My London Trip Accessibility Experience

Sveta wearing a black down coat and standing in front of Tower Bridge in London on a sunny day

I went to London last month for a week – primarily for business. While I have been to other countries in Europe and am originally from Europe myself, it was my first time ever visiting London and the U.K. My overall experience there was great and I hope to visit the U.K. again.

Upon my landing in the airport, it was hard for me to believe that I was actually in the U.K. because everything was written in English and everyone spoke English. I felt like I was in some new city in USA that I have never been to before. It was not until I got in a car with a steering wheel on the right that I was convinced that I was indeed in a different country.

After booking a plane ticket with British Airways, I emailed them asking questions. The airline was good at following up with me and answering my questions via email and Twitter. I wish they offered an online chat system for those who prefer to communicate in real time than to talk on phone or to wait for email responses. Also, I wish that the system could be improved so that all airline and airport employees were aware of travelers with disabilities and their accommodations – without disabled travelers having to remind them throughout their trips or asking too many questions to ensure about their accessibility needs.

I had no problems going through the security at JFK in NYC and being notified at the gate when it was time for me to board after I told them about my deafness. Though I was somewhat stressed due to the lack of access to aural announcements. Flight attendants were willing to notify me when food would be coming or when a plane would be landing or such. It would have been better if all aural announcements in airports and on planes were captioned, but sadly currently they are not. It would have made it much easier for both deaf travelers and flight attendants. None of the in-flight entertainment was captioned which didn’t surprise but still disappointed me as it’s a common problem with many airlines. The only information that was captioned was an emergency instruction video. I like it that it was made fun to watch with well known actors performing there. I chuckled when listening to Scully being featured there and saying that there were no X-Files and no aliens.

Another thing, not related to accessibility, is food options for a flight. While I was offered food options upon booking, it was not helpful for me as my food restrictions were based not on food options (such as vegan or kosher or meat or such), but rather on certain ingredients that I could not eat. So I had to wait until closer to my flight dates to learn from catering about which food option was good for me based on ingredients.

Hotels were deaf friendly. I stayed at two hotels – 3 nights at Aloft and 3 nights at Holiday Inn. Since both hotels are part of chain hotel systems, they are obliged to accommodate disabled guests. They provided me with deaf accessibility accommodations upon my request. As with airlines, I wish online hotel booking systems were improved to make it easier for disabled guests to request for accommodations and to have various options to communicate with hotels than just via phone as well as there needs to be more training for hotels about accessibility accommodations – in any country. I did reach to hotels via email, but it took a while for me to get a response after my first contact with them and also it took me some time to ensure that my accessibility needs are met.

I got to do some sightseeing in London outside of my work. There were tours at Kensington Palace and the Tower of London that I wanted to join, so I contacted both places long before my travel to request American Sign Language interpreters. Thankfully, they were willing to provide me those accommodations. I don’t know British Sign Language to benefit from BSL interpreters and would have used live captioners in English as an alternative if ASL interpreters were not offered. I prefer captions, but for walking tours sign language interpreters are less cumbersome for me to use than live captioners carrying the equipment. Hearing loops are very common in London and U.K. – more common than in NYC and USA. That is great. However, they are of no benefit to many people like myself who use hearing devices but do not understand speech by listening only and rely more on captions or sign language.

Some touristic attractions offered self audio tours which, of course, were not beneficial for me, but they provided me with transcripts. I was impressed with one museum where a security personnel learned that I was deaf and informed the front desk about my deafness and asked them to give me a transcript – without me even asking them for it! Some attractions had videos that were captioned and made it easy for me to follow. Of course, not all attractions were accessible. For example, when using a hop on/off bus around London and a hop on/off boat on Thames river, I could not follow a tour guide on the boat or aural descriptions in any language on the bus due to the lack of visual access via same language captions. The accessibility experience is about the same as in USA.

Navigating the Tube was easy for me thanks to their attendants at each station who were more than willing to assist me with refiling Oyster card and with train directions. I wish all subway stations in NYC had those attendants. Some new Tube cars have LED displays announcing next stations which was helpful to me as well.

I could watch some TV channels with captions – on BBC and Sky. Since I spent most time outside of a hotel, I didn’t watch much of TV to determine quality of captions. There was one major difference between captions in USA and the UK – each speaker was identified in captions on British TV by color. I could enjoy the Saturday morning coverage of the Remembrance weekend on TV with captions in a hotel lounge while waiting for my ride to an airport.

On my flight back home to NYC, I noticed that Gatwick airport in London has a better assistance for passengers with disabilities than airports in USA. When I checked in my bag, I notified about my deafness and need for assistance with aural announcements at the airport. I was directed to a special assistance reception. From there I walked with a customer care agent through an airport security area specifically for disabled travelers to a special assistance area where I was given a vibrating device with a red light strobe worn around the neck. It’s similar to those used at some restaurants in USA. I could walk around stores and restaurants in the airport without worries about missing aural announcements because I was instructed what time I needed to go back to the accessibility lounge and because I had the device that would vibrate with lights flickering to alert me. It is something that also needs to be offered at all airports in addition to captioned announcements. I had no problems with boarding as a gate agent was informed about my deafness.

There are many more things I could discuss about pros and cons of travel accessibility. If you represent an airline, a public transit organization, a hotel, a cultural institution, a tourist attraction, or any organization that wants to make experience more accessible to deaf and hard of hearing travelers, contact us for consulting services, training sessions, workshops.