Monday, October 6, 2008

United Airlines Clueless About Disability – That Needs to Change - Yesterday

Some readers of this blog know that my wife, Deborah, has a severe hearing impairment – both ears. Deborah wears state-of-the-art hearing aids that are only somewhat helpful.

Unless you speak to her head-on, and then fairly slowly and clearly, the chances of her understanding what you are saying the first time around are negligible. Forget trying to be understood by yelling something from the next room.

My wife handles her disability with an extraordinary graciousness and patience, although that’s not to say she doesn’t often get frustrated and even angry at her hearing-befuddled state.

Deb’s one wish for the afterlife is that she will finally be able to hear like the rest of us--I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

Travelling with a severe hearing impairment is obviously a challenge.

I have always encouraged my wife, when booking an air ticket on-line, to specify in the box provided that yes, she does have a disability, that she’s deaf, and yes, she does need assistance at the airport. (Most of us have trouble understanding airport and airline announcements, you can imagine that for her it’s a nonstarter).

So, enter United Airlines.

Last week my wife turned up at the United counter in Norfolk, Virginia, to check in for her flight.

United Airlines employee: Says here you have a disability. Do you need assistance?

Deb: Yes, I’m deaf.

Puzzled silence.

United Airlines employee (somewhat sullenly): Do you need assistance?

Deb: Yes, I have a severe hearing impairment.

United Airlines employee (now a little irritated): Do you need assistance?

Deb (sighing): Yes, it’s very difficult for me to hear anything. . .

United Airlines employee (obviously ready to move on): Do you need a wheelchair?

Enough said.

My cynical answer would have been “Yes, I most certainly do need a wheelchair, the hearing in both my ankles is not what it used to be.”

If this is the level of disability awareness in the corporate world, we have so much work to do that I don’t know where to begin.

Perhaps I could begin by reminding United that the Americans with Disabilities Act requires reasonable accommodation for people with disabilities, and that being close to completely deaf certainly makes Deb a person with a disability.

Earth to United: Here’s what your employee should have said:

“Ok, it says here that you’re deaf. What can we do to help you? How about you stay as close to the counter as possible, and whenever there’s an announcement, either come over to me, or I’ll come to you, and tell you what we said.”

Nah, too complicated.

Much easier to offer the wheelchair.



Anonymous said...

It is not just United Airlines whose knowledge of disability matters is, um, not very high. I have epilepsy, though (touch wood!) it is about a decade since my last seizure. Obviously, my supervisors at work have to know about it - but recently, a newer supervisor asked me if I kept my INSULIN in the fridge while I am at work. Well, she got the last two letters right...! (Which company made your wife's hearing aids?)

Dr. Mark Mostert said...

Thanks, anon, please stop by anytime, I really value these perspectives.

I'm more convinced than ever that we have to, HAVE TO, band together as advocates for people with disabilities - no matter what other differences we might have..

I suspect in many places that whatever "sensitivity training" about disabilities happens in many places is absolutely unconscionable. "Yes, Deb, you're deaf, let's get you a wheelchair. Yes, Anon, you have seizures, you ok with your insulin?"

What's next: (well, it's probably happened somewhere): "Ok, you have a guide dog? Is it helping your autism????

Sorry...... I just get tired of the ignorance....... even if it's well-meaning.

Dr. Mark Mostert said...

Anon, my dear, dear deaf wife will be home in a few, and I'll check on who makes her hearing aids. They do a fair amount of good, but she will never not need them.... stay tuned. I'l post asap.

william Peace said...

Commercial airlines do not need sensitivity training--they provide substandard service to all that fly. What the airlines need to do is stop purposely discriminating against people with disabilities. The FAA needs to step up the fines that airlines get year in and year out for discriminating against people with disabilities. Disabled people also need to assert their rights when they fly. I do this often and it is not easy.

Anonymous said...

I'm not surprised. I traveled more often now. I had dealt with them very few. Some had good common sense. However, there are some can be stupidity to answer. I agree.

press the button! It is time for them to acknowledge about deaf customers who have been around a lot at airport!

Candlemaker said...

I'd like to see United Airlines, (and everyone else), be more knowledgeable and helpful but let's face it. The world is essentially an ignorant place and very often the thing to do is use occasions like that as a chance to educate. If people don't know how to help, speak up and tell them. That's what I do. I'm sure not going to sit and wait until they figure it out.

Megan said...

It really seems that individuals with hearing impairments are not represented enough in communities. It's dealing with things like airlines and places like movie theaters for example, that make it hard for individuals with hearing impairments to access everything in their communities. Furthermore, many individuals who have hearing impairments who go to mental health agencies for example, do not receive the services they need. This is because many do not know how to communicate with those who have hearing impairments (they talk fast, cover their mouths, "offer them wheelchairs," and do not have sign language interpreters)!

Another thing, even though we do offer accessibility ramps, ADA accessible entrance ways etc., these are often always seen as an addition. Buildings are not created with universal design in mind, and are often viewed as an after thought or only done to meet the minimum ADA requirements.