Technology already exists to make air travel as seamless and comfortable for those with disabilities, but it seems it’s being underused. Molly Watt, a usability and accessibility consultant, specialising in assistive technology and design for those with sensory impairment, gives a personal insight.
I continue to travel by air and sadly it really is a lottery for many like myself travelling with disabilities.
My feeling is that it is very clear that there is insufficient disability awareness training for both airport and airline staff, who do not seem to be aware of “invisible disabilities” like mine. Even when I travel with my guide dog, more often than not I am asked by staff, firstly, if she is a guide dog and, secondly, what paperwork I need to have: surely these are things they should know.
I’m already horrified at the extra work I have to go through just to take my guide dog with me. To give you an idea: Firstly, I must contact the airline and advise them I am travelling with my guide dog – note they will be aware of her before the flight. Then it is my responsibility to arrange relevant injections/tablets that she needs, not to leave the country but to be allowed back in. It should also be noted here that I cannot be trusted to give my guide dog – who I value with my life – her tablets. Instead, it must be a vet that administers them. So even before arriving at the airport, I have been running around doing these things. I then have to provide copies of my guide dog’s passport showing the various jabs and tablets she has had for them to approve her travel.
I should make it clear here that one particular tablet has to be taken 24 hours before she travels, and should she be overseas for more than 5 days, I would have to find a vet abroad who could provide and administer the relevant medication or she would be denied re-entry to the UK!
So that’s before I even leave for the airport and of course being deafblind and preparing for travel isn’t stressful enough.
I live fairly close to Heathrow Airport, so it is my preferred place to depart. However, in November 2017, I was travelling with Aer Lingus from London Gatwick. As usual the airline had been advised of my disability and, as I was travelling long haul, I would be using my cane and travelling with a guide.
The woman at the check-in desk was unaware of my disability or my particular travel needs. I was offered a wheelchair, which I refused. Frustratingly, this is the norm when asking for assistance. If I refuse a wheelchair, the assumption is I’m OK, which I’m not as my anxiety goes into overdrive in crowded and unfamiliar areas. Why not ask how they can help, rather than wheelchair or nothing?
I did get to board among the first passengers, and my guide led me to my seat. An air hostess provided me with a Braille safety instruction sheet, the quality of which was so poor the “risen dots”, which is Braille, had been flattened and there was clearly scores across the card making it totally illegible. That said, while I can read a little Braille, I am not a Braillist – my preference is for large text and that was not available. I was not offered a one-to-one briefing about safety; I did not know where the toilets were, nor where the lights were or how to call for help. I had to rely on my guide. It is however, not her responsibility to keep me safe on the aircraft: the duty of care is with the air crew.
As travel experiences go, this was a poor one, and even more so on the return flight which was an overnight flight, and the cabin was so dark; I am completely blind in the dark.
Then, later that month, I flew to Sweden with SAS and their service was very poor. I was pretty much ignored on the outward flight even though they saw me enter the aircraft with my guide dog. They did allow a space for my guide dog on the outward journey though. However, on my return to the UK, the flight was overbooked and as a result there was no space for my guide dog. This was very stressful as although Isabella is a small Labrador she had to go in my footwell, meaning it was a very uncomfortable trip for both of us.
A recent trip to Copenhagen was with British Airways and they did OK. Still no large print or Braille safety instructions, which baffles me. While I am registered blind, I’m sure lots of older people would have trouble accessing such tiny print and the glare from the laminate is unbearable. Again, I return to the idea of either providing a tablet or maybe a fully accessible app so that we are all privy to safety instructions.
For me personally, if the simplicity of an accessible app isn’t taken up by the airlines why not send me an email detailing my seating, where the emergency exits are, where the safety gadgets are and how they work, how the entertainment system works and most importantly how I summon help!
Another simple way for all airlines to better serve passengers with disabilities would be for them to enable those of us with specific needs to build a travel profile so each time we fly we do not have to go to so much trouble trying to access what we need. At least then we would not have to continually repeat what we need, and staff should be very aware well before any flight. An email or text message to offer assurance that all is in place for my flight would make so much difference and take away some of the anxiety that travelling by air brings.
Lastly, as I write, I am just about to return from Mexico. My flight out was from Gatwick with British Airways and again things did not go quite the way they should.
When I booked my holiday, I advised BA of my disabilities and also informed them through social media that I was travelling. They did make sure check-in was aware of my needs and that I was travelling with my cane and a friend.
Interestingly, check-in was straightforward, and I was told of a quiet area where I could wait to board that would be stress-free and away from the busyness of the airport. Great idea I thought, until I got there and to my shock, the area was shared with lots of young children excited and running around playing – my idea of a nightmare. Not that I don’t like children, but an accident waiting to happen, as my box of vision is small. I have no peripheral vision and therefore I can be of danger to small moving people or objects. As a result, I felt very uncomfortable and vulnerable so didn’t stay in that area.
I can say thank you to BA for allocating my friend and I bulkhead seats and on this occasion an empty seat between us, appreciating I can be very clumsy as a result of being deafblind.
We were boarded first and made comfortable as the other passengers boarded. The usual safety instructions were presented on a small screen that I couldn’t see nor hear and of course the standard safety leaflets I cannot read, and I couldn’t see the stewardess doing her safety demo. I know the stewardess stands pointing and demonstrating safety gadgets, because I was born sighted and have seen it but not anymore.
Back to basics
We were in the air and some 30 minutes after I asked my friend to press the help button did somebody come to talk to me. I don’t want special treatment or anything more than any other passenger, but I do need all staff from the booking office to check-in to the air crew to be trained and aware of how to assist people with accessibility needs. I also need them to appreciate their duty of care to me to ensure that I know the safety procedures and how to use the safety equipment on board the aircraft, and where the nearest exit is, and where the toilets are and that I know how to find the help button. It would be good to be shown how the in-flight entertainment works, that it has subtitles or there is access to an iPad or something so I can access entertainment during the flight; maybe I’d like to buy some duty free! I’d like to be able to read the menu to know what I will be eating and drinking. Basic things. Is it really too much to ask for?
To say it’s frustrating is an understatement, and today, now, in 2018, this should not be happening. If staff are not being trained or the training is such that people like myself have to take a deep breath and hope for the best, then something major is wrong. Utilise technology, enable people like myself to be independent on board. We don’t want to be a burden, why can’t we just make life easy?
I am now preparing to return to the UK, and already I am feeling incredibly anxious as I will be on a night flight which means totally blind. I have as usual contacted BA to request the assistance I require, even though they should know from my outbound info, and I have been told the crew have been advised of me and my needs. I have been advised where my seat is and told how many seat rows from my seat it is to the toilets and emergency exits, and I have been advised they will try to put me near a bulkhead which should mean more room, near a toilet and near a galley should I need help. I’ve been told the crew have been asked to do a one-to-one safety briefing for me.
I wish I could say, “thank you, that’s great” and know that this is exactly what will happen, but sadly what gets promised all too often breaks down in practice.
Well, the proof of the pudding is in the eating they say, so you watch this space!
Find out more about Molly and her ambassadorial role and advocacy on behalf of Molly Watt Trust and Sense at www.mollywatt.com and www.molly-watt-trust.org
Image: Earlier this year, Virgin Atlantic became the first airline to offer entertainment for blind passengers. The technology developed by Bluebox Aviation audio describes the entertainment and has been tested by the charity Guide Dogs.