by Rita Kersh

I am blind and hard of hearing in one ear, in which I wear a hearing aid, and totally deaf in the other ear. When traveling by plane, I go by myself, setting it up in advance so that I have assistance in all the airports I'll be in. The special assistance has primarily been someone taking me from the check-in counter to the gate, from my arrival gate to my next connection and meeting me when I arrive at my destination and assisting me with finding my luggage and transportation.

Recently, I was flying to Tampa to attend a conference and had a layover in Atlanta. My experiences in the Atlanta airport were disturbing. I hope that we as ACB members can make a change where courtesy toward deaf- blind passengers is concerned.

I left Jackson, Miss. on time, but had a two-and-a-half-hour layover in Atlanta until my 12:10 flight to Tampa. When the airport person rolled me to the gate, I asked him if someone could check on me in an hour or so in case I wanted a bite to eat. He said he'd take care of that for me. More than an hour and a half elapsed, and no one came to check on me. I knew where the counter was; the original man told me that it was directly in front of me. I walked up to the desk and stood, hoping someone would notice me and ask what I needed. No one said anything. I decided to find my way back to my seat. A male passenger walked over to me and told me no one was working the desk. He asked if I needed to talk to the agent. I said yes, and that I wanted to arrange for some assistance. He said he'd watch for the agent and let her know that I wanted to see her. It wasn't too long before the agent came over. I asked if someone could guide me to the restroom and to get a sandwich somewhere. She called for assistance and here came another wheelchair. I don't fuss too much about riding in a wheelchair anymore since I know airports have their liabilities. I made it to the restroom and to get lunch and went back to the gate area to eat.

The flight to Tampa was late arriving in Atlanta and was delayed four times that I'm aware of. It was about two hours after the original departure time when we finally left. I occasionally caught snatches of what other passengers were saying about the flight being delayed, but didn't get all the information because of all the background noise. During the entire time I was in the gate area, no airline personnel checked on me or told me what was going on. Once on the plane everything was fine. I had good assistance in Tampa and got to the hotel without any trouble.

The return trip was just about as bad. I found out that part of the problem for all the delays and such was due to a runway being renovated in Atlanta. But, even though I was sitting in a wheelchair near the counter, the agent(s) did not inform me personally about the delay and of the gate change. I stood up with my cane out and the female agent came over to me after announcing the gate change and told me just to have a seat and she'd take care of me. I tried to tell her that no one had told me what was going on and she never acknowledged that she heard me. A passenger offered to roll me to the new gate and I told him that I didn't think the agent knew what I was talking about.

While sitting at the new gate, a different agent came over to check on me. I asked her how long it would be until we boarded the plane, and if she could get someone to guide me to the restroom before we leave. She took me herself and as we were walking, I asked her whose responsibility it is to check on passengers with special needs to make sure they know what's happening with flights, if they need anything, etc. She said it was the agent's responsibility. I explained what had happened on my layovers in Atlanta and she apologized.

The problem of being deaf-blind (or blind and hard of hearing in my case) is that it tends to interfere with access to many things when you're sitting in an airport for hours. No one from the airline checks on you or informs you of delays, cancellations and/or changes in flight information. For me, it is hard enough to get access to information in my everyday life, so why not make my trips a little more enjoyable and make sure I am taken care of?

I think it's time to do some sensitivity training with airline personnel who work for all airlines. Sure, they have learned sighted guide and have braille safety manuals, but what about the lack of accessibility in the gate area? We can't see the screens that tell that our flights have been delayed. We don't have a clue where the restrooms and restaurants are located. We're entitled to this information and assistance.

I hope ACB can make a difference for those of us who travel in the future. I plan on making my needs known as much as I can from now on.

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