Deaf Motorcycle Riders - You thought your ride felt dangerous
I ride a motorcycle almost daily, it’s pretty straightforward for me. I throw my leg over the seat, hit the starter button, and focus on my defensive driving skills. When I’m on my bike, I feel like I’m always a target. To amplify that, I also spend a lot of time riding in countries where size matters. Usually I need to get out of the way of buses and/or trucks that have moved into my lane. If I don’t, I risk being in an accident and becoming permanent road pizza. Typically, the driver will honk his horn to let me know he’s not moving out of the way and the decision to become his hood ornament or not, is now up to me. In North America, I think most car and truck drivers don’t even see motorcyclists on the road. It’s not that they intentionally use us as targets, or pull out in front of us like we don’t exist, it’s just to their brains, we actually don’t exist. I could only imagine the surprises if I couldn’t hear the horns honking, engines running, or the traffic noises around me while riding my motorcycle. This is what makes me wonder what it would be like to be a Deaf rider?
Riding With All Five Senses
To avoid accidents, I try to maximize all five of my senses. Using my eyes to see what’s on the road ahead of me, and looking in the mirrors for what’s coming up behind me. I use my sense of touch to keep a firm grip on the bike and feel for how it’s handling on various road conditions. I use my sense of smell to note if the brakes might be dragging or the oil might be seeping onto the engine. Yes, this has happened to me. I use my hearing to keep me aware of how close any vehicles might be to me or if there are any unusual sounds coming from my bike. Lastly, I use my taste to see if I can taste fear in the air. If I do, I take an alternate route, or pull over until it passes!
On my first ever long-distance motorbike trip, I put some earbud-style headphones in and cranked up my music. The purpose was to drown out any engine noise I might hear or air fiercely rushing into my cheap helmet. I then ripped down the highway for three hours before we took our first roadside stop. By this point my head was hurting so bad from the loud music and the wind, that I had to take the earbuds out. By the end of the day I couldn’t hear anything, I mean anything! After day four of being without hearing, I finally went to the doctor. He took a look into my ears and explained that swelling had occurred around my ear drum which had ultimately protected me from damaging my hearing permanently. Nice work body, thanks for saving my ass once again! Riding my motorcycle during this inaudible time was some of the more unnerving rides of my life. It seemed I relied way more on my hearing while riding than I had ever realized before.
Deaf Riding Groups in The Community
Picture the above scenario every time you hop on your motorcycle, unable to hear anything while you ride. I can say that it might add an additional risk factor to your already potentially risky ride. With this in mind, I was reading through various online articles and came across a fundraiser that was being held by a Deaf biker group. To say I was fascinated would be an understatement. Of course, there are Deaf motorcycle riders, it had just never occurred to me as I had never met (to my knowledge), or ridden with one. It seems there are a number of these groups that meet up and ride. There is even a group of nearly 1000-Deaf riders who meet up at the popular Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. The Sturgis event is the largest Deaf biker rally in the world. It is here that Deaf riders can share in a community that understands their experiences, their language, culture, and their love for riding.
It’s one thing if you are part of a H.O.G. riders group, where you have your meet-ups and all ride Harleys so you all feel like you can relate and have a sense of comradery. Or another, if you’re part of a female rider's club like Leather and Lace. However, I myself cannot imagine the feeling of subtle isolation if you were the one Deaf rider in your riding community and no one else understood how to have a basic conversation with you, or what was important to you in regard to your riding needs. New riders, seniors, and those on trikes probably feel a similar lack of connection at times as well with the more standard riding groups.
What exactly is a Deaf biker group, and what sets them apart from other riding groups?
If you’re like me, then you live in a bubble that only notices your own personal concerns and issues. I joined X-Facebook group because they all ride adventure bikes and they understand my needs as a rider. This kind of group allows me to go online and vent about what happenes when my rear shock breaks in the far off places of the world and the frustration, stress, and complications that come along with that. Those in the group have all dealt with fixing similar problems if not the exact same problem in various other countries around the world, where getting parts is sometimes non-existent! It feels nice to have people who understand your situation, offer advice, suggestions, or assistance, and ultimately help you with the problem. It’s always nice to have someone to bitch to once in a while, doesn’t it?
From what I can understand, Deaf biker groups like to meet up as a form of community and education. The Deaf Bikers of America Foundation identify themselves as; “We're a non-profit foundation dedicated to creating safe and fun events. Deaf Bikers of America ride to live and live to ride, and we just want to ride with other Deaf bikers.” A pretty straightforward statement that quantifies what they seek to do. There are also a number of groups that like to host non-profit charitable events and encourage other similar Deaf groups to do the same.
What I learned from Reddit...
I know that if you find yourself with a rash, an itch, or some unexplainable illness, it's not always best to go online to seek out self-prescribing information, it can be dangerous. You might end up diagnosing yourself with depression when you really have cyberchondria. When I want to understand something, I go looking in forums specifically dedicated to the craft, like Stretch a Hayabusa how to. Or when I want to get a range of opinions to flush out and want to find what’s most relevant, I turn to Reddit. This is exactly what I did when I wanted to find out what it’s like to be a Deaf motorcycle rider.
Tips from a Deaf biker on Reddit: “I actually feel that I have better balance on a bike at cruising speed than I do walking (and I have vestibular damage). I was never able to use my HA (hearing aid) comfortably. Buy yourself goggles, preferably some with either UV protection or shades, you will absolutely need stellar vision, and sun can limit how much/what you see. Take a basic training class before you do any road driving, and get an interpreter for the sessions. Practice in parking lots often, know how to do evasive maneuvering, be comfortable with aggressive breaking (using back and front). Ride in packs when and if you can. Wear loud clothing and always a full toe boot and full-length pants, in durable materials. Wear gloves.”
• Buy yourself googles, you will need stellar vision
• Take a basic training class and get an interpreter
• Practice in parking lots often
• Know how to do evasive maneuvering and aggressive breaking
• Ride in packs
• Wear loud clothing, and full protective gear
I really wanted to know the perspective of what it’s like to be a Deaf rider from Deaf riders themselves. For this, like many things I don’t understand, I sought the assistance of the most knowledgeable person in the world! I know you’re thinking maybe a grandparent, a Rabbi, or any of the typical ‘go-to’ people you might ask for advice, but for the purpose of this article and for some L.O.L. ass-kissing, I would seek the advice of my girlfriend, Angie. Despite being of full hearing, she happens to be a professional Sign Language Interpreter. This puts her in a position to ask questions of the Deaf community that I would otherwise not have access to.
Deaf rider Kevin Colp enjoys the vibrations of a rumbling Kawasaki Vulcan 2000cc, rather than hear the ride
Deaf Biker Q & A: You might be surprised...
More than just plugging my ears and going for a ride, I wanted to know what it was really like to be a Deaf motorcycle rider. What were the challenges I wasn’t able to see or experience myself as a hearing rider, and what are some of the absurd questions that those of us that live in an ignorant world ask? I.e. “You’re Deaf and you can drive a motorcycle?”. Seriously, people ask these things.
I had originally asked the below questions via email. Angie read them, and then did some minor edits to make them a bit more applicable to the Deaf community. Kevin Colp, a friend of Angie’s is a Deaf motorcycle rider, so who better to sit down with and ask my questions to. Angie asked the questions in ASL, video recorded Kevin’s responses, interpreted them, and then wrote the answers down in English. The answers were recorded so that Kevin could respond to the questions in his first language of ASL, to make any clarifications if needed, and make sure the information was accurate. What is listed below are Kevin’s answers, and they are answers you might find rather interesting...
How do you deal with balance issues while riding your motorcycle? I’ve heard that balance can sometimes be a problem for riders who are Deaf. The only balance issue I’ve had with riding a motorcycle was getting used to balancing the weight of the bike itself. In terms of balance issues in relation to being Deaf, I haven’t had any.
What’s the biggest concern/worry you have on a motorcycle as a Deaf rider? One concern I have as a Deaf rider and in general, is how loud my exhaust is. Being a Deaf rider, I feel much safer knowing my bike is loud enough so that other vehicles with drivers that can hear, know when I’m approaching them, passing them, or behind them. Basically, so they know where I am on the road in relation to them. If I’m not sure a vehicle can hear me or see me, I’ll use my horn to let them know I’m there. I do this whether I’m approaching them, beside them, or passing them. I’ve read a few articles that say motorcycle riders who can hear express a similar concern.
Are there any unique sensations/physical feelings you get riding a motorcycle that you notice more than a hearing rider would? For example: the vibrations of the motorcycle or the wind in your face. It really depends on what kind of bike I’m riding. If it’s a big, ‘badass’, custom built bike that has lots of power, I can definitely feel those vibrations throughout my body actually, wow! I also use this ‘feeling’ to know when to shift gears. Sometimes I’ll simply follow the RPM’s but if I can’t do that for some reason, I’ll use the vibration of the bike to let me know when to hit the clutch. With Harley Davidson’s (HD), Honda’s, & Cruisers to name a few, I have a bit of a harder time because I don’t feel the same vibrations as much unless the engine is revved up quite high.
I relate the sensations and vibrations I feel of powerful bikes to that of how I enjoy and ‘listen’/feel music. This is something I’ve actually been doing since I was young. I had an equalizer in my room and would adjust the bass so that I could feel & enjoy the music. There would be no words, just the vibrations. My dad would come into my room and cover his ears, trying to feel what I was feeling. Trying to feel what it was like to be Deaf and feel the vibrations of the music rather than hear it like he was used to doing. I had a lot of band equipment, including an electric guitar that I also played. I would put the mic down, play my guitar, record what I had played, then feel/listen to what I had played through the vibrations of the equalizer. Today as well, if I go to a live music performance and the volume is too low for me to feel it, I will hold a balloon. That way, I can feel the different vibrations of the music and enjoy it like everyone else does...just in a different way. Kind of like when I ride my motorcycle.
I’ve found a number of riding groups online that are specifically for Deaf riders. Do you belong to, or participate in any kind of Deaf riding group? No, I’m not part of any organized Deaf riding groups or clubs. I’ll go out and ride with friends of mine that are Deaf, but it’s not an official club. I have participated in motorcycle events such as The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally where there was both Deaf and hearing individuals. It was a lot of fun!
Do you ride with hearing riders who don’t know ASL, and if so, what do you find most challenging about this? How do you communicate with them while riding? Yes, I have ridden with hearing riders who don’t know ASL. When I do ride with them, we tend to use the universal hand signals that are used throughout the motorcycle community. Whoever is in the lead will normally use these universal hand signals to communicate. I’ve always had good experiences riding with hearing people. We figure out how to communicate on and off the road. We chat about our bikes, the places we’ve ridden, etc, and if any of us ever need help or something fixed on our bikes, we help each other out. Any hearing riders that I’ve ridden with have been great! When I ride with other Deaf riders, we can just sign to each other of course. I might be in the lead, put my hand up in the air and sign ‘I need gas’, or indicate where the next food stop is, etc.
How old were you when you started riding a motorcycle and why do you ride? I’ve always ridden a form of bike since I was young. I even competed in downhill mountain biking races. However, I didn’t start riding a motorcycle until I was in my 40’s, and I’m 52 now.
If you can’t hear, how do you know when there is a problem with your bike and if something is making noise? Can you feel a difference in how it rides? In terms of knowing when there is a problem with my bike and not being able to hear it, I use what I described in a previous question, I feel it. I can feel the difference in the way the bike rides & handles while I’m on the road and sense most of the time if something is wrong. I do take it in for regular tune-ups and oil changes as well. Honestly, I haven’t had many issues with my bike at all. The odd low tire pressure and belts that have had to be changed out but that’s about it.
What is your favourite kind of motorcycle to ride and why? My favourite kind of bike, well, it would be something that’s big, powerful, custom built, and generally ‘badass’. The bike I ride is a Kawasaki Vulcan 2000cc. This specific bike is good for anyone taller than 6’1. Being 6’3, I needed something that would accommodate my height and be comfortable for me to ride. I did try out various HD bikes but they didn’t accommodate my height the way I wanted and what I was looking for overall in a motorcycle.
Deaf Biker Helpful Links
• When you want to brush up on your communication. Try some of these American Sign Language hand signals. HERE
• Get in touch with the Deaf Bikers of America Foundation. HERE
• I.B.D.B. A group looking to connect bikers the world over. HERE