or to meet up with anyone I knew would be to Portugal in 2009. Amazing moments included exploring on MY itinerary and at MY pace, whenever and wherever I wanted and eating unlimited pastries without judgement. 

Remember my comment about preconceived notions? Even though I’m deaf, I’m actually proficient in Spanish. In college, a second language proficiency is required to graduate, and my advisor said I can waive it because of my disability. I said NO, I want to go through the same experience everyone else did, so I continued my studies from high school in Spanish. Even though they speak Portuguese in Portugal, having some experience with reading lips in a foreign language helped me so much to communicate with the locals. It was a challenge, because I already struggle reading lips in English, now try reading lips in a foreign language, with an accent! 

I also couldn’t hear the bus or train announcements. Not all transportation systems have LED screens for you to read where you are and where you are going. I definitely got lost often and made a lot of mistakes. It’s also a challenge not coming across as being rude. If someone is behind me and says ‘excuse me,’ obviously it’s going to look like I’m standing my ground. I just got to ignore it and keep smiling. 

Chelsea Lew Featured Member

For most people, going to a country where they don’t speak the language is intimidating. Do you feel you have any extra challenges communicating when traveling?

I thrive on challenges, I’m fluent in ASL and I love charades. I got this! Communication doesn’t always have to be verbal. There are so many ways to express yourself, your needs and your goals. The language barrier doesn’t affect me. Instead it’s my FOMO due to my extroverted nature that I feel held back. it’s the inability to eavesdrop and jump in on conversations especially at hostels or during group activities. 

When someone hearing is with me and understands my situation, they help fill in the gaps so I can be part of conversations, but when I’m by myself I have to be extra and random to draw attention and approach people. I like to think that being deaf actually gives me the advantage over hearing people when traveling. I’m already so comfortable letting people know “hey, repeat that please” or “I don’t understand”. I’ve noticed many hearing people are scared to speak up about this and leave confused. I’m also comfortable pulling out my phone or pen and paper to write things down, I’m comfortable holding up lines until all my needs are fulfilled, I’m already super patient and I’m more visually aware to catch on small things others can’t. I can ALWAYS find Waldo.  

Being deaf while traveling also has its perks. Admission to many places are free (everywhere in Japan) and I’m allowed to cut the line. Hello no ticket needed for the Louve. Walked right in despite the 3 hour wait.

Does being deaf impact your travel choices?

That’s a flat out no.

I travel to music concerts even though I’m deaf, I go scuba diving even though there is risk for the implant after a certain number of feet, I climb and rapel mountains and canyons even though I can’t hear or see my belay partner, I rent/drive cars even if I can’t hear them honking at me. 

I mentioned the issue with public transport and lack of hearing announcements. This is really my biggest deaf challenge all in all. I’ve missed so many flights, buses, trains over the years because of this, but I’ve learned to adapt as I go. My second biggest challenge doesn’t impact my travel choices but it’s made me aware of a limitation that I will always have; navigating through and driving scooters. I’m also trying my hardest not to die when I cross streets.

Chelsea Lew Featured Member Holi

What are your future travel plans?

I’ve just built out my Toyota Rav4 into a camper car, and I’ll be leaving this month on a socially distanced, solo road trip around the country! I really like to wing things so I will start with Colorado and Utah and work my way up, around and about. Depending how the borders open up, I would love to continue exploring the world again. I work remotely full time for a deaf non-profit and am allowed to work anywhere in the world, so I’m truly grateful to have the capability to be the master of my own adventures in life. 

What message would you like to pass on to our community?

Direct your energy to those that want to be part of the solution.

This might seem way off point, but I say this because life is a struggle. Life as a woman is a struggle. Life as a woman who is part of a minority group (whether it’s your religion or disability or race or sexual preference) is a struggle. Life as a SOLO woman when everyone is questioning your intentions, reasons, capabilities is a struggle. Don’t let who you are and what you want hold you back. Don’t accept “you can’t” or “you’ll fail”. Surround yourself by people who say “you can” and “you will”. Don’t doubt yourselves and you can achieve anything you want. Ask me how I will support you, and I only ask of you to reciprocate that sense of respect. 

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