25 September 2019

Safe Journey

Travel_main


When we travel alone, usually we expect to be  –  and feel – safe. 

Most of the time we don’t think about it. If we are disabled, we sometimes have to think about it more often.

The barriers to independent travel for people with mobility impairments, including wheelchair users, are multiple and frustrating. Part of the problem is the lack of a centrally co-ordinated transport system. One train or bus company may operate a better or worse system than another, and there is still no clear version of what a reliable accessible service should be. Often disabled travellers’ experience of travel is far too heavily dependent on the individual staff they happen to encounter. This can result in upsetting and dangerous experiences such as that of Anne Wafula Strike. Higher profile individuals’ readiness to share their experience helps raise awareness, but the uneven and unpredictable service continues.

But what is independent travel like for people with different disabilities?

I am profoundly deaf, wear powerful digital aids which can help with some environmental sound but have a lot of hair (so the aids are not obvious). I have reasonably clear speech though different to a hearing person’s (as I cannot hear my own voice). On first encounter, people probably don’t notice that I am deaf. That in itself can cause problems as they can make rapid assumptions about my reaction to them (or lack of reaction) and become hostile or sometimes patronising.

I have taken several extended journeys over the past week so I decided to document the experiences. We would welcome your thoughts on these and your own examples. Contact us here.

Flying

I had the opportunity to visit an old friend for a short break. For climate change reasons I did try to find a way to travel by land, but as she lives in the far south-western corner of Germany, this turned out to be very difficult. So I booked a flight. I decided to register myself for Journey Care (as EasyJet calls it) as a deaf traveller. I did this mainly so that the staff would be aware of my deafness, especially in situations where there may be new information (which is usually not provided in a visual format), or an emergency.

I am married and usually travel with my hearing husband. I admit that I did think twice about making the journey alone. But I told myself not to be silly… All would be well (I hoped!).

My written instructions after checking in online told me to approach an EasyJet official in the Check In area. I did so, but he didn’t know what to do. He took me to a baggage check in colleague, who told him to take me to the Access area. There, the staff did have a record of me. They then asked what I needed. Full marks for doing this. It’s so simple: ask! But often people are apprehensive about talking to a deaf person. I explained that security could be tricky as often instructions were issued rapidly and inaccessibly and that if there were problems, staff rarely understood the cause and could treat me with suspicion.

A member of staff appeared and used a few signs with me. This perked me up – hey, someone was deaf aware. But as soon as I spoke to him, he put his hands by his sides and stopped. And he was un-lipreadable, sadly. But hey, I was being offered support through security, so I was not complaining. The man seemed a little embarrassed that I could not easily understand him. I asked if he had received any training in D/deaf awareness and he said no. His colleague offered me a lanyard with the airport logo on it. She explained that this would identify me to staff in the airport as someone potentially needing assistance. I had never seen this before and thought was a simple and great idea it was, especially as the lanyard was distinctive but fairly discreet. It also had written on it ‘Keep me for your next trip’.

Going through security, I duly set off every alarm available, as seems to happen but felt heartened that a one-year-old was being scanned next to me. We were equally innocent I think!

I said farewell to the man who had assisted me. At the gate, I joined a ‘Plus’ shorter queue and described who I was. I was permitted to enter the plane in a smaller group with additional needs. This had the advantage of letting me find my place, sort out hand luggage then keep a close eye on fellow passengers. As a deaf person in a hearing world, you need to be hyper aware to avoid misunderstandings. If you are in a big queue of people with baggage, it can be difficult not to miss people trying to say things to you from behind, and getting steamed up if you don’t respond. 

The flight was fine. But on arrival at Basel Europort, a small airport, there was a problem. The doors to the passport lounge had been closed. I felt an icy dread creep through me. What was up? Nobody seemed to know. There were no officials around and after 10 minutes or so, fellow passengers started to sit in the corridor on their bags. I told a couple behind me that I could not hear announcements and they did their best to explain that there was some kind of security issue but they did not know what. The friend who was picking me up sent text message to say there was a notice on the front of the airport to say nobody could enter until 4 p.m and that everyone should stay well away from the entrance area.  She said this had never happened before and that it may be a ‘scare’.

I told myself to stay calm as there was nothing I could do. I watched other travellers carefully. Two airport officials in protective clothing who looked like First Aiders, came through to check on us but did not give any further information.

It was a little scary when a new planeload of passengers arrive and there was a slight feeling that we might be ‘kettled’ in our corridor. The security men however got the newcomers to spread out.

Two days later the local press reported that the ‘emergency’ had in fact been a live practice. It had certainly felt realistic to me!

On return, we agreed that my (hearing) friend would accompany me to the access area to help me understand the process for the flight. We were in a tri-lingual airport (half in France, half in Switzerland).My friend tried explaining in German, met incomprehension, then switched to English. Same reaction. The official mainly spoke French. He gestured to one of their wheelchairs and I said I didn’t need one. This was (understandably) the type of support they normally provided.

 After two more conversations, including with an EasyJet baggage check in woman (saviours, it seems!) we agreed that I could be accompanied by someone through security. The Check in woman asked me ‘Do you understand French?’. I said (in French) that I did, but that I didn’t get much practice of lipreading French.  They seemed non-plussed by this but I was duly provided with a cheerful French-speaking official and we processed through security, of course setting off the alarms once again. At the other side, the official seemed keen to hang on to me, but I said I would be fine. He took the trouble to check the gate number in advance and opening time which he wrote down.

We had shown the Basel officials the special lanyard, which mystified them. I thought it would be good if partner airports could share such cost-effective systems.

I have to admit that this process was quite toe-curling. It made me feel a bit self-conscious, but I welcomed the safety that it offered. Little did I know what was to come!

When the flight started to board, I repeated what I had done on the outward journey and approached the ‘Journey Plus’ queue. My name was recognised on the system and I was asked to stand to one side. I was the only person doing so in full sight of about 200 other passengers. I am a pretty confident person, but it felt very awkward. When the other passengers started to have their boarding cards processed, I asked ‘Should I join them?’ and was firmly told to stay put.

A special elevated truck approached the door. Then two elderly passengers in wheelchairs approached and were transported via a stately lift, into the truck. I was then solemnly welcomed onto the truck. It approached the plane door so that it was level. Clever design. I was asked to enter the plane first. Here is a photo of the scene:

It felt surreal. But once again, it allowed me to get my bearings and ensure I was aware of who was getting on, move out of the way and adapt. 

On both flights an attendant came to my seat to check if I was ok. I found this reassuring, mainly from the angle that they would be aware of the need for clear communication. I also noticed that the flight attendants spoke extra-clearly and engaged with me, including asking for a couple of BSL signs so that they could communicate with BSL-using passengers a little.

 All was smooth and I landed safely. It had been a good trip, and an interesting one from the access angle.

Bus

I am extremely lucky to live in Manchester with an enlightened and accessible transport system. I have a travel pass which provides reduced price travel during peak hours and free travel at off-peak times.

On the morning of writing this I took a bus to town to get a train to London. I had my exact fare ready in cash (something we deafies often do – to avoid having to have complicated conversations with drivers). I used my pass and paid my fare.

I had settled into my seat and zoned out when I noticed another passenger was alerting me to the driver who was calling to me from the front of the bus. I did what felt like the ‘walk of shame’ to the front, aware of other passengers who quite possibly assumed I was a) being rude and ignoring the driver b) was a fare dodger who had pulled a fast one c) causing a delay to their busy day. The driver pointed to his ticket machine and the fare I had paid and said something I could not lipread. I showed him my ticket (which showed the fare I had paid). I then said ‘Sorry, I am deaf’ – something I really try to avoid saying normally as it suggests that I am responsible for my disability or making an apology for it. He then said ‘OK’ and shrugged a little. I returned to my seat.

This is a reasonably common situation, though on most journeys, especially where no payment is needed, things are fine. I admit that it made me feel quite uncomfortable because:

  • I effectively  informed the whole bus (or anyone listening) about my disability – which I may not have chosen to do under normal circumstances
  • I advertised the fact that I was paying a different fare  which in these hard-pressed times may cause resentment among others.

Train

Electronic barriers can make life much easier for deaf travellers. While I enjoy interaction with people, if the situation is pressured (a queue entering the platform) I prefer to avoid it.

I am writing this on a train journey. The train is busy. The conductor walked through and asked me a question about my seat. I think I knew what he was asking but I decided to mention that I was deaf so had not fully understood. He looked impatient and I got the impression he thought I was making excuses. I said that the seat next to me was free and that I would move my (rain covered) mac which was hanging up next to the window. He indicated that I should sit next to the window. I said I would happily make space for another person to sit there but that I needed the aisle seat. He looked even more as though he felt I was a chancer, so I just said ‘It’s complicated’ and he shrugged and moved on.

The truth of the situation is that I have another unseen health condition – a tendency to blood clots. And as a very long-legged person it helps to be able to stretch out and move my legs on the aisle (when nobody is walking there) and easily stand up and move a little. But did I want to explain all this to a hard-pressed train conductor? Not really.

All the situations described require negotiation. Al interaction does to an extent, but deafness complicates things. That said, it can also be enjoyable. When someone responds openly and positively – as happened at Caffe Nero this morning – a young woman using straightforward gesture in the noisy environment of rush hour to show ‘Large or small’? then a clear and cheerful conversation as I took my coffee- you feel that bit more human, that bit more included and as if you are not a nuisance, but just another customer.

 
 
 
NDA 2015 Power 100 iLM
 
 

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