Thirteen year-old Josh and his dad, Sal, love to stretch out in front of the television and watch football together. They also share a love of Walt Disney World. Every spring when Josh and his little sister have school break, the family heads straight to Orlando. So you can imagine the guys’ excitement this past spring when they realized that their upcoming trip to Walt Disney World would be coinciding with ESPN THE WEEKEND! This annual event hosted at Disney’s Hollywood Studios is a sports fan’s dream, featuring star-studded motorcades, interactive venues and personal appearances by ESPN and sports personalities. What a treat for these Jersey boys!
“It worked out perfectly,” Sal recalls. “Not only were we going to the best theme park ever, we were going to have a chance to see some great football players!”
Arriving at the Studios on the last day of the weekend, Sal and Josh were thrilled at the prospect of meeting some of their sports heroes. One of Josh’s favorite “characters,” Bengals wide receiver “Mad” Chad Ochocino, was giving a Q&A session and the guys didn’t want to miss it. Six-year old Bella had other ideas.
“Daddy, I want to play at Honey I Shrunk the Kids Playground,” she whined. A minute later she pulled on her brother’s arm. “Josh, I want to meet some characters!” Bella fidgeted the whole time. Before the session ended, father and son gave in to their pesky little princess and the three of them set off in search of something she would enjoy. Their good deed would soon be rewarded.
Sal recalls, “As fate would have it, just as we were turning the corner, we saw him, RIGHT THERE IN PERSON IN FRONT OF US! I got to say hi and Josh got to shake his hand. Mind you, Josh knows a lot about him and he likes how “crazy” Chad Ochocinco can be. This was one of those father & son moments that we would’ve never had, had it not been for Disney setting up this special occasion.”
This chance encounter created a lasting memory for Josh. But, did Mr. Ochocino realize, as he quickly shook the boy’s hand, that his appreciative young fan was completely deaf? Probably not, and that’s the way Josh likes it.
Recently I had the opportunity to chat with Josh and his father, Sal, via Skype. Josh is remarkably open for a teenager and we talked for a long time. Read on to learn more about this remarkable young man… his feelings about deafness, his desire to fit in and, most of all, his love of Walt Disney World!
Kathy: Hi Sal! Hi Josh!
Kathy: Josh, did your Dad tell you a little about me and why I would like to interview you tonight?
(Josh) A little bit, you were going to ask about how things are being deaf and stuff…
Kathy: Well, that’s part of it! Yes, I would like to talk about how your deafness affects how you vacation at Walt Disney World, but we can also talk about Disney awesomeness in general! Your dad can jump in if you need him.
(Both): Yes, we can go on.
Kathy: Josh, are you as big a Disney Fan as your dad is?
(Josh) Yes, because we have the most fun there. The only bad thing is I can’t go on all the rides because Bella gets scared.
(Sal) That’s my daughter, 6 years old.
Kathy: Well, that will change as she gets older. I’m sure the next time you go, you’ll be surprised at the “new” things she will do! You like to go every year, if possible?
(Josh) Yeah, we go every year around Feb-early March the latest.
Kathy: What number visit will this be for you?
(Sal) For me it’s trip #7, for Josh it’s #4, and for Bella it’s #3.
Kathy: Josh, what are you looking forward to the most?
(Josh) We didn’t get to go on Star Tours last year, it was closed. My dad said it got upgraded, and I can’t wait to ride it. I rode it before when I was eleven, but haven’t since.
Kathy: It looks so cool now! So, I’m guessing you don’t get motion sickness… that’s good!
(Josh) Nah… never got sick.
(Sal) I know Josh will get mad I brought this up but I think it’s important. He never wants me to get an audio device that they have at some rides.
Kathy: Are they really big or something? I’ve never seen one in use. Well, maybe I have but just didn’t notice….
(Josh) I just don’t want to make a big deal; I’m used to not hearing.
Kathy: We went with my niece one year and she had to wear a back brace for her curved spine. She only wanted to wear it at the resort because she felt everyone would be staring at her. Is that how you feel?
(Josh) It’s partly that; I don’t feel like drawing attention to the fact I’m deaf. I use the visual aspect of the rides and I can read lips sometimes.
Kathy: Well, don’t those captioning devices kind of look like handheld video games? I think if I saw it in your hand I’d assume it was a [Nintendo] DS or something like that!
(Sal) Yeah they are, I’ve tried explaining that to him but you know how kids get, especially when they hit teen years.
(Josh) I just don’t think I need it really…
Kathy: It’s hard for kids to believe, Josh, but all parents were once thirteen, too! But then we grow into pestering parents…
(Josh) Yes, the pestering part I see!
(Sal) Don’t even go there!
Kathy: I don’t know anyone who is deaf. Can you try to describe to me what it’s like? Do you feel vibrations of things, like music?
(Josh) Yes, I notice sound by how it feels. I use my other senses to enhance everything else. What my dad does is, to get my attention he will hit the floor with his foot so I know he is trying to say something to me.
(Sal) This is sad, but I don’t know a lot of Sign Language. I know enough to talk to him, but not as much as I should. We sometimes get in a conversation [then] we get stuck, because I can’t figure out how to sign it so I have to either write it down, or give up.
Kathy: I was just going to ask about the signing! How about you, Josh, do you sign pretty well in addition to reading lips?
(Josh) Yes I am really good a signing, I am learning how to read lips.
(Sal) He goes to the ______ School. Mon-Fri he lives at the school with other kids that are hearing impaired, and comes home… on Saturday & Sunday…
Kathy: Speaking of signing, I think Disney really tries to help guests with special needs. They have Cast Members who sign at every show. I especially loved our seats at Festival of The Lion King last time. We sat close to the CMs signing and I think I watched them half the time… so graceful and expressive… it was beautiful.
(Josh) Yes, they always seem to have someone able to sign to me if needed.
Kathy: Do you guys think they could do anything more to help guests who are deaf?
(Josh) I don’t have any problems there.
(Sal) I think they do enough so that, if you are deaf, they have a system in place to make your visit as magical as it can be.
Kathy: So, what else other than Star Tours 2.0 is going to make your next trip magical?
(Josh) We didn’t get to do Kilimanjaro Safaris and the [Kali River] Rapids either. Oh yeah and I want to do the Blizzard Beach this time!
Kathy: Will you do the Summit Plummet slide?
(Sal) No way! I will stay far away from that, I can tell that isn’t for me! lol
Kathy: I’m with you, Sal. There’s NO WAY I would do that… it’s like you’re going straight down!
(Sal) Yeah, he likes all the thrilling stuff. That reminds me that the only thing I believe he misses out on… because of being deaf … are the sound-intense rides, such as Dinosaur. Without him being able to hear, that ride loses a lot of its impact.
(Josh) I liked Dinosaur, but not hearing, it does lessen the thrill I guess.
Kathy: Funny, because I always wear earplugs on Dinosaur because I think it’s too LOUD!
Kathy: Billy [my 13 year-old with Autism] wears them too, because loud sounds are irritating to him sensory-wise… loud sounds are almost painful for him.
(Sal) WOW, yeah that is the total opposite effect but understandable never the less.
Kathy: See, Josh, you’re not the only kid with issues!
(Josh) Yes! I sometimes forget that part of it, especially when I’m not in school because then I’m sort of the odd-ball.
(Sal) The only issue that we face when we are at Disney is that since he can’t hear, when people… are trying to pass Josh, or they are behind him, he can’t hear the fact they are saying excuse me, so they get mad. That happened a few times and I have to take his hand and move him. People get attitudes really fast without thinking that maybe there is a reason he isn’t responding to them.
Kathy: Yes, it’s the same with Billy. He looks so typical and yet he misses all the usual social cues, so it can make for some awkward situations.
He’s the same age as you are. If there’s one thing I know about 13 year-old boys it’s that they love to EAT! What are your favorite Disney foods/restaurants?
(Josh) Yes! First, I have to tell you that I love those bacon cheeseburgers that are served at the hotels. We stayed at All-Star Movies and for lunch I ate that every day I was there! My dad wanted to go to those fancy restaurants, but I loved the fast food they made! But, I do have a favorite place… the Brown Derby. They had awesome steak and I loved it. It was visually awesome to look at. That and the Sci-Fi Dining at Hollywood Studios… I like eating there a lot.
Kathy: You’re a lot older than your sister. I suppose you have to put up with a lot of Princess stuff…
(Josh) Yes! And I have to deal with those Dinners with the Princesses! Grrr!
(Sal) Oh stop, you know you like the princess!
Kathy: Billy has always liked the princesses at Disney because they are “face” characters and can talk to him. Plus, I think he just likes pretty girls…
(Sal) haha – that’s probably it!
Kathy: You are a good big brother to put up with princesses, though.
(Josh) I know, trust me, I have to deal with going on Nemo 10 times in a row and I miss out on Test Track…
(Sal) You got to go on it, just had to wait a few hours! lol
Kathy: I’ll bet Bella adores you!
(Josh) Yeah, she won’t leave me alone… I can’t play my video games in peace.
(Sal) Yeah, he let her get on all her rides… Dumbo and Nemo and so on! lol
Kathy: So how do you balance a little girl, a big boy, and only one dad in the parks? You all must have to do a lot of compromising.
(Sal) Yes, we have come to the conclusion that it’s best to give Bella her rides first, if we all want to have an enjoyable day, that’s how I balance it out!
Kathy: Oh, so the real princess is Bella!
(Josh) Yes!!!! Don’t I know it!
Kathy: How does she communicate with you? Does she sign?
(Josh) She tries but no, we just understand each other.
(Sal) I think it’s a brother-sister connection.
Kathy: So, Josh, I was wondering if you had any questions for ME?
(Josh) Umm, how tough is it to have a disabled kid?
Kathy: Sometimes I’m sad because I know that life will be difficult for him because of his autism, especially as he gets to be an adult. But I am also happy because I couldn’t imagine my life without him; I love him so much!
(Josh) My friends are mostly deaf, but we do have one friend that I know has autism.
Kathy: Is he also deaf?
(Josh) Some kids in my school are mentally retarded also; yes he is deaf.
Kathy: I can’t imagine having to live with both autism and deafness. When a person has autism it affects how they learn and how they communicate with everyone. Being deaf on top of that must be very difficult.
(Josh) Yeah, he is really nice and it’s sad because we are disabled but yet some of my friends will make fun of him because he acts weird some times, like he won’t sign with people sometimes for hours and we don’t know why. But I tell them not to make fun of him, he is a good friend. He always asks me if I want to share his snacks at lunch.
Kathy: That is so good of you! It’s very hard for people, even grown-ups, to understand autism. I live with my son who has autism and sometimes I have difficulty understanding it. It is one of those mysteries of life… now, let’s get back to talking about Disney!
(Josh) Well, as my dad told you, I do not want to make a fuss about me not being able to hear so, when we go to Disney I don’t use any [assistive] devices.
I don’t take my hearing aids with me on vacation. I do feel that I am missing out though… I will never get the full effect of the rides and how good it is there.
When I go to see a show, like the bugs in that big tree [It’s Tough to be a Bug] well, yeah, I miss what’s going on and I only get to notice the 3D sights and how it feels. For me, the shows aren’t good because I don’t know what’s going on.
I like going on the thrill rides like Rock ‘N Roller Coaster and [Expedition] Everest and Tower of Terror. They are great!
Kathy: Well, most boys your age would agree with that! Would you like to see more thrill rides at Walt Disney World?
(Josh) YES YES YES… Since I don’t get the full effect, for me I need to get thrilled by other senses, like speed or 3D effects. I love Splash [Mountain] also!
Kathy: The Imagineers try to bring the use of all of the senses into the attractions… it’s a good thing especially for a person who cannot experience one of those senses.
I have an idea that may be fun for you! Give me a list of your “Top Ten” rides and attractions at the Disney Parks. It doesn’t have to be in any particular order… just the ones you love the most and would recommend to other people who are deaf.
Josh’s Top Ten Disney Attractions for Hearing-Impaired Guests
#10 Kali River Rapids
#9 Peter Pan
#8 Big Thunder Mountain Railroad
#7 Toy Story Mania
#6 Splash Mountain
#3 Expedition Everest
#2 Test Track
#1 Space Mountain — Because the visuals are breath-taking and since I can’t hear a sound, it really does feel like I’m moving so fast with the lights and the quick turns! It’s the best for deaf people to ride, along with the other rides I mentioned. The ones I mentioned are perfect because you don’t need the sounds at all; the ride itself is great without sounds.
Kathy: Suppose you met someone your age planning to go to Walt Disney World for the first time…someone who was deaf… and they were feeling a bit anxious about the trip. What advice would you give?
(Josh) I would say that out of any place to be, this is one of the safest and kindest place to visit. Even if they don’t realize you are deaf, the workers treat you like you are family. Disney puts a lot of visual aspects to the rides that not being able to hear won’t make your trip bad. I don’t use the device, but they do offer hearing devices so you can read the words or if you are not fully deaf, they have things to help you hear the show/attraction better.
One thing I love about Disney is that they treat everyone great. Even though I can’t hear, [I] can sense that they love what they do there. Sometimes you don’t need to hear how people feel about you. That, for me, makes Disney the best park that I’ve ever been to.
Josh will be recording his own video blog on his dad’s Disney website The Best Magic . He will use sign language to talk about Disney with other kids who are deaf.
You can connect with Sal on Twitter at @TheBestMagic
Kathy tweets about Disney and Autism at @KathyKellyRN
Please visit her blog, The Many Adventures of a Disney-Lovin’ Spectrum Mom