Traipsing the globe has become a constant activity in my life – ever since I was 12 and chosen to be one of 5 young delegates to attend the Children’s International Summer Village in Paris, France during the summer of 1992. Ever since that experience, I’ve become accustomed to the check-ins, baggage drop-offs, riding economy (and the occasional first class via ass kissing), zigzagging through enormous airports and making it out into an entirely another civilization. But as of late, when my vision deteroriated and I found myself becoming increasingly frustrated with how the airport and airline system dealt with Deaf and Deaf Blind people
Take several examples for instance. In 2005 when I was enroute to Seattle from Dulles Airport in Virginia, I encountered a bitchy flight attendant from United Airlines. I walked up to her with my blind cane very visible, and handed her my intinerary and passport. She shot me a glare, and said I missed my afternoon flight and would take the evening flight out instead. I had 15 minutes to spare before the “deadline” to drop baggage off, but she didn’t care at all. She focused on issuing me a ticket, while I tried to wave my note in front of her. The agent “waved” at me to “get lost” and welcomed another hearing couple while I stood there, shocked. The agent didn’t even bother to call for assistance to get me through gates, because, obviously I was legally blind. And what’s more, she never handed me back my passport. Getting agitated, I went back to her and tried to reach for my passport – and she rudely slapped my hand lightly and as I tried to catch a glimpse of her name tag, she covered it up and told me to LEAVE. Pissed and tears swelling up in my eyes, I told the hearing couple that she was holding my passport – and presto change-o, she realized her tiny mistake and handed me my passport without even looking at me.
I marched to the United manager’s office, and I was told I had to wait because the manager was on the phone. It was another woman, and as she walked up to me, another agent caught her attention. She smiled at me, told me to wait here and she attended to a family with “problems” while a Deaf Blind chick was standing there with heavy baggage, in the middle of craziness in a very busy airport. I had to wait ONE hour, with no seat in sight, and I couldn’t even sit down because I just knew someone would trip over me in a sea of bodies.
Finally, the manager approached me with concern and I showed her my story on my Blackberry. She read it diligently, and her expression turned sour. The manager wrote a note: I am sorry it happened. It’ll never happen again. I will get you an escort and you will leave on time. Thank you for flying United.
I wanted to slap her! I had gone through a traumatic experience and that was all she could say? I asked her if the situation would be dealt with and she just nodded yes. Pfftt to her!
Twice, I had sat by the gate, having let the agents know that I would be boarding that flight and they acknowledged me – yet – I had nearly missed both flights! One was out of Toronto, and one was out of Philadelphia. I had noticed there was a line by the gate doors, and it was nearly time for my flight to depart. No agent ever approached me, and I was becoming concerned. Thankfully, my vision allowed me to be alert, and by the end of the line(s), I waited just a few moments. Nada. I got up, walked over with my trusty cane, and asked bluntly: what are you thinking, leaving me there to miss my flight?
Both times, the agents were mortified, and apologized. I got on my flight, wondering if I was fully blind, would I have missed my flight? Heck yes.
One time at the Boston airport, I was led to the gate by a male attendant who obviously had NO clue how to guide a blind person, much less communicate with a Deaf person. He kept walking behind me, his hands on both of my shoulders and “controlling” my body through the maze. I told him to walk alongside me with my arm through his, and he did poorly at that. When steps came up, which I had noticed, he just walked me right to it rather than guiding me to the elevator. A little panicked, I decided to put a little faith in him. Big mistake. He actually lifted my left leg to “alert” me that there were steps, and I lost my balance and fell just one foot away from the steps which descended 30 steps.
I have had more experiences that are traumatic. I could even write a novella about the hijinks of being Deaf Blind traveler… but I’d like to get to the point.
I recently received an invitation from Jim Roots, President of the Canadian Association for the Deaf to write a letter to the Commission on Transportation in British Columbia regarding an investigative hearing brought upon by a case about a Deaf Blind man denied the opportunity to board an Air Canada flight by himself.
The airlines insisted that the man be accompanied by a sighted person, of which consists of another flight ticket that must be paid out of that person’s pocket, rather, than riding free to accommodate Air Canada’s policy.
While I am passionate about individual rights for the Deaf Blind, this issue has got me thinking and thinking and thinking.
Would I prefer to be accompanied by someone on my flights, someone who has ASL skills and experience of working with Deaf Blind people? Yes, but not if it comes out of my pocket. In most situations, if I were to bring an intervenor or Support Service Provider with me on a trip or to a restaurant, I have to cover the expenses of the other person. I simply cannot afford that. But if the airlines were willing to exempt the fare of the Deaf Blind person’s companion, then I am all for it. Makes for easier traveling. I foresee a lot of people taking advantage of this and the airlines would lose a lot of profit.
The other possibility would be to have ALL airports local, statewide, nationally and internationally, employ several sign language interpreters (perhaps 1-2 per shift) that are also trained how to guide a Deaf Blind or hearing blind person and any airline could call upon them to come interpret conversations at the ticketing counter, guide blind people through the airport and tactile in sign language with a Deaf Blind person whether they’d like to go to eat, use the restroom or buy something from a store and safely escort them to their gate and return around boarding time to guide them to their seat and ensure that they understand the emergency exit systems et cetera.
Deaf Blind people like me are fiercely independent, we cannot stand it if hearing sighted people criticize us or make decisions for us. Surely, we cannot hear or see, but we have legs, we have minds of our own, and if an emergency occurred, we’d be prepared through previous ASL instructions or through sensitivity training by the attendants.
I realize that if I were fully blind and unable to communicate with the attendant about my choice of food, there is always a way. Print on Palm is arguably the most easiest way to communicate through simple use of words – whether be it about food choices, drink preferences and even informing us about the ETA (estimated time of arrival).
I would hate to see that our rights are being taken away simply because people who have no idea what it’s like to be “us” decide what’s best for us or decide what we shouldn’t do. I see some common ground where Deaf and the Deaf Blind associations around the world can work together to ensure that the airports in their countries meet their sign language communication/sensitivity training needs because the issue directly impacts both Deaf and Deaf Blind people. In case Deaf people are wondering, what does this have to do with them? Think? If someone planted something in your luggage, and the airport security arrested you with no way to communicate, it would probably take 5-6 hours for an interpreter to arrive on scene from the nearest metropolitan city. Or if an agent is treating you horribly, an interpreter would be there if you ever needed to talk to the manager. It also has benefits where Deaf Blind people are concerned: with accessibility through tactile and guiding, both the Deaf and Deaf Blind people are more able to be independent and enjoy what they paid for through these hefty airport fees. Right?
I will be departing for Nigeria, Africa very soon. I pray there will not be any further traumatizing experiences. I also pray that there are people who will read this and know deep down inside, they have to take action. Right now, for the millions of Deaf and Deaf Blind people worldwide. One airport will surely affect many airports, in a domino effect style.
I look forward to what you can do.
Christine “Coco” Roschaert