Whether he’s walking on glaciers in Greenland or tasting Croatian street food, Austinite Joel Barish scours the planet for thrilling adventures, awe-inspiring places and extraordinary people. His popular online travel show, “No Barriers with Joel Barish,” is no ordinary adventure program. Barish, who himself is deaf, gives viewers a glimpse into the lives of deaf communities around the globe. But no matter how far away or different the cultures might seem, Barish shows both hearing and deaf people how we’re more alike than we may think.
“No Barriers with Joel Barish,” a captioned documentary-style show, has a loyal following of about 2 million monthly viewers on DeafNation.com, a website for the marketing company Barish co-owns with his brother Jed, who is also deaf. DeafNation also produces expos across the country for the deaf and hard of hearing that have attracted more than 800,000 participants since its launch 10 years ago.
Barish has traveled to more than 70 countries with the show, interviewing people ranging from a deaf water taxi driver in Southeast Asia to a deaf member of the Hungarian Parliament. For Barish, who moved to Austin about three years ago, launching DeafNation and his show “No Barriers” has been about motivating deaf viewers to dream big while stomping out misconceptions. “We can do anything but hear,” he says.
In his own life, Barish has had to break down barriers time after time. Growing up in California, he played soccer with a league of hearing players who, at first, thought it wasn’t possible for a deaf person to play with them. “They learned to respect me,” Barish says. “I did double the work, of course, I worked very hard and never had a negative attitude. I had to show them what I could do.”
Later in life he remembers applying for jobs, getting called in for interviews and seeing jaws drop when employers met him. “It was like, ‘Oh, you’re deaf,’ and they’d never contact me after that.”
But Barish had supportive deaf parents who encouraged him to become a leader. Barish graduated from Gallaudet University with a degree in television and film production. After college, he launched his own travel agency and coffee shop. He later started an Internet business with his brother.
In 2003, the Barish brothers launched DeafNation, with “No Barriers” following three years later. Aside from a travel show, “No Barriers” also reports from big events such as the Deaflympics, and most recently Barish took cameras inside the homes of deaf Austinites affected by the Halloween floods. With no power, many of these residents lost access to their video phones, which cut them off from communication. Barish documented their often overlooked stories in a powerful episode.
Flood victim Gayle Garcia, who is deaf, told Barish she’d lost her video phone. “All the other neighbors know what’s going on,” Garcia said in the show. “I am always the last (to know) and have no clue what’s happening.”
One of the fascinating aspects of Barish’s travel show is learning the numerous ways that deaf people around the world communicate with hearing co-workers or customers. While traveling to Zagreb, Croatia, Barish met with Damir Dovšak, a deaf chef for a catering business. Dovšak runs a kitchen with a system in place that works for both him and his hearing staffers. “They let me know what they need in advance so I have time to prepare,” he said. “I read all the slips of what customers order, and from there I get to work.”
Variations of sign language exist around the world, and Barish communicates in American Sign Language. When he travels abroad, he sometimes asks a local person who knows American Sign Language to help interpret. “Deaf people, when we first meet, we have an instant connection,” he says. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a different language because (using the more basic International Sign Language) we still understand … We just work it out.”
After a decade of traveling, Barish says it’s impossible to pick a favorite place. Each experience, though, has impacted him. He remembers traveling down an unpaved road for about eight hours in Mongolia to visit a deaf family of seven. None of the family members had ever seen a deaf person outside of their family. When Barish learned that the family’s neighbor would steal their sheep at night, he realized that the deaf family was getting picked on. Even in the most remote of places, he thought, deaf people face similar struggles as deaf Americans.
Barish hopes to eventually expand the “No Barriers” show to television, where more people can appreciate learning not only about deaf culture around the world but also see how traveling outside one’s comfort zone can enrich the human spirit. In the meantime, “No Barriers” travels to Tunisia in December. In 2014, an “Around the World” special will feature, among other adventures, Barish going down a gold mine with a deaf miner in South Africa.
“Our shows expand people’s viewpoints, and whether we are deaf or not doesn’t matter.”
To watch episodes of “No Barriers with Joel Barish,” visit deafnation.com/joelbarish.