Guest blogger, Scott Stoffel, discusses the airline issue.
When DeafBlind People Fly Alone
By S. M. Stoffel
Recently, my DeafBlind friend was rudely informed by American
Airlines that she was not allowed to fly by herself. She had been
flying the exact same route for years without any complaints from
what used to be US Airways airlines. Why did a change in
ownership cause this sudden bias against a DeafBlind passenger?
Similar incidents have occurred with other DeafBlind flying
American or another airline. This situation is not new to the
So what do we do about this injustice? The first step in solving
any problem is to understand the problem itself. Do you know why
some airlines have kicked (or tried to) DeafBlind passengers off
flights? Here's the reason American Airlines gave:
It is crucial for the flight crew on an aircraft to be able to
communicate with all passengers when an emergency occurs. Flight
personnel are not required by law to know Sign Language, nor are
they required to have an interpreter on board (no, the ADA does
not apply). So if a passenger can't hear spoken words and can't
see visual cues, the passenger is at risk of not understanding
and following instructions during an emergency situation. This
failure of the passenger to respond correctly may also endanger
other passengers in a crisis.
That is what the airline says. And how do they address this
issue? Sometimes, they just ignore it and hope nothing bad will
happen during a flight. Sometimes, they deny DeafBlind people the
right to fly alone. In the latter case, a DeafBlind passenger
would be allowed to fly only if a hearing person accompanied the
DeafBlind person. However, neither of these responses are what
the airlines should be doing.
Obviously, ignoring a potential problem is never a good idea. If
an emergency situation does arise, and the flight crew can't
communicate sufficiently with a DeafBlind passenger, things could
go terribly wrong.
On the other hand, denying an intelligent adult the right to
travel without a babysitter is unfair. It is certainly not a
simple matter to find a travel companion to go with you every
time you fly, even if the airline is required to pay for the
extra ticket. It's also unnecessary.
What should the airlines be doing, then? Consider the following:
Airlines should make it clear in their passenger guidelines
that a flight crew must be able to communicate information and
instructions to all passengers during an emergency. It must also
be stated plainly that the flight crew is not required by law to
know Sign Language or have an interpreter on board during a
The guidelines should encourage DeafBlind (and any other
travelers who can't understand spoken instructions) to prepare a
simple and quick communication system that the flight crew can
use during an emergency, such as cue cards or a paper describing
some tactile cues.
The guidelines should include a list of statements that the
flight crew may need to communicate to a passenger during an
emergency, so that the passenger can prepare a cue system that
covers all of those important statements.
Personnel encountering a DeafBlind passenger attempting to
board a flight should not deny access on the spot. They should
attempt to work out an emergency communication system, if the
passenger does not already have one ready.
What should you, the DeafBlind passenger, do to prepare for
flying alone? Here are some things:
When told you can't fly alone, don't cite the ADA. The ADA
doesn't cover flying. The law you should be familiar with is the
Air Carrier Accessibility Act (ACAA).
Prepare a simple and quick communication system that someone
who doesn't know Sign Language or Braille can use to tell you
things during an emergency on the aircraft. Slow systems, such as
Print On Palm, may not be quick enough in a crisis. Make some cue
cards or a list of tactile cues that allow the flight crew to
quickly tell you things like "Emergency! Stay in your seat," or
"Emergency! Go to the nearest exit," and so on. Cue cards should
have the emergency statements printed in text and Braille form.
Tactile cues described on a paper you give the flight crew could
be things like "Draw an X on my shoulder with your finger to say
'emergency'." Remember that speed is important, so make your cues
Always request that the flight safety guide be available in
Braille or large print for you. You must make this request
several days before the flight, because they generally don't keep
such materials on hand.
If you have a way to access text, such as an iPhone with
Braille, a Braille machine with a regular keyboard or a dry-erase
board, bring it with you on the flight and explain how the flight
crew can use it to communicate more complex information to you,
such as sending you a phone text to tell you that the plane had
to land at a different airport due to bad weather.
Be sure to identify yourself as a DeafBlind person at every
step of the process (booking the flight, requesting disability
services, getting your boarding pass, etc.) This is an important
step in order to get the law behind you.
If you are prepared for emergencies, but the personnel still
want to deny you access to your flight, demand to speak with a
Conflict Resolution Officer (CRO). It is your legal right to do
this, and just doing it shows them you know the law. When the CRO
comes, request to fill out a formal complaint form and explain
Airlines and DeafBlind travelers need to work together to improve
flight accessibility, safety and convenience. Never forget: We're
S. M. Stoffel
contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.