Thursday, July 8, 2010

Traveling in London with Hearing Loss

My trip to London last month was the first time I had traveled abroad since being fitted with hearing aids. Visiting a foreign country always provides challenges and I honestly wondered how my hearing loss would affect my ability to communicate and participate in all the activities I had planned. The good news is that I did just fine! Everyone I dealt with in London was courteous to me and no one from salesclerks to train ticket sellers refused to repeat what I missed. Of course, I had my son with me who has normal hearing. But as it turned out, the British accent was nearly indecipherable for him. I actually understood people better than he did!

At our hotel, we were happy to discover that our room’s television had captions (see photo above). They were easily activated by a clearly marked button on the remote. It was funny to us that my son needed the captions just as much as I did. We really enjoyed watching the programs that were on in the evening. In my opinion, the British captions were better than the captions I’ve experienced at home in regards to their accuracy and timing. My English friends were surprised to hear that assessment. Of course it was based on a limited sampling of programming.

Many of the trains in London had captions posted for every announcement made on the loudspeaker including the names of stops and information about connecting trains. This was extremely helpful. I remember during my previous trips to London (even before knowing of my hearing loss) having to keep a watchful eye on the tube station map on the train car wall and a lookout for the station walls to see the names of each stop we made, always being careful to keep track of the number of remaining stops. Having the captions on the train helped me to relax and feel confident that I would disembark at the right station.

Deaf people get a discounted price for tickets to the royal palaces. Deafinitely Girly told me this so I decided to ask for the discount when we visited Hampton Court. By simply pointing to my hearing aids, I was admitted with a student priced ticket and my son as “my carer” got in free. That was great for my wallet at the ticket office, but I did find it a bit embarrassing when we were at the Maze entry and someone asked which one of us was the carer. I pointed to my son and said “He is” with a little roll of my eyes. It was ironic because inside the maze my carer took off and left me to my own devices. When he despaired of my EVER finding my way out, he did come in and find me, though, so I guess he was a good carer after all.

I flew over and returned on American Airlines. There were several movie options to watch on the personal screen attached to the back of the passenger’s seat in front of me. Unfortunately, none of them were captioned. Not even the foreign films which were all presented in English. I tried watching movies but even with the volume turned up to the max, I could not understand the dialog over the sound of the plane’s engines. Sigh…I wrote an email to American Airlines about it after I returned.

I received the following reply:
We are in receipt of your email regarding the lack of closed captioning video presentations aboard our aircraft. I must say you raise an issue to which we have given much thought.

Although we do have a few large viewing screens on some aircraft, the majority of customers viewing video presentations do so on smaller bulkhead or ceiling-mounted screens (a necessity if customers toward the front or rear of a cabin are to have any chance at comfortable viewing), as well as personal video monitors installed in individual first class seats and portable media players distributed to customers in our business and first class cabins on International and Transcon flights. While these arrangements extend our "reach" throughout the aircraft, there are obvious limitations on screen size in all these examples. Because we have limited ability from a logistical standpoint to assure that passengers requiring captioning will always be seated in a particular area of the aircraft, we would have to provide captioning on all screens. Providing legible captioning forces a reduction in picture size to unacceptably small dimensions for all passengers.

Open-captioning is another option; but because current video architecture allows only for an "all-or-nothing" system on board, we effectively return to square one. Another disadvantage to this option is that open-captioned movies are typically unavailable in such a format until three to six months after the uncaptioned version is on the market. Still another factor with captioning of any kind is the inability to provide more than one translation on international flights; we currently provide dual language audio translations in such cities.

In addition, thank you for feedback about our Customer Relations email form on Since it's a standard form and we might need to follow up with a passenger by phone, the form is set up to require a phone number. However, if you prefer or require a response in writing, simply letting us know (as you've done) is appreciated.

We do appreciate your interest in these matters and the spirit in which you wrote. We pledge to continue our monitoring of available technology in this area and thank you for the opportunity to share our thoughts.

Readers, what has been your experience with traveling with hearing loss?


Frieda said...

I'm pretty much a homebody...preferring to stay home. I did travel to Eastern Europe many years ago. It is especially difficult to understand the local tour guides, no matter how good their English is. A printed brochure would have been handy.

Technology has improved over the past 15 years or so since I've traveled, so I may give it another shot. On long flights, I usually take my laptop and a favorite movie to watch.

Liz said...

Hi Sarah. You did fine. When me and Richard left you after our meet up. He said to me the next day, that we both did very well communication wise. :)

MM said...

I was surprised you found any in London who could communicate in English lol... we just read a debate here "Is London still part of Britain.." view... ? erm still unsure !

mogrenewed said...

Am pleased to hear that you were OK in England. I was worried as I find it easier to be deaf in Canada and the USA than in England. Everyone isn't so helpful when you aren't a tourist although London is a friendly city. The subtitles are better quality on British TV for spelling and accuracy but they aren't on as many programmes as they are in North America.
Your post are making me homesick!

kim said...

Kudos to you for writing to the airlines about captioning! I don't buy his arguments and believe a solution could be worked out. For example, he said that they would have to put captions on all the screens since they can't know where 'deaf' people will be sitting. Obviously they make arrangements for people in wheelchairs to have special seating. They could do the same for the hearing impaired if we were to indicate that we can't hear when we buy our tickets, so in all honestly we're only talking about a small section of the plane that could be reserved for deaf people and their families, and it shouldn't be that hard to caption those few screens.

I'm really happy to hear London was easy for you to navigate, as both my husband and I have hearing loss.

SpeakUp Librarian said...

I don't keep comments that contain links to commercial sites.

Jonathan said...

Having been on an airplane 4 times in the last two months, none of the movies were captioned in English. One of the movies were captioned in Dutch.

I asked the staff on the plane about whether or not closed captions can be provided. The answer always eventually ended up being no. I was even asked if I was Dutch. I replied that no, I am asking for closed captions because I'm deaf. He said, Oh, I thought you may be Dutch because so many Dutch travel back and forth between Toronto and Amsterdam. Interesting? They have Dutch captions, but not English. Too bad I couldn't read Dutch.

I haven't written a letter to the airlines though... I should though.

On another point, I'm glad that you did well with the British accent while you were in England. I miss hearing the British accents.