Hearing Loss on a Plane

Those who have hearing loss do not corner the market on being anxious about traveling by plane alone. Many people who have no disability or barrier fear travel. However, the inability to hear announcements is an added anxiety and requires more presence of mind for the HoH to stay on top of important information they need to know.

Frequent Flyer

Michele: I’ve been a frequent flier and enjoyed flight benefits for decades due to my husband working for a major airline at one time. Flying solo taught me so much about myself and honed my self-advocacy and communication skills. I recommend it as a great way to become self-sufficient and self-aware about your hearing loss and needs.

Two things you need to do every step of the way, with every person you encounter:

  • STOP FAKE HEARING—you have to get information right or you might miss a flight or wind up at the wrong destination. I used to not speak up when I wasn’t getting all of what a ticket or gate agent was saying. It only took a few times to see that faking it was a poor strategy that induced anxiety.
  • STATE YOUR TRUTH—when informing others, tell them exactly what they need to know about you and your communication needs. Simply saying, “I have a hearing loss,” or “I’m deaf,” isn’t enough; it leaves too much to the imagination. State exactly what is true, “I’m a lipreader, but it doesn’t always work and you may need you to write the information down for me so I can be sure of what you said.” I usually say this with a pen and pad at the ready.
Check, Hearing Imparied

When I first began traveling alone, no one believed that I was deaf because I coped so well as a lipreader—I received many compliments on my clear speech. I felt like I had to convince people that I really did have a hearing loss. And, even though I checked “Hearing Impaired” when I booked my flight, I was rarely approached about what I needed as a person with a disability, so it became evident I needed to take control.

When flying out of Atlanta years ago, I noticed the Special Services Security line and decided I’d give it a try. Fellow passengers and TSA employees challenged me for using the line—I don’t look disabled—so I asked for a supervisor. They confirmed that anyone with any disability was eligible to use the line, and that included hearing loss.

Special Services Line at the TSA/Security Checkpoint, Salt Lake City International Airport (SLC)
Educate Educate Educate

If you get any pushback, educate. Once when leaving Salt Lake City, I had a TSA agent tell me the line was only for people in wheelchairs, while pointing to the “handicapped” sign. I politely pointed out that the wheelchair is only a symbol for disability, and doesn’t mean that the line is only for people in wheelchairs. A supervisor clarified this issue for the employee.

At smaller airports, there may not be a designated line for people with disabilities. If that is the case, inform the first TSA person you see of your disability and ask to go to the head of the line.

Guilt for Marking Hearing Impaired

Chelle: Years ago I learned “hearing impaired” passengers could pre-board planes. At first, I didn’t pursue it because I didn’t feel impaired.  At one point I was in an airport that didn’t have visuals for announcements. I went to the boarding agent and let her know I could not hear and asked to pre-board. To my surprise she complied with no questions asked. Once I sat down on the plane, I realized how ALERT I had to be.

I used to sit as close to the boarding desk as possible. I’d keep my eyes on the agent to watch their movement for clues, strain to hear what I couldn’t, get up to look at arrival/departure boards, and more. Almost everyone else there was reading or playing on their phones. By the time I got on the plane I was worn out! 

From then on, I marked “hearing impaired” when buying plane tickets which guaranteed pre-boarding. Once on the plane, I could relax and read like everyone else had been in the waiting area. 

Don’t forget, I can’t hear!

There are still some issues, like boarding agents forgetting to wave me over. Once there was an agent who wasn’t too happy letting me know what was going on and seemed put out. I told her, “I’m a lipreader. I’m going to stand right here at the desk so I can lipread your announcements.” After pausing, she said, “You can board now.”

Airports are noisy places and all that noise overrides most of the speech I can hear. The jet engines on planes also do a terrific job of overriding speech. It’s difficult to make small talk with strangers and I can’t understand the flight attendants either. I can guess at what they are saying (predict) because they follow a typical routine once I know they are there. I tell the person next to me I’m basically deaf on the plane which saves me conversation and saves some energy for the next leg of the trip. If the flight attendant needs my attention, I tell them to tap me on the arm. Most people are helpful in that way.  

Navigating the Airport

Julia: Traveling with my grandmother in her later years was easy because she also needed a wheelchair to navigate the airport. So we always used the easiest navigation tools for those with disabilities. In hindsight, having me with her meant she could relax while waiting for our flights to board. If you are traveling with a hearing partner, make a plan to help alleviate anxiety.

With our new norm that includes masks and last minute flight changes due to all sorts of issues, I can hear nothing over the gate loudspeaker at an airport. And I have, as my kids call it, “Vulcan hearing”. I would love to start a movement that makes open captioning at airports mandatory; requiring airport terminal gate and check-in counters to be equipped with speech-to-text displays and LED boards that caption every gate/airport announcement.

Sensitivity Training is Needed

Sensitivity training for ALL employees needs to happen. Educating about hearing loss is not limited to sign language. An understanding of, and better communication, and acquiring the skill is a big missing component.

Please, Airlines and TSA, help give your employees better tools. If you don’t know what those tools are, reach out to us, we are happy to give a workshop on communication with hearing loss.

  • USE THE SPECIAL SERVICES LINE for people with disabilities. It is for people with hearing loss.
  • ASK TO PRE-BOARD every time, don’t wait for it to be offered. Especially if you have carry-on luggage to stow overhead.
  • BE PROACTIVE don’t wait to inform about your hearing loss and communication needs. Tell everyone you encounter upfront. Being proactive is much better.
  • SAY WHAT’S TRUE when you board, tell the first flight attendant you see what they need to know about you. Example: “Hello, you need to know I’m deaf, but I am good at lipreading. I don’t need anything specific, but if you need to speak to me, please get my attention first by tapping me on the arm or shoulder. Also, I won’t hear any emergency announcements, so I will need you to come to my seat and let me know about any emergency.” Share the same information with your seatmates.

We all talk about the wheelchair thing… if you’ve checked the “Hearing Impaired” box when booking your flight, odds are you will find a wheelchair waiting for you when you deplane. For some, this is a good accommodation, for others not at all. If a wheelchair isn’t something you will use, thank the person holding the placard with your name and let them know that a wheelchair is not the accommodation you need; then tell them what would be a better accommodation—communication access (text of announcements). Ask that they relay that information to their superiors.

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