Does your hearing loss prevent you from traveling, worrying about potential problems on the trip? Get over it – communication problems can happen anywhere – at home OR away.
Mind you, some situations are more challenging than others. The following is my personal ultimate in bad ‘traveling-with-hearing-loss’ experiences, when I was 20 and living in northern Australia.
In the dark hours as Christmas Eve moved into Christmas Day, I huddled with friends in the hallway of our tropical Darwin house, which was being pummelled by a cyclone. The howling of 150mph winds was deafening and the storm pounded the walls with fury. When the roof blew off, I truly did not expect to live through the night. After many hours, the cyclone passed, leaving 70 dead and an isolated city in shreds. In the following days, we were glued to the radio, our connection to the outside world and source of official information. I couldn’t always understand what was being said, and depended on friends to relay what I needed to know. A few days later, I was sleeping at a temporary evacuation centre waiting to be taken to the airport. I’d been separated from my friends, and twice I’d missed hearing my name over the loudspeaker. Finally, before dawn, a police officer friend put me on the next transport to the airport, where I was airlifted to safety.
I love traveling, although my travel stories have been pretty tame since My Magnificent Cyclone Adventure. One thing hasn’t changed: everywhere I go, I take my hearing loss with me. It’s my most faithful, although not favorite, travel companion, with barriers popping up at every turn – when calling a taxi, checking in to a hotel, ordering food in noisy restaurants, or talking with people whose foreign-accented lips make speechreading just a tad challenging.
Over time, I’ve learned how to kick down a lot of those barriers. Here are a few of my basic travel communication strategies:
Self-identify! This is a no-brainer rule of the road that travelers ignore at their peril. If you don’t let people know you have hearing loss, you won’t get what you need, and therefore you have no right to get upset at poor or inaccessible service. Contrary to popular belief, most hearing people and tourism/hospitality people are not mind readers.
Clearly communicate your needs. (I know, I hear ya, ‘oh-duh-please-tell-me-something-I-don’t-already-know’ . But hey, this is worth repeating.) If you say, “I’m hard of hearing” and leave it at that, the hotel clerk might just think, “Well, that’s nice, thanks for sharing.” Be specific about what you need – amplification, captioning, etc. Providers sometimes call these ‘special needs’, which makes me crazy. Good communication skills, amplification and print interpretation are not ‘special’; they are fundamental needs of a huge chunk of today’s population.
Let Them Know You’re Coming! When making online bookings for hotel, air or rail, I check off the Hard of Hearing (or Hearing Loss) box under ‘Special Needs’ (sigh). This may or may not result in better service. Sometimes “DEAF” or “HARD OF HEARING” is marked on the boarding pass, sometimes not. When it is marked, or if you verbally self-identify to the customer service person, he or she may look up you, all startled-like: “OMG, how am I supposed to talk to this deaf person?” Just smile and wait to see what they offer.
Sometimes it’s early boarding along with the babies and the infirm. I’ve heard of people receiving seat upgrades, although I’m not sure how this helps people with hearing loss, unless flight attendants speak more clearly in first class. Or they may tell you to have a seat in the lounge, and they will visually alert you when it’s your turn to board. In this case, if I have nothing else to do, or am feeling feisty, I sit close by and don’t take my eyes off them, unblinking, unrelenting, willing them to give me ‘the wave’. This might creep them out enough to get you an early boarding. Brilliant idea: airports could reduce traveler anxiety and employee stress by using signage to announce which rows are being boarded!
However you do it, your bottom line is that you have to be on that plane when it takes off. I almost missed a flight once because I’d lost track of time, wandering the airport, and didn’t hear the PA calling my name. Now I arrive at the gate well in advance.
Hotels Should be a Safe Haven. Last week, I traveled to Rochester to speak at the local HLAA chapter . I’d booked my hotel online, indicating my hearing loss, and was checked into the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) room. It was huge, fully loaded to meet the needs of almost any disability, with handrails along the walls, extra high bed and toilet, and plenty of room to maneuver a wheelchair. The Times Square-sized TV was beautifully captioned although its remote did not have a CC (closed captioning) button and I had to dig a bit to access the captioning. The only other complaint was with the phone: the ringer/flasher could have been louder and brighter. As with every check-in, I advised staff that, in the unlikely event of a night time disaster, they were to please send the strongest fireman to break down my door, snatch me up and carry me to safety.
Note: If I’m travelling with my husband, I still need all of the above accessibility items – except for the fireman. I would then need two of them, one to carry my husband to safety too.
The final word: Anticipating communication needs makes for a much smoother trip. I couldn’t prepare for being in the eye of a tropical cyclone, but emergency preparedness has come a long way since then – especially in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Minor glitches like these aside, traveling is one of life’s joys, so pack your bag amd kick down some barriers.