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An Open Letter to All Commercial Airlines From a Hearing Impaired Passenger

Student Work Narrative
by Adrienne B Apr 28, 2015

Long before I got fitted for my first hearing aids, I have been flying with you. In 1998, I was diagnosed with moderate-severe hearing loss in one ear and severe-profound hearing loss in the other — but I still travel and I still fly.

Being a hard-of-hearing traveler on an airplane is not always comfortable, and sometimes it is outright difficult. In the United States, the Air Carrier Access Act requires me to self-identify and notify your airline of my disability so that you can provide me with services — like giving one-on-one training about takeoffs and landings, emergency procedures, and writing down everything being said so that I can read it.

But my question is how effective is this self-identification?

I don’t want hearing loss to be the first thing people know about me. I don’t want to be judged and discriminated against because of my “disability” — so I don’t want to self-identify as hard of hearing.

I have worked hard to be where I am today, to succeed in an environment and a world that relies heavily on sound. Despite my severe hearing loss, I have always attended regular schools and I’ve worked my way up from special needs classes since the 3rd grade. I graduated in the top 5 percent of my high school with Advance Placement classes. And I even moved to a new country for my four years at college.

Hearing loss is not a “disability.” My hearing aids give me a quality of life that allows me to live on my own terms, to be independent. If a cafe is too loud and I want to work on my writing, I take my hearing aids out. If a conversation is too quiet and I want to know what my friend is saying, I have my hearing aids. I have never used my hearing loss as an excuse why I can’t, shouldn’t, wouldn’t or won’t do something because I do everything in spite of being hard of hearing.

Flying is difficult for Deaf and hard of hearing people for one main reason: sound.

If you are Deaf, you can’t hear anything at all. If you are still able to hear sound on some level, the sound of the plane’s engine is so overpowering that everything else just gets lost in the midst of it all.

We need more visual information.

Yes, commercial airlines are required by law to have all safety videos subtitled and you do give us the safety brochures for us to look at. But everything else is based on hearing sounds.

Like movies.

I have flown on many airlines, and I’ve never seen an option for closed captioning. I’ve seen foreign movies subtitled in Chinese or Japanese, but never English, Spanish or German. When I’ve asked you for help, I’ve been told that closed captioning is not available. Yet, you keep telling me about these mythical creatures of the airline industry — the “new airplanes” that do come with subtitles. I’ve never encountered them.

The truth is, an 8-hour or 16-hour flight is bound to get boring fast if there’s nothing to do.

And, by the way, those headphones you give us do absolutely nothing for listening to a movie — unless you jack up the volume so high that you get a ringing that lasts long after you get off the plane.

Here’s what you can do: update the software on the television screens. If that’s not possible, replace the software on the television screens.

You may think it’s not worth it, not enough people will use it. But let me let you in on a little secret, we’re everywhere. And many hearing people would love to have that closed captioned option, too.

Then there’s your public announcements.

Most of the time, I have no clue what the pilot or the flight attendant is saying over the PA. I know that the PA is on because I hear a voice speaking, and there’s always a “PA Announcement in Progress” marquee on the tv screens — but in all my years of flying, I’ve never understood one word over the sound of the engine. It’s all just extra noise.

If we do self-identify as Deaf or hard of hearing before boarding, flight attendants will write down the important information for us to read. But writing something down is time consuming when you have other customers vying for attention. And if the plane ever takes a nosedive, there’s not going to be any time to jot down a quick note before preparing for safety procedures, is there?

Here’s what you can do: type everything up ahead of time. Since most of the announcements are standard, and all flight attendants memorize them in different languages if they’re not fluent, it should be pretty easy to plan out what they’re going to be. Create a system where all the attendant has to do is choose an option, then the announcement can appear on my TV screen for me to read and understand.

Or come up with some signals. You’ve already got them for “buckle up” and “no smoking.”

Or use wifi to send emergency messages to our phones or connected devices, similar to an Amber Alert or Flood Warning.

It shouldn’t be that difficult to come up with something that allows me to stay informed, while your flight attendants take care of other customers.

And about the food cart.

Remember, there’s that sound of the engine. So I don’t hear anything that’s being said to me when the flight attendant comes around with the food. If the in-flight magazine isn’t up-to-date, I can maybe lipread. But everyone has a different way of pronouncing words so lipreading is more of an art than an exact science.

I’ve coped with this in two different ways. I yell “CHICKEN” or “PASTA” in the blind hope that you’re offering one of the two options. Or I tell my traveling companion what I prefer before the flight, but I don’t always travel with someone. Both options have landed me in sticky situations.

That’s no way to be independent, and it’s exhausting because if neither of the two options are available, I’m back at square one trying to figure out what’s being said to me.

On a recent trip to Europe, I realized that I had had enough of living like this. So I went up to the attendant before we took off — worried that asking her about the food menu would be breaking some kind of Flight Law. To my surprise, she conferred with the other flight attendant. Not only did she take out a schedule of the menu that she had on the wall, the other flight attendant showed me how the food looked. Then my flight was less stressful. I’m definitely going to keep doing that.

But here’s what you can do: since we already have screens in front of our noses, how about you just add a “FOOD MENU” tab to the list? Let the flight attendants type in the food before every flight, so that all of your passengers have the most up-to-date menu. You can even color code it so the passengers can pick the food beforehand, and a little bar can show up when it’s time for the food cart to come around.

That way, I don’t have to scream over the engine every time I want to eat.

And if you don’t have a screen, have an up-to-date menu. I don’t care if it’s on a simple piece of paper attached to the side of the food cart.

Yeah, I know that some of these things won’t come cheap. But in the long run, it’ll pay off for you. Not only will the Deaf and hard of hearing be more comfortable and willing to fly more often, but your flight attendants and your other passengers will benefit too. So, please, can you just help us out a little bit?

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