Traveling With Hearing Loss
I travel a lot. I travel for work; I travel for pleasure; and, as a competitive barefoot water skier, I travel to compete. Couple all that travel with my profound hearing loss, and there are times when getting to my destination without incident can be a bit of an adventure – or a miracle!
Take, for example, the time I was flying to Los Angeles to be interviewed for HearingLikeMe. While waiting for a connecting flight from Chicago to L.A., I was waiting at the departure gate, deep into writing a chapter for a book. I looked at my watch and realized I didn’t have much time left to board. Everyone around me was sitting down, however, and no one had lined up. I went to the desk to find out if the flight was delayed. “Oh, your gate was changed,” said the airline representative. Evidently, they had announced the gate change while I was sitting there, but I hadn’t heard it.
When she told me where I could find my new departure gate I looked at my watch and knew I had only one option. I ran.
By the time I made it to the gate, the ticketing agent had just closed the door, and told me apologetically that it was too late for me to board. Fortunately, the airline was able to find me a seat on the next flight out, and I made it to my destination in time for the interview. Crisis averted.
In addition to air travel, I frequently hit the road by van, sometimes with three kids and a husband in tow–all of whom are all either deaf or hard of hearing. As you can imagine, we know a thing or two about the challenges of smoothly transitioning from point A to point B with hearing loss. Here are a few tricks I have learned over the years that may help you make your next trip without incident.
Tips for Traveling by Plane
- When booking a flight, always sign up for flight change alerts via text or email. If someone else books the flight for you, follow up with the airline to ensure you receive updated information by phone or email.
- Try to book a seat up front where the flight crew can find you and communicate with you if needed.
- Notify the flight staff and flight crew of your communication needs and ask them to let you know if there are any travel changes.
- Leave your hearing technology in place. Hearing aids and cochlear implants do not have to be removed before going through airport scanners.
- Airlines prohibit deaf and hard of hearing persons from sitting in exit row seats for safety reasons.
Tips for Traveling by Car
- If you’re the driver and you lip-read or sign/cue, teach your passengers to insert pauses in their conversation when your eyes are on the road.
- Extra-wide rear-view mirrors can be installed in cars, making it easier to communicate with back seat passengers.
- Ask passengers to use an FM system in order to deliver the conversation right to your ears. This allows you to keep your eyes on the road at all times.
- Use a Bluetooth phone system to provide hands-free access to calls.
Tips for Traveling by Bus or Train
- There are no visible names for each stop, enlist the help of a nearby seatmate to let you know when a certain stop comes up. Back when I traveled by train for my job, I would count the number of stops until mine. I’m grateful for buses and trains that have visual displays of stops and information.
- Tell a fellow traveler or an attendant that you have hearing loss so that you don’t miss any safety announcements.
Tips for staying in a hotel or resort
- Hotels have a visual signal alert for the doors and alarm clock. Ask for the “ADA Kit” at the front desk or when you make your reservations.
- Many hotels are now using universal remotes with the one-click “CC” closed-captioning button. No more having to go through five menu screens to turn on the captioning!
- If you’re traveling without an alarm clock and the hotel doesn’t have a visual alarm kit, one trick you can use to make sure you wake up early: Down a couple of glasses of water before heading to bed. This always wakes me up in time!
- If you’re traveling internationally, you may need an outlet converter to charge your rechargeable batteries for your implant or hearing aids, or to plug in your electronic devices.
In all my years of traveling, I have found fellow travelers are quite willing to lend a hand with requests for assistance while traveling. Occasionally, I’ve run into some challenges here and there. For instance, I once took my family on a zip line adventure and we encountered an instructor who was very uncomfortable instructing a deaf family. He took extra pains to single us out during the class instruction and held our group last “to ensure our safety,” despite our demonstration that we understood all the instructions and could safely zip line with the rest of them. He finally relaxed halfway through the process and we ended up enjoying the adventure.
If you’re planning an outing that involves a guided tour, presentation, workshop, concert, etc., call ahead to arrange for real-time captioning or interpreters. Know and understand the law regarding communication access in the area you’re traveling.
In some situations, you may have to be innovative. For example, while traveling out of state to a banquet for a barefoot tournament, I arranged for two volunteers from a local interpreting program to provide interpreting services. In other situations, I’ve had volunteers summarize and type what’s being said. Please note, however, that I’m not advocating these solutions in place of the accommodations that are required by law, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Whenever I see an opportunity to improve travel accommodations for the next trip or the next deaf and hard-of-hearing traveler, I use that time to advocate and teach others. Once on a trip to the arch in St. Louis, we found no captioning for the educational videos throughout the exhibit. I informed the staff at the guest desk, and wrote a letter upon my return home. I received a letter in return, indicating they would provide captioning for their videos.
Tina Childress, an educational audiologist from Illinois who is deaf, turns every trip into a teachable moment. “That desk clerk that doesn’t know what an ADA Hotel Kit is? she asks. “Well, after talking to me, they’ll probably never forget!”
Like Childress, I believe we all have a role in helping to improve accommodations for ourselves, as well as other deaf and hard-of-hearing travelers. After all, who better understands what we need? My experiences on the road, on the tracks, and in the air have taught me that, sometimes, all we have to do is ask.