Faces Behind the Screen: Tony Giles
Tony Giles is a well-known solo traveler from the U.K. The United Nations states that there are 193 recognized nations in the world. Of these nations, Tony has visited 122 of them…and counting!
Despite being completely blind since birth, Tony has managed to leave his footprint on most of the world, proving that traveling is more than a visual experience.
Tony currently lives in a small seaside town in southwest England. You can learn more about Tony and his travels by visiting his website, or following him on his social media accounts, Facebook and YouTube.
When did your interest in travel begin?
My dad told me his stories about his adventures when he was in the Merchant Navy before I was born. So, I guess that kind of planted a seed when I was young. Unlike my brother and sister, who are older than me, and don’t have any disabilities, they went to a local school. I couldn’t go there because there wasn’t any support. This is in the early ’80s.
I traveled 20 miles or so every day to school so I suppose it started then. Then when I was 10, I went to a boarding school over 300 miles away from home. I lived there for six to eight weeks and came home on the holidays. I suppose it was all that going away and wanting to come home – wanting to be independent from that young age – that sparked my interest in traveling.
When I was 16, I had the opportunity to go to Boston, Massachusetts with my school. It was very different. People had different accents and spoke more loudly. I noticed there was much more space — the sidewalks were huge compared to England. Everything was faster and noisier.
When I visited Boston, I was like, “oh, I like this”. I wanted to go back. Then I did. I eventually received an American Studies degree in 1998 and lived in South Carolina for five months. That’s when I really started traveling independently.
You mentioned that you were born blind and that you started going deaf when you were four years old.
Yes, I have nerve damage in my eyes and nerve damage in my ears. It could be connected, but the doctors don’t really know.
I was born with a rare eye condition, which basically means I don’t see any color and I’m very light sensitive. I have something called photophobia and cone dystrophy. I don’t have any cones, which are the nerves that allow us to see color.
When I was born, for the first three years, I couldn’t open my eyes in any light. Then when I was given dark glasses, at about three years old, I was able to open my eyes. Because I have my rods, which allow us to see in dim light, in cinemas, and at night, I was able to see shapes and shadows.
I actually learned to read and write with very big, black letters on white paper at about the age of five. Then print started getting smaller, and I stopped using my eyes because I was taught to look at objects and listen to the sound. However, as I got older, things became more difficult to look at.
So that’s why I was sent to a boarding school. I needed to learn Braille, mobility, and other stuff. My eye condition never changed, but my sensitivity has lessened as I’ve gotten older. I can still sense sunlight if it’s very bright. I can sometimes use sunlight to give me direction.
What was it like growing up without your vision and losing your hearing at a young age?
I just got on with it, really. I played in the street with my friends. I had a big three-wheel bicycle that I rode around with on the streets. I could see objects, so I could see where the cars were in black and white shapes. I kicked a football [soccer ball] around. I lived on a dead end street, so I always knew which way the traffic was coming.
I sort of realized I was different from my friends when I was 7 or 8 years old. My hearing went very subtly. I don’t really remember becoming deaf or my hearing worsening. I was given hearing aids straight away.
My sight was more of an issue as a child. I occasionally became very frustrated with the world and smashed things up. But for the most part, I had a happy childhood. It was only later that things became more difficult – as a teenager. When I went to boarding school, there was a lot of bullying, which is pretty typical.
That’s how it goes. It makes you stronger. I think the biggest problem for me is when I was in my mid- t0 late-teens trying to socialize. I could hear reasonably well, but in crowds and in groups, it was more difficult because I can’t lip read.
Traveling alone can be pretty daunting for anyone. Did you have any fears traveling alone at first? If so, how did you overcome those fears?
No, I never really had any fears about traveling. I think it was just a natural progression. My desire at a young age was to go home from boarding school and visit my parents. My dad was aging. I was very close to my mom and my dad. So that was my initial goal, really, is to get out of school and work out how to get home.
The only fear I had at 12 or 13 with mobility was trying to cross a crossroad, a four-way crossroad, without audio lights. I’d walk up each week from the school to this four-way crossroad, and I would listen and wait for when the traffic was stationary. For weeks, I was afraid to cross.
One day, I just woke up and did it. Once I did that, I never really looked back. I found myself catching buses and catching trains, and just learning to ask people for help. My teachers told me I would do things. I was never told I couldn’t do anything.
When you’re told that you will do things all the time, it can only give you confidence. So, no, I never really had any fears about traveling.
How does your experience differ when you travel alone vs. traveling with someone else?
For me, traveling alone is the ultimate freedom. You can do what you want, when you want. No one can tell you what to do or not to do. You don’t have to compromise.
I travel with my girlfriend now, and she’s also blind. It’s a whole new and different experience. It’s good because you can share things, and we can both have different opinions on certain experiences.
But, it also means a lot of responsibility because I have to look after her and make sure she doesn’t walk into anything or get hurt.
When I’m traveling with people who are sighted, and if I’m traveling with them for any length of time, I tend to find that they try to do everything. They’re the one asking the questions and getting the directions.
Also, when we meet sighted people — because obviously, 9 times out of 10, you’re meeting sighted people when you’re traveling — they’re talking to the sighted person, rather than talking to me. It sort of cramps my style a little bit.
Traveling alone is the ultimate for me. You’re never lonely because you’re always meeting people.
When I’m traveling, I’m constantly asking people for directions. I’m going into shops and cafes and asking, “how far is this building or this place?” You’re told, “oh, it’s two blocks away, or take a left, or you need to go back or whatever.” You’re never really alone.
What is the most challenging part about traveling alone? What’s the most rewarding part?
The most challenging aspect of traveling alone is using an ATM by myself in other parts of the world In the U.K., ATM’s have audio technology so you can use them with headphones, but other countries don’t have the same capabilities. When I travel to other countries, I have to find someone I can trust – either someone I’m staying with or a fellow traveler – and then get them to help me use the machines.
Another challenge is getting a visa. I need someone to fill the forms and paperwork for me. That can be challenging, particularly in countries where there’s a language barrier.
Crossing borders can be a challenge for me as well. I have to hand my passport over, but I can’t see who’s taking my passport. I have to hope that they give it back to me and actually give me the stamp. On several occasions, I crossed from one South American country to another, and I wasn’t given an entry stamp. So then, I had to pay a bribe or negotiate.
When I go to restaurants, particularly in countries where English isn’t the first language, I can’t read a menu. So before I travel, I need to know two or three national dishes.
But in most cases, you meet someone who can speak a little bit of English. You can also use a smartphone and go from English to their language and back again. There are always ways to get around most situations.
The most rewarding thing about traveling, for me, is getting from one place to another. It’s magic when I wake up, the sun’s coming out, and I’m surrounded by nature. It’s completely peaceful. Those are the magical moments.
Another rewarding part is discovering something new. I was in Ethiopia in April and I went to this art center. These people made tactile art for blind people and I never thought I’d come across something like that. Traveling is amazing.
How do you trust total strangers when you travel alone?
I don’t read, watch, or listen to the news. As a blind person, I don’t have a lot of choice but to trust people. I could just stay in my house and live a very boring and safe life, but I’ve had to trust people ever since I was a child. People have helped me cross the street, give me directions – simple things.
I always pay attention when I meet people. How do they react when they meet me? You can tell if people are comfortable or if they’re nervous or if they’re mistrustful. Usually, you can sense their energy.
If you can’t find someone you can trust, you can always go to a trusted institution, like a bank, and have a staff member help you.
We all have to trust people, sighted or not. Sometimes it can go wrong, but that’s life.
What’s it like visiting a place you can’t see? How are you able to experience a new place with your other senses?
I use all of my other senses to give me a mental picture of the place I’m visiting. When I walk around a city, I feel the different textures under my feet. I can feel the difference between pavement, grass, or gravel. I know if I’m going up or down gradients, or if I’m walking in the mountains. The smells and sounds also give me an idea of what the city or town looks like.
I like to go by waterfalls and fountains because it’s something I can hear. I can pick up the energy.
I also do my research before I go to places now. I didn’t when I was younger. I just went partying and meeting people. But now, I’m visiting more difficult countries and places.
What is it like meeting the locals of the countries you visit? Are you able to connect with people whom you may share a different culture, language, etc.?
One of the most important things about traveling is meeting local people. I don’t go on holiday, I travel.
I just spent three months in Africa, and I try to stay with local people. I don’t stay in hotels unless I really have to. I use a website called couchsurfing.com, to find people who I can stay with. You can send them a message on the dates you want to come and tell them a bit about yourself. I just tell them I’m blind and I’m a world traveler.
When I stay with local people, I eat local food. They can show me around or I meet the family. So by that way, I’m getting a more authentic experience in the country.
How many countries have you visited to date?
Well, it depends. According to the United Nations, there are 193 official sovereign countries. Out of them, I’ve visited 122 now.
I’ve been traveling for 21 years on and off. I have my own list of about 250 countries or nations. So it depends on what you classify as a country, really.
I classify Greenland as a country, even though it’s technically part of the Kingdom of Denmark. The Faroe Islands are also a part of Denmark, but again, I classify it as an independent nation.
From my own list, I’ve visited 142 places, countries, islands. But according to the UN, I’ve visited 122 places.
Out of all of the countries you’ve visited, which destination is your favorite and why?
New Zealand is my favorite country. I did my first bungee jump in New Zealand, which is great fun. People are always asking, aren’t you scared? I say, “no!” I have an advantage because I can’t see the bottom so it’s easy to just jump off! I’ve bungee jumped 17 times so far.
I’ve skydived three times. I’ve been white water rafting in Africa, Canada, and the U.S. I love adrenaline. You need to feel things when you’re blind. You need to feel everything and experience everything with your body. If you ever go to my website or my YouTube channel, you can see me doing crazy things.
There’s a sport I like that I played in New Zealand. It’s called zorbing. They basically put you in a massive beach ball made of plastic and roll you down a big hill. It was great fun!
What’s the process you undergo before traveling to a new city or country?
I research more, particularly when I’m traveling with my girlfriend because she wants nice accommodations.
I also have this feature on my laptop called JAWS. It’s a Microsoft product, so it’s a bit expensive. There are different ones you can use, but I use it because it’s really good quality.
I get on the internet like anyone else, but I use a keyboard instead of a mouse, and I know the shortcuts. Then I go on Google, and for example, if I wanted to go to Boston, I’ll do some research on Boston. The first thing I’ll do is figure out transportation. So I find out how to get to the airport and my destination. I see if I have to take a taxi, bus, or metro.
Then I need to book accommodations. So I’ll look at hostels or Couch Surfing. Then I want to know what to visit. So I like to find museums or places with audio guides or free walking tours or guided walking tours. Obviously, I’m on a budget. I try and do things that are cheap, so I’ll go on free walking tours, any museums, churches, historical places or waterfalls. I just make a list of places to visit.
Obviously, I need to find out if I need a visa or any other document. I usually get my mom or someone to help me with the flights, because the websites aren’t great. So I book a flight, and then I get an email. Then I’ll contact the air company by email or phone and say I’m blind. I need someone to take me from the check-in desk through security and put me on board and meet me at the other end. That’s available to anyone for free for the disabled or elderly.
When traveling, I try to be as flexible as possible because the one thing about traveling is that you never know what’s going to happen. You might be delayed, or someone might suggest going somewhere else, or you might meet someone. So it’s always good to be a bit flexible.
What technology or apps do you use to communicate with others? Do you use Google Translate or any other translation apps?
I don’t have a smartphone. I use a very basic phone. When I travel from country to country, I just buy a local sim card because that’s the cheapest way to do it. I also dislike touch typing. I think it’s just too hard to work and I don’t have the patience. Having a smartphone can also bring attention and someone could steal it. So I just have a very cheap phone.
I try to find people on Couch Surfing who can speak some English. If I’m on the street and I meet people, we try and use Google Translate or something on their smartphone.
One time, I stayed with a Brazilian guy about four or five years ago, and he could speak enough English to say “hello”, “thank you”, and “coffee”. But to have a deeper conversation, we went to an internet cafe and used two computers. He typed, and it came up on my computer and spoke aloud. Then I typed, and it showed up on his computer in Portuguese. We were able to have a good, long conversation and get to know each other much more.
What’s the best thing about traveling while blind?
I think the best thing about traveling while blind is you get to experience things, cultures, and people on a deeper level. You’re not just going there to look at the views and the architecture. I’m going there to really experience the culture, and I’m using all of my senses, rather than just one, to experience that culture.
I think by being blind, it opens up more doors than it closes. During my 21 years of traveling people gravitate toward me. They can’t believe a blind man’s in their country, and they want to know why. They want to help. They want to take me home and feed me. I don’t think I would get that, at least not on the level and scale, if I were sighted. It’s a very humbling experience.
What is one of your proudest moments?
Setting foot on Antarctica for the first time, because I visited all seven continents. You take a cruise from the bottom of South America. Hearing a whale breach or blow in Antarctica was pretty special.
I’m also proud to have visited all 50 U.S. states. I never planned it, but it took me about eight years. I just kept going back seeing friends, and I realized, oh, I’ve done about 30-odd states so I might as well try and do the rest. I did them all by bus, apart from Hawaii.
The other thing I’m proud of was hiking to Angel Falls in Venezuela. It’s the highest waterfall in the world.
What’s a common mistake sighted people make when interacting with blind people?
The biggest mistake they make is grabbing blind people. They want to grab you, especially if they see you and think you’re going to step out onto the road or walk into something. Their first instinct is to just grab you, and that’s a big mistake because it’s scary. When someone grabs you, whether you can see or not, it’s pretty scary. The best thing you can do is go up to a blind person or visually impaired person, and say, “do you want help?” Then they can say “yes, please”, or “no, thanks”. If you just grab them, you’re likely to get a negative reaction.
The other one is that there’s a lot of assumptions. A lot of people assume that if you’re blind, your other senses must automatically somehow be stronger. That’s not true. If I didn’t go traveling and just sat in my apartment all day, my senses wouldn’t be any different than yours. But because I use them and exercise them, they’re just like muscles, they become stronger and more sensitive. It’s only because I’m using them constantly.
The third one probably is, for some reason, so many people seem to think that blind people can’t go up and down stairs or find stairs difficult, and they want to put you in elevators. But I don’t really understand why. I suppose it’s a safety thing.
Can you describe a moment when you felt discriminated against because of your vision loss?
My girlfriend and I were in Italy several years ago. We visited a famous cathedral in Milan. We wanted to go up onto the roof. You could take an elevator, but once you got to so many levels, you would climb up ladders and actually get onto the roof. It was quite a spectacular cathedral by all accounts.
My girlfriend speaks Italian quite well so we walked out of the cathedral, and we asked where the elevator was to this tower. When we got to the elevators some security guard told us no and basically to go away. He kept saying it was impossible that we could climb up to the roof, obviously in reference to the fact that we weren’t sighted. Things like that happen occasionally. Sometimes you can argue about it, and try to explain that we’re traveling around the world. How do you think we got to this country by ourselves? But sometimes you’ve just got to shrug your shoulders and move on.
When it comes to technology, what are some everyday issues you run into that sighted people may not?
Well, I’m not the greatest person when it comes to technology. I think it’s because I started traveling before the internet. There weren’t any smartphones or anything like it. I can use a computer with no problem, but one of the biggest issues is I can’t book flights. It’s very, very difficult to book flights by myself. The websites for most air companies, if not all, are dreadful.
On airplanes these days everything is becoming touch technology. How can I use the call bell if it’s a touch button on a screen somewhere?
Do you have a message for web designers and tech creators about accessible technology?
Make websites simpler. When you’re designing websites, think about how inclusive it can be. The more inclusive, the better. That way, you’ll get a bigger audience.
Faces Behind the Screen would like to thank Tony Giles for participating in our storytelling project. If you’re interested in sharing your story with us, fill out our nomination form.
Faces Behind the Screen is a storytelling project focusing on members of the Deaf and hard of hearing community.