Post date: 
Friday, 12 January 2018
Photo of people sitting down on a plane

Molly Watt, an accessibility blogger, talks about easy changes airlines can do to make travelling by plane more accessible for people with sensory impairment and other disabilities.

I am travelling more and more these days, and while I enjoy it, I continue to come up against unnecessary challenges. But along with the challenges, I also find solutions.
I would love the opportunity to speak to airlines about the whole travel experience and accessibility for those travelling with sensory impairment, communication difficulties and mobility needs.
Being deafblind, as the word suggests, I don’t hear or see well, but that really is just the beginning. (It should also be considered there are older people who travel whose accessibility needs are similar to my own!)
A conversation with Virgin Atlantic airline staff on a recent trip to Macau via Hong Kong really got me thinking. (I should add I have had similar conversations with British Airways, so there are clearly issues that need to be addressed across all airlines.)

Flying with deafblindness

As most who travel by air will know, there is often a call for those with children or who need more time to board the aircraft first. This is all well and good if you are able to hear the tannoy – I find it quite difficult.

On entering the aircraft and finding my seat, which without help is difficult, I wait for a one-to-one discussion about safety on board the aircraft, details of where toilets are and where the help button can be found.

Safety instructions in large print and braille are usually available on all Virgin flights, which is currently not the case with British Airways. Occasionally, Virgin have provided me with a small basket with safety gadgets for me to touch, so that I’m aware of what an oxygen mask, life jacket etc are in case of an emergency.
British Airways did address their ticketing service which is fantastic, so they can now provide a ticket indicating a traveller to be deafblind and not deaf or blind, as clearly each disability comes with different challenges and different needs. I have not had a ticket from Virgin with deafblind printed on it yet.
On a recent trip to Berlin with British Airways, the cabin crew on the outward journey were very good. They led me to my seat and explained where the emergency doors and toilets were. However, neither the written or video safety instructions were accessible to me.
On my return trip, I was told my seat number and left to find it myself. Thankfully I was not travelling alone. And thereafter, I was not spoken to at all. I noticed the safety video had changed, and although I could hear it, I could not make sense of it as there were too many “here and there” referrals which mean nothing to somebody relying on audio.

Flying long haul

The following month, I travelled long haul with Virgin to Macau via Hong Kong. Again, I wasn’t travelling alone. I was among the first to board, but I wouldn’t have been able to find my seat without help from my guide as nobody approached me on the aircraft.
My guide also asked for assistance twice, and after an hour in the sky and on the third time of asking, the air hostess spoke with me about safety, and where the toilets and emergency exits were. Better late than never, however the conversation was very difficult with the noise from other passengers and the aircraft. As a result, the conversation was also much louder and I felt people were looking at me which was quite uncomfortable.

The air hostess was very honest and told me that the crew were aware I was on-board but felt awkward not knowing how best to approach me. I was surprised by her honesty. I am human, I don’t bite. And in the end, it was a good opportunity to raise awareness of my condition, but also to educate the on-board staff. Clearly there needs to be more awareness training.

Another issue was that my in-seat entertainment didn’t work. But because of this, I was provided with an iPad which had full access to Vera, Virgin’s entertainment system. The iPad was in fact much better for me accessibility-wise as it provided me with subtitles that weren’t on all channels on the in-seat entertainment, and I was able to have the screen nearer to me.
Although, I’m still asking the question, why are the big airlines not using iPads for those all important safety instructions, where on booking they could suggest the option? Or they could have an app which enables safety instructions for each different aircraft to be downloaded onto passenger smartphones or tablets? They could also put menus on it too.
While this assistive technology holds the solution to many accessibility needs, eliminating awkwardness in my particular situation was an issue that needed addressing, so I decided to adopt a new approach on my return flight from Hong Kong.

The flight home

It was a night flight and being completely blind in the dark is an even bigger challenge, and one that makes me very anxious.
On entering the aircraft, I insisted on being shown to my seat and on getting there, I introduced myself to the crew member and told her my needs, so she didn’t have to make assumptions or feel awkward. The result was quite amazing.
The air hostess provided me with enlarged safety instructions, showed me where everything was and went through the menu with me straight away. As it was a night flight, I wasn’t interested in the in-seat entertainment (but it would have been nice to be offered an iPad all the same). The air hostess checked in on me on several occasions throughout the long flight home without me having to ask - she was very good.
I dealt with any potential awkwardness just by being open and speaking up. Is this an answer? It won’t be for everyone, but for me personally I would rather my needs be discussed rather than assumed, or worse, ignored.

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