Air Travel Accessibility

When taking long flights, it’s both exciting and frustrating. Exciting because you get to visit far away places and meet new people or see old friends/family members. Frustrating because you have to go through long security check lines, deal with delays, cancellations, and jet lag.

Being a deaf/hard of hearing traveler is even more frustrating – especially when traveling alone. There seems to be less understanding about deaf/hoh travelers than those with other disabilities. Every time you inform crew members that you are deaf, many of them either hand you a wheelchair or a Braille print without understanding that you need visual access to aural information. This has happened to many deaf/hoh travelers. One was even forced to sit in a wheelchair to follow “rules”. On one of my flights I was handed a Braille print about emergency instructions – after I informed a flight attendant that I was deaf and needed visual access to aural information. I had to explain to the flight attendant that I was not blind and could not read Braille print, but could easily see brightly colored emergency instructions leaflets in seat pockets. Yet she forgot to inform me about plane landing while I was sleeping unbuckled – I woke up when the plane hit the ground.

It is also very frustrating to remind many gate agents at airports that I am deaf every time they announce information aurally. One time I was not aware that we were going to change gates until after I noticed by accident the change in flight information above the gate and asked the agent what happened – the same person who already knew that I was deaf but forgot to inform me. I could have missed my flight! Only very few gate agents are being considerate of deaf passengers.

Although NAD (National Association of the Deaf) states that Air Carrier Access Act rules require deaf and hard of hearing individuals to self-identify in order to receive accessible information, it is not enough. As NAD explains: “Self-identification is not an effective means of obtaining accessible information, because information is provided in multiple locations by different people. Instead, all audible information should be routinely made accessible visually.” The organization demands that those rules “require all transportation systems (airline, train, bus, subway, etc.) to make all audible information accessible by providing the same information in a visual (text) format.”

I agree with NAD and other deaf/hoh organizations’ requests. It is frustrating enough that we have to identify ourselves all time throughout our trips, we feel disadvantaged when none of public announcements at gates and on planes as well as none of inflight entertainment is captioned (except for a few selected subtitled foreign movies).

I greatly appreciate many flight attendants, some seatmates, and some gate agents who have assisted me during my flights whenever there’s aural information is announced. Also, thanks to airport disability assistants who have helped me during some transfers from one gate to another – especially short ones – so that I do not have to use verbal communication to deal with airport personnel. On longer flights I noticed captioned emergency instruction videos on small screens which is great.

However, none of public announcements are captioned at gates and on planes. When flying with SAS and United, I saw a word “PA” popping up on a small screen on each seat every time information was announced aurally – but without any further details in text. With this advanced technology, aural announcements could easily be captioned to be displayed on a screen or some portable devices.

Also, many airlines do not provide captioned inflight entertainment – which is the major complaint of deaf and hard of hearing travelers. During my recent transatlantic flights with SAS and United, I saw only a few subtitled foreign movies, but 50+ other movies and shows were not captioned. Yet, they had soundtracks in additional spoken languages.

Does it make sense that we are paying money for someone to listen to translations in their languages while having no access to audio via text ourselves?

For example, SAS airline website has the Entertainment Onboard page listing movies, shows, music. As you see from their brochure, almost none of their inflight entertainment is captioned. I did not see any myself when flipping through movies during one of my transatlantic flights on their aircraft (except for “The Artist” that I chose to watch because it was silent).

I would also like to share the same sentiments with the author of “Dreaming of Accessible Airline Movies” blog post about her experience with United that has no accessible inflight entertainment. I had the same experience with United on my another recent long transatlantic flight (I chose some French movie out of a very few subtitled foreign movies). That blog post was written 2 years ago, and yet United has done nothing to improve experience for their deaf/hoh customers.

For these reasons, Association for Airline Passenger Rights did a petition to require commercial air carriers to provide captions/subtitles on all in-flight entertainment. It was also mentioned in the article by eTurboNews Group.

In the article, Kenneth DeHaan, founder of the Facebook Cause Require Subtitles On All Airline Carriers, “contends that passengers who are deaf or hard-of-hearing travel a lot so they should be given the same consideration by the airlines as hearing customers. He questions whether it is fair or ethical that they have to sit through long flights, unable to understand whatever is being displayed on the in-flight entertainment, while hearing customers are able to enjoy the services to the fullest.

When checking websites of various airlines about accessibility for passengers with disabilities, I notice that most of them focus in details on passengers with physical disabilities, and VERY little or nothing is said about deaf/hoh passengers.

So far I heard that Emirates airline is MOST accommodating to their deaf/hoh passengers, and their website also gives the detailed information about them. A deaf friend of mine who flew with them told me how impressed she was with the amount of their captioned inflight entertainment. I also came across an article by a deaf person from UK about her experience flying with Emirates and comparing their airline with British “Arseways”.

There are a few other airlines that I heard about were in some ways accessible to deaf/hoh travelers – their websites prove their commitment to air travel accessibility:

  • Qantas airline’s page about assistance when booking (providing contact information for phone relay services), at the airport (hearing loops are available in some places as well as captioned TV in terminals), on the aircraft (captioned entertainment and texting services for announcements), and on arrival (advising if an escort is needed at airports).
  • Air New Zealand’s page tells how safety and comfort for deaf/hoh travelers is important to them and mentions captioned inflight entertainment.
  • Air France’s Sensory Impairment page mentions that some airports have hearing loops, that their crew members are trained to communicate with deaf/hoh passengers (and some know sign language), that their inflight entertainment is captioned.

Do you work for an airline or an airport? Do you want to learn more about how to make travel experience for your deaf and hard of hearing passengers?

Contact us for consulting services, training sessions, workshops.

Looking forward to working with you.

3 thoughts on “Air Travel Accessibility

  1. alan

    thank you for your insight. I am the hearing part of a mixed couple…as in my partner is HOH/deaf. Even with a cochlear implant or hearing aids there is so much noise in an air port that audio announcements are often missed by the HOHing. I always am concerned when my partner flies alone as she dosnt like to make it known she is deaf cus she has too much pride to have special attention. Ive seen many miscommunications in both security check points as well as at gates.

    I think that in the day in age where we mostly buy plane tickets online i could see an extra bit of info that a passenger could fill in when buying a ticket. (check here if you have any special needs: explain). When this passenger checks in at the air port this info becomes available to the gate agents as well as on the flight manifest. It would greatly help all around.

    Because I know ASL I have actually “faked” being deaf as an experiment at the air port during a recent flight. I informed the ticket and gate agent as well as the flight attendant of these things. Though i could actually hear the announcements i kept the act up to see how i would be accommodated. As i waited to board i sat near the gate attendant and when my seat was called i just sat and waited obviously until the plane was almost totally full before the agent noticed me still sitting waiting to be informed of when i could enter the plane. once on board and with a stranger next to me it was easy to keep up the act as i passed them a note saying i was deaf and to let me know if there were any emergencies. This person let the flight attendant know about my situation which ended up in them speaking very loud and over pronunciation their speech and mouth movements, which as my girlfriend tells me just makes lip reading more difficult.

    The flight went well and i even taught the person next to me a few signs. Though it was all an act I do believe it helped me appreciate my partner more and helped the few people around me come to a new realization that not all disabilities are noticeable as well as gave them a unique oppertunity to either ignore me or help me.

  2. Sveta

    Alan – thanks for the comments and sharing your experience as a hearing traveler having a deaf/hoh partner.

    Regarding noting the special needs, I actually do this every time I order tickets online (and sometimes on phone when asking to be seated in front for flights with transfers). Yet, I have to constantly remind all the airline staff members throughout my trips that I am deaf which is very frustrating.

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