Zanna Messenger Jones has profound hearing difficulties. She volunteered with Outreach International in Ecuador
My disability and how it affects everyday life:
I am profoundly deaf, I wear a hearing aid and a cochlear implant and I prefer oral communication. With both hearing aids I hear about 30% of all conversation, which means that I miss out a lot in social settings such as meal times, and when in busy areas such as markets and train stations. I have to be extra careful when crossing roads and I don’t cycle alone as I can’t hear vehicles behind me. I sometimes miss announcements, e.g. at airports. I cannot hear on phones, which is difficult in emergencies. I have to be even more cautious when driving as I don’t hear emergency vehicles, motorcycles or bike bells.
Why I wanted to take a gap year:
I wanted to get out and explore the world, and to immerse myself in a completely different culture, learn a new language and meet new people. Ecuador was the start of new adventures. My sister had done a project with Outreach International and had a superb experience. I wanted something challenging with an organisation that came recommended. Outreach really knew their stuff and I felt confident with them.
The story of my gap year:
I flew to Quito and stayed with a host family and several volunteers. The first week was an intensive Spanish course. Although not specifically for disabilities, the course was excellent, and one-to-one teaching is the easiest way for a deaf person to learn a language. I volunteered in a kindergarten in a shantytown working 8/9 hour days. My job was to feed the children at meal times, take them to the toilet (not my favourite task!), clean their teeth, change them for nap time, play, and give lots of love. The project was the best part of the trip!
For the last three weekends, I hiked to the top of a volcanic Lagoon, Quilotoa, kayaked, chatted to an alpaca herder who loved getting his picture taken and went to the official middle of the world while eating avocado ice cream, and climbed Mt Pichincha. Superb!
How my disability was accommodated by my gap year organisation:
Outreach International interview prospective volunteers. They like to explain their projects in detail, which they do very effectively. When I first explained my disability, I was asked which way would be best to communicate for the interview. We used Skype, with instant messaging so that I could be sure that I answered the questions. I had my mother next to me as ‘translator’.
At the volunteer pre-departure briefing, I was at the front of the room so I had full view of the speakers and presentation. This provided general written information which with the descriptive booklets meant that I was able to follow and understand the brief. I was booked on the same flight as another volunteer so that I wouldn’t miss announcements.
The way my disability was treated by the local community:
The local community in Ecuador treated me as any other person, though my red hair caused a stir! My Spanish teacher Mercedes was wonderful and she always made sure she repeated what she said and/or wrote it down. My host family made me feel as welcome as the other volunteers.
My advice to others who have disabilities:
If you want to travel then go for it. Forget your worries; just be careful, as any wise person should be when travelling. If anything I noticed my disability less when I was on my project than I do at home. The people I worked with were so welcoming and empathetic, they enjoyed learning about me and my culture as much as I enjoyed learning about theirs. If you go to a country that predominantly speaks a different language, I can assure you that you won’t be the only volunteer who doesn’t know what is going on!
The charity VoluntEars provides opportunities in Sri Lanka for hearing-impaired and deaf young people. Go to their website www.voluntears.info.