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Monday, 09 October 2017 11:28

Air travel - Simple solutions lay in assistive technology

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I am travelling more and more these days and whilst I enjoy it I continue to find unnecessary challenges but along with the challenges I also find solutions.

I would love the opportunity to speak to the airlines about the whole travel experience and accessibility for those travelling with sensory impairment, communication needs and mobility needs.

Being deafblind as the word suggests I don’t hear or see well but that really is just the beginning.

Two of many challenging add ons are communication and mobility.

It should also be considered there are now more older people travelling who’s accessibility needs will not be too dissimilar to my own!

A recent conversation with airline staff on a recent trip to Macau via Hong Kong with Virgin Atlantic really got me thinking - I should add I have had similar conversations with British Airways so clearly issues that need addressing.

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, which 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 will wait for a one to one discussion about safety onboard 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, not the case with British Airways.

On occasion Virgin have provided a small basket with safety gadgets for me to touch, so I am aware of what an oxygen mask, a life jacket, whistle etc are in the event of an emergency - impressive Virgin, but not always.

British Airways did address their ticketing service which is fantastic and 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 my recent trip to Berlin with British Airways the cabin crew on the outward journey were very good, literally led me to my seat and pointed out where the emergency doors were and also the toilets - neither the written or video safety instructions were accessible to me.  This was a short haul flight.

On my return trip from Berlin I was told my seat number and left to find it myself, thankfully I was not 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!

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

The air hostess was very honest and told me, yes the crew were aware I was onboard but also that there was an awkwardness about approaching me for the following reasons:

  1. How did I communicate?
  2. How should they communicate?
  3. What could I hear?
  4. What could I see?

I was surprised by her honesty but also very happy to hear it as it made perfect sense, even though it shouldn’t and something for me to think about.

I am human, I don’t bite (not often) I’m really not frightening, but clearly I was an issue in this instance.

It was a good opportunity to raise awareness of my condition but also to educate the few staff onboard.

Clearly there needs to be more by way of awareness training.

A second scenario which led me back to another issue was my in seat  entertainment did not work and as a result 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 as the it provided me with subtitles that were not on all channels on the in seat entertainment.  I was able to have the iPad nearer to me than the in seat entertainment so great accessibility.

I looked back over one of my previous travel/accessibility blogs http://www.molly-watt-trust.org/molly-addressing-accessibility-with-british-airways where I had considered how useful an iPad can be for those with specific accessibility needs.

I’m still asking the question, why are the big airlines not using iPads for those all important safety instructions?  Why not on booking suggest the option or even have an app which enables safety instructions for each different aircraft to be downloaded onto passenger smartphones or tablets and why not put menus on too, how simple is this?  

Whilst this assistive technology holds the solution to many accessibility needs of course eliminating “awkwardness” is an issue so I decided to adopt a new way forward on my return flight from Hong Kong.

It was a night flight home and being completely blind in the dark an even bigger challenge and one that makes me very anxious so a time to be made to feel comfortable even more so.

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 did not have to assume 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.  As it was a night flight I was not interested in the in seat entertainment but would have been nice to be offered an iPad all the same.  The air hostess checked on me on several occasions throughout the long flight home without me having to ask - she was very good.

I feel we dealt with “awkward” just by my being open and speaking up.  Is this an answer?  It won’t be for all but for me personally I would rather be asked than my needs assumed or worse, be ignored.

So there are really simple solutions, the assistive tech is available let’s make full use of it please!

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