I recently traveled to Cuba as part of a people-to-people cultural exchange program organized by Insight Cuba. It was a magnificent trip full of art, beauty, learning, eye-opening experiences and Cuban cigars. I highly recommend a visit if you have the opportunity and interest.
Before the trip I was concerned that my hearing loss would make things more challenging. Accents and unfamiliar words in a new language are always difficult for me to follow. I promised myself that I would advocate for myself to optimize my chances for good communication, but that I would also manage my frustration if I was not able to hear everything. Much of traveling can be enjoyed by simply taking a look around, and that was my plan, barring any catastrophes.
My trip taught me important lessons about traveling when you have hearing loss. See my tips below and please share yours in the comments.
Prepare In Advance
Research whatever location you are visiting in advance to see what hearing loss accommodations are available. Hotels in developed countries often have special rooms for people with hearing loss (flashing lights for the phone and doorbell) if you request them in advance. Many museums in larger cities provide hearing loops or other assistive technology if you know to ask for them. The same goes for theaters and other performance spaces. Use the internet or email the venues directly for up to date information.
In less developed countries, such as Cuba, few if any accommodations are available, but informing my tour company in advance let them know about my needs just in case.
Read up on your destination in advance to familiarize yourself with the names of places, important historical figures and the like. That way when you hear these names, they will sound more familiar and be easier for you to understand.
Advocate For Yourself
On the first day of the tour, I announced my hearing loss right up front, as I typically do in any new group situation. During the introductions and orientation, I mentioned my hearing loss and asked the guide to make a special effort to speak clearly and while facing the group whenever possible.
Before I even got the words out, she showed me her own two hearing aids. Quickly after, two other travelers in the group of 10 mentioned their own hearing issues. We all had a good laugh about how common hearing loss is. I was very lucky that my guide was well aware of the challenges of communicating for people with hearing loss. This is not always the case. Be sure to explain your needs fully.
I provided the same information to our local Cuban guide when we met him later in the day. He spoke English well, but with an accent, which is always a challenge for me. I let him know that I would be standing close to him while he was speaking so that I could hear him and see his face for lipreading. I didn’t want him to feel odd or uncomfortable with my constant presence.
Remind People What You Need
People often forget about hearing loss because it is invisible, so don’t be shy about reminding people about your needs. Through gentle prompting (the hand behind the ear usually works well) and frequent requests for the guide to use the microphone on the bus, I was able to understand most of what he said. When I had questions, I asked them, usually as a follow-up one-on-one later in order to keep the group moving.
When logistical information was given, the guide wrote down critical times and locations, which was appreciated by all of us, hearing loss or not.
Bring Ear Protection
I was amazed how loud traveling can be, particularly in an underdeveloped country. The old cars (most are 1950s American cars like in the photo) do not have noise suppression technology the way we do now. The trucks are equally old and smelly and cause quite a racket as they barrel down the streets of the small towns we visited. One evening I turned off my hearing aids to remove the auditory overload and enjoyed the visual peace and quiet of a small Cuban town. It made quite a difference.
Another day, we took a 15 minute ride on a commuter ferry, which I clocked at 95 decibels! I quickly turned off my hearing aids so they would act as earplugs, but I felt badly for others on my trip who did not have that option. I can only imagine the hearing damage suffered by the locals who use this ferry on a daily basis.
Enjoying local music performances is a wonderful part of traveling, but this can also be very loud. One local club was playing music at 110 decibels. I walked right out despite the wonderful performers. Nothing is worth damaging my hearing further.
Traveling is all about embracing different people and places, and my trip to Cuba was no different. With the right advance planning, self-advocacy behaviors and a positive attitude, traveling can be a wonderful experience for people with hearing loss. Where should I go next?
Readers, what tips do you have for traveling with hearing loss?