November 14, 2017
Kaj Kraus, a winner of The Greg Siple Award for Young Adult Bicycle Travel in 2017, recently took an Adventure Cycling Leadership Training Course (LTC) as part of his award package. Kaj is deaf and building on what he learned at the LTC, plans to take a group of peers on a bike tour on the C&O Canal and Great Allegheny Passage next summer as his outreach project. We caught up with Kaj and learned about his experience at the LTC.
What was the most important thing you learned during the Leadership Training Course?
Touring alone or with a few friends uses a very different skill set than what is required to organize and lead a tour with 14 or more people. The LTC taught me how to foster what Adventure Cycling does best on their guided tours: foster a collaborative and supportive group dynamic where everyone is free to have their own individual experience. I learned Adventure Cycling’s version of group leadership, wherein expectations and a daily agenda are set, and then participants are left to ride, navigate, and stay safe more or less on their own.
In this vein of sorting out the responsibilities of the leader, the group as a whole, and individual participants, I learned how to divide shopping, cooking, and cleaning responsibilities into rotations, how to ensure everyone is free to ride at their own pace without feeling rushed or held up, and how to manage side-trips and deviations from the overall plan. With these strategic approaches in mind, I feel much more prepared to encourage people to experience the unbounded feeling of bike touring without dictating how to go about it.
What was the biggest challenge you faced during the LTC?
I was the only deaf person in a group of 24, and for some, I was the first deaf person that they had ever met. These are common experiences for deaf people, and I went into the course anticipating the challenge. A couple weeks before the course, I emailed the leaders and other participants with some tips on how to create a “deaf friendly” environment and effectively use ASL interpreters to communicate. Still, when I arrived there was some confusion over who was speaking or who to speak to (me? the interpreter? the other interpreter?), as well as the use of some outdated terms for “deaf.”
Some aspects of the course needed some modification to become visually accessible. One icebreaker activity required the use of blindfolds to encourage participants to work together and communicate for a common goal. Instead of donning the blindfold and missing what the other members of my team were saying, it was agreed that I could guide them toward the goal by instructively moving their hands. They couldn’t see what needed to be done, but I could, and in hindsight, it was observed that by combining different abilities and sensory modalities, our team performed better than the others.
The instructional environment also required some modification. During the first day I could see the interpreters just fine, but as soon as night came, there was only one dim light on the side of the building that kept flicking and going out. I found myself straining to see and could not easily understand what was being said. Eventually, I had to ask the interpreters to sit directly across from me and shine a headlamp on them. The leaders recognized that this was not ideal and found a portable work lamp to illuminate the space during the subsequent evenings.
Identifying and preventing these situations in advance is not always easy for hearing people, who don’t fully know what to expect until the deaf person is there. And to complicate things further, deaf people have different preferences and expectations from each other. But the challenge of being the only deaf person in a group of hearing people was made much easier because of the kind and open-minded attitude I found among the LTC leaders and participants alike. From the first afternoon to the last morning, there was a noticeable shift in the comfort and ease with which we communicated.
This sign (photo above right) was spotted on an afternoon “fun ride.” Turns out, the E.C. Drury School for the Deaf is about eight kilometers from where we camped. Many deaf people do not appreciate the term “hearing impairment” and prefer to be called “deaf.”
How did the LTC help you prepare for your outreach project?
The LTC gave me the logistical knowledge and confidence to begin organizing a self-contained group bike tour from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C. on the Great Allegheny Passage and the C&O Canal. By attending the LTC, I acquired a great deal of useful information ranging from managing a group budget, to operating a liquid-fuel stove, from defusing tense interpersonal situations, to the proper amount of scoops, minutes for steeping, and number of stirs for brewing coffee in large French presses — twelve, six, two.
Beyond the sheer quantity of information, the LTC also reaffirmed for me the importance of deaf people in leadership roles and the value of sharing information in a common (signed) language. This is what I hope to do, in some small way, next summer when I lead this C&O/GAP tour, which is intended for deaf people and members of the signing community with all levels of bicycle touring experience.
I want to offer my appreciation and gratitude to Adventure Cycling Association for this opportunity and for doing all the amazing bike things they do.
Top photo Wally Werner | Photos 2–7 Kaj Kraus