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Mrs. Sariah Ibrahim shares good and bad memories of
travelling as a Deaf person
By Angela Lynn

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Mrs. Sariaj Ibrahim is a remarkable Deaf woman who travels the world to empower and uplift Deaf communities. She’s married with three grown sons and is also a proud grandmother of two. With over 30 years of dedicated involvement, she now plays a pivotal role at the Negeri Sembilan Deaf Association (NESDA) in Malaysia, located in Negeri Sembilan.

Sariah, a respected figure with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, serves as a social worker, Deaf interpreter, and counselor for NESDA, and she also holds the prestigious position of president at the Malaysian Deaf Advocacy and Welfare Association (DAWN).

Which destinations have you enjoyed the most and why? 

I have travelled to various destinations as a Deaf traveller, with Japan, Singapore and Indonesia among my favourite places.

Japan is known for its advanced facilities for people with disabilities, providing a comfortable environment for them. In contrast, Indonesia, a neighboring country to Malaysia, lags in facilities that are friendly to people with disabilities, but Deaf individuals there have learned to be more self-reliant. During my time in Japan, I marvelled at their friendly facilities and advanced technology for people with disabilities. High-tech devices like light-up alarms, doorbells, disability-friendly emergency buttons and even sign language interpreters on TV made it easy for people with disabilities to navigate without hindrances. These were technological advancements not available in Malaysia at the time. My friend took me to visit a local Nara Deer Park in Nara, a city in Japan. We arrived in the early evening, even though it was only 4 pm. When I offered food to the deer, how did they react? Did they snatch it eagerly? Not at all! The deer displayed remarkable politeness towards those who fed them. But how did they express this politeness? Some of the antlered deer would playfully chase after guests holding food. However, once they reached a guest, they would bow their heads as a sign of respect, asking for a treat. This gracious gesture, where the deer bowed their heads, is reminiscent of a Japanese cultural custom. It’s a memory that I will cherish, as it was truly heartwarming.

During my trips to Indonesia, shopping was a must due to its affordability and vast selection. However, one must exercise caution, as the area is known for pickpockets. On one occasion, my bag was torn from behind, and my money was stolen by an unseen perpetrator who had been following me closely. It served as a reminder to remain vigilant while exploring the bustling markets.

As a Deaf traveller, what resources do you typically use to seek accessible travel information and advice?

As a Deaf woman and a Muslim, I often face challenges due to society’s misconceptions about my appearance. Preparation is key when embarking on a journey, whether for tourism or travel. Gathering information online, from traveller books, and considering factors like health and security are essential.

Responsibilities to family and work should also be addressed before leaving. While in a foreign country, it’s important to maintain self-confidence, be prepared for unexpected challenges, interact with locals, and effectively resolve conflicts. Tolerance, regardless of differences in religion or race, is crucial. Understanding and respecting the local culture and identifying accessible facilities are also vital aspects of travelling.

Have you had any unexpected challenges as a Deaf traveller, and if so, how did you overcome them? 

I travelled alone to Brisbane, Australia, to attend the WFD Conference. Unlike previous trips, no one was there to welcome me at the airport. I waited in the arrivals area for a while, feeling puzzled and wondering why no one came to pick me up. This was my first solo trip, and I had to figure things out on my own. I approached the airport counter and asked for directions to the city, where I needed to find accommodation near the event venue. They provided me with a map and instructed me to take a bus to the city, where I would have to navigate on my own. This experience taught me how to handle solo travel and discover more about myself along the way as an international traveller.

In your experience as a Deaf Malaysian, have you noticed any differences in communication with hearing and Deaf people in terms of language and culture?

As a Deaf Malaysian, I have encountered various forms of communication used by Deaf people, including different approaches embraced by hearing people.

However, my most significant learning experiences came from interacting with Deaf people from different countries who did not use Malaysian Sign Language, which presented unique communication challenges. During our orientation on the first day, we were introduced to International Sign Language by a Deaf teacher and a Deaf sign interpreter. It was my first experience learning International Sign Language, and it opened new possibilities for smoother communication. During breaks, I observed a group of Deaf people conversing in Japanese Sign Language and eagerly learned from their interactions. Eventually, I became proficient in both Japanese Sign Language and International Sign Language, which was a rewarding experience while travelling different places together. I also found Japanese culture to be distinct and intriguing. In Japan, it’s customary to bow slightly when greeting someone, which is different from Western cultures where greetings may involve hugging or kissing on the cheek. I appreciated the Japanese way of greeting, as it minimized physical contact and felt safer, especially in the context of avoiding the spread of infections like COVID-19.

Where have you had some of your most memorable travel experiences?

China: During my stay in Beijing, I decided to explore the subway system with a friend, seeking a new adventure. We were filled with excitement as we purchased our tickets and selected a destination that was conveniently connected to our hotel via the same train line. While capturing photos at the station, our enthusiasm was abruptly interrupted by a man who approached us assertively. He aggressively attempted to snatch our camera, but we implored him not to do so. In that tense moment, we were unsure of his identity; he could have been an imposter or a plainclothes police officer due to his neat attire. Our fear escalated as bystanders remained unresponsive, and our inability to communicate with him added to the distress. Our predicament took a turn when two uniformed police officers arrived and intervened on our behalf. They instructed us to board the next train immediately and, overwhelmed by fear, we did so without verifying the destination. It turned out that we had unknowingly boarded a train heading in the opposite direction, taking us far from our hotel. Our anxiety deepened as we realized that no further public transportation was available when we disembarked at the station. To make matters worse, the exit doors were locked due to the late hour, and the station counter was unattended. We scoured each exit door in search of assistance until we finally encountered a security guard who unlocked one for us. Stepping outside, we found ourselves in unfamiliar surroundings, distant from our hotel. Adding to our distress, we discovered that we had left our wallets behind, with only a few coins in my pocket. The clock indicated that it was already 11 pm, and there were no public transportation options in sight. Our only recourse was to consider taking a taxi, despite our limited funds and the late hour. With trepidation, we hailed a taxi and negotiated a fare with the remaining funds we possessed. Thankfully, the taxi driver was understanding, and we reached our hotel safely. It was an unforgettable experience, one that left an indelible mark on our journey.

Washington D.C.: I was honoured to be selected by Gallaudet University, U.S. to attend DeafWay II. The prospect of visiting America, a country known for the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and its superior facilities for Deaf individuals, filled me with excitement. It was a dream come true, a desire I’d harboured for a long time, nurtured by countless American movies I’d watched. My journey began with a flight to Singapore and then a transfer in Hong Kong. I encountered multiple stringent security checks, including the scanning of my shoes, at these airports – a novel experience for me. The heightened security measures were a response to the aftermath of the 9/11 incident and reflected the increased vigilance for visitors to the U.S. Upon reaching Los Angeles Airport, a sprawling expanse, my anxiety was further heightened when I learned of a shooting incident. Our plane was forced to halt, waiting for instructions for an extended period. I couldn’t fathom why we weren’t moving toward the gate, and it wasn’t until nearly two hours later that the plane resumed its journey. We taxied closer to the airport terminal, and passengers were instructed to disembark and board a shuttle bus. Initially puzzled by the decision, I later understood that the safety of passengers was the top priority, as explained by the crew. This meant a rush to catch my connecting flight, which was located quite a distance away. Upon reaching the connecting counter, I presented my boarding pass, underwent an inspection, and was asked to remove my shoes for scanning. Fortunately, I managed to board the United Airlines flight, all of this being a consequence of the earlier incident, which compelled me to hurriedly catch my connecting flight to Washington DC. During the flight, fatigue, hunger and jet lag took their toll, causing me to fall asleep. However, the flight attendants distributed a light meal to all passengers except me, as they didn’t want to wake me. Upon waking up, I naturally felt hungry and wished to request food from the flight attendants, but they declined. Their reason? We were nearing our landing in Chicago, where we had a connecting flight, and there was no time for in-flight meals. Upon arriving in Chicago, I was promptly directed to my next flight. After enduring a long journey, I found myself both exhausted and famished, with no opportunity to purchase food. My final leg took me directly to Washington DC. This 24-hour journey, which involved three flights, the shooting incident in Los Angeles, time zone adjustments, and stringent security checks, presented numerous challenges that I will never forget.

Where’s the next place you’re excited to visit?

I long to reconnect with dear friends in Japan and the U.S. driven by a desire to bridge the physical distance that separates us. However, my commitment to government-mandated teaching responsibilities requires careful financial planning for these reunions. With hope for an extended vacation and a managed budget, I am thankful for the assistance of my friend in Singapore in reconnecting with my close friend in the U.S. where I eagerly anticipate their upcoming wedding. I hold onto the hope of reuniting with my friend from Japan.

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