Traveling, Accents & Hearing Loss

by Chelle Wyatt

My husband and I took a belated honeymoon/anniversary trip to Costa Rica a few weeks ago.  I decided to go minimal knowing we’d be moving to a different part of the country every few days.  I left my usual purse at home, using a super small, flat purse to carry only a few essentials.  Knowing it was going to rain every day and be super humid, I decided to leave my hearing aids at home.

I know some of you out there are gasping at the thought of leaving hearing aids behind.  Hearing aids are just too expensive to lose and I didn’t want to chance it.  I’m fairly comfortable not wearing hearing aids here at home but I’ll admit, I was a little worried about how I’d hear English with accents there.  Lucky for me I was going with a hearing person. Still I didn’t want to lean on him too much, I was sure I’d find ways to communicate as needed.

Our first driver spoke very little English.  I was super tired after flying all night in a tin can, packed tightly together.  Airline seats don’t go back far enough to sleep without pecking corn (my heading falling forward over and over again as I tried to sleep).  When I’m that tired, I can’t hear at home either so I only knew our driver was talking but understood very little of what he said.  Ken said he couldn’t really understand him either.  I fell asleep in the van which was more comfortable than the plane believe it or not.  We stopped for a picture at one point and when I had a hard time understanding him, he resorted to gesturing.  Perfect!  Gesturing is universal.

We went to a restaurant and the menu was in both Spanish and English. I thought I’d try the Spanish words since I was in their country.  “I’ll get the hamburguesa atun.”  He looked down at me and said, “You want the tuna sandwich.”  I almost laughed out loud.  I think he meant “Don’t massacre my language.”  I didn’t try ordering in Spanish again sticking to English.

We stayed in three different towns in different parts of the country.  We stayed in Manuel Antonio the first few nights which mostly resting up from our plane ride over.  Then went to la Fortuna the next couple of nights where three activities were planned; the hot springs at Tabacon, a trip to the Arenal volcano and the Fortuna waterfall.  We had an English-speaking guide for the volcano and waterfall, he was very good about facing me.  He was a biology student so he and Ken got along well, he even convinced Ken to eat a few termites…no I didn’t even try.  Ken said it was ‘woodsy flavored.’

Over the course of the trip I realized the same rules apply abroad as they do in the states.

  1. If having a hard time, I told them I couldn’t hear well.
  2. I told them I use lipreading.
  3. If I could relax, I could hear/lipread them, especially after spending more time with them.

My favorite hard of hearing moment  of the trip was while we were Tamarindo and went out on a catamaran for snorkeling.  I’m not one to jump in the ocean so I stayed on the boat while the others splashed around.  I was happy with mojitos, the view, the sun at least and getting to know some of the crew who were super accommodating. I was sitting at the back of the boat relaxing and one of crew members sat down next to me.  He said, “I know you don’t hear well and that you are learning my lips…”

And I thought perfect, yes!  I’m always learning people’s lips.  I’m learning their lips, the words they use, their facial expressions and their accents.  I was certainly learning his lips.  To continue…

“…and you’re learning my lips but I don’t know how you understand me so well.”

Well… I grew up near the Mexican border in California so maybe Spanish accents are a little easier than I thought they would be?  That’s what I told him but after more thinking maybe it’s a combination of things.  Maybe I spent enough time with him?  Or was it that he made sure he faced me?  Maybe some people are easier to lip read accent or no accent no matter what.

I had a grand time and I would not hesitate traveling in other countries.  Where there’s a will, there’s a way.  Travel forth my hearing loss friends!

My friend on the boat.
Melwin at the pool who I could also undestand fairly well.
My husband, Ken, and the volcano guide who spoke very good English.

Air Travel with Your Hearing Loss

by Rosie Greer, Flight Attendant and SWC Member

I travel for a living. Every working day, I experience the wonders of air travel.   Air travel with hearing loss is complicated. I know first-hand that travel arrangements don’t always go smoothly.

For passengers who do not hear well, airline travel is a challenge. You’re the last to know when gate changes, delays, and cancellations announced! Perhaps there are visual indicators, video monitors that indicate schedule changes, and you eventually see the updates and catch on.

Passengers who are deaf or hard of hearing often do not realize they are entitled to certain assistance and benefits.

Here’s how to get the most out of your airline experience.


Booking Your Flights

I advise that you identify yourself as “deaf” when you purchase your tickets online, by telephone, or through your travel agent. You’ll be asked about special services online.  Select from a list the services that you require.  Your “deaf” declaration alerts the airline that you may require special assistance.  Your name and your special needs are noted on the passenger manifest. The gate agents and flight attendants are informed in advance that you will be on board.

If you have already booked airline tickets, but did not include disability information, it is possible to update your reservation online, by telephone, or ask the travel agent who booked your ticket to do it for you.

Deciding whether to “code’ yourself

Although a wise idea to “code” yourself, doing so is a personal decision. Some people do not wish to call attention to their disabilities and believe they can get along without assistance. Sometimes, hearing companions keep you informed. Phone apps from your airline can keep you updated. Also, if your hearing loss is not severe, you simply may not want or need to identify your hearing impairment.

If you listed yourself as “deaf,” follow-up with a phone call to the airline to request disability seating, if you desire. Disability seats provides convenient boarding for the passenger, and easy access to a forward aircraft boarding door. Disability seating is located in the row or rows right after first class on many airplanes, unless that row also happens to be an emergency exit row. It is a reasonable accommodation for passengers with hearing disabilities to sit close to the front of the aircraft. You need to see the flight attendants making announcements in order to lip read. You require assurance that the flight attendant can access you quickly when he or she has important information or in the event of an emergency.

Disability seating

However, not all disability seats are great. It depends on the aircraft and the seat arrangements. On some planes, if you are seated at a bulkhead, you might not have storage room under the seat in front of you. Some bulkhead disability seats have stationary armrests. Such seats might constrict larger people.

If interested in sitting close to the front of the aircraft, put in a request for the mandatory disability seats. There’s no need for discussion, no need to plead a case. Simply state, “I require disability seating.”

Your seating request could be denied, however, if other disabled passengers are already in those seats. If the company has already sold the more desirable seats to other people, the airline might will offer an aisle seat elsewhere on the plane.   Aisle seats make it easier for the flight attendant to access you.

Some airlines do not mention disability seating for deaf people on their websites, perhaps hoping to keep those seats open for passengers with walking handicaps. Bear in mind, disability seats are intended for all disability groups.

Don’t pay extra fees for disability seating

A current business trend, a new stream of income for many airlines, is to charge an additional fee for the seats that were once dedicated disability seats. Airlines put nicer slipcovers over the chairs, and rearranged the rows to provide more legroom.  Frequent flyers get these preferred seats for free. Other passengers pay a hefty surcharge in order to sit in them. However, at least one row of those upgraded economy seats is still a mandatory disability area. Should you be assigned an “economy comfort” or “comfort plus” seat based on your request for a disability seat, remember this: you do not have to pay the premium fee that someone else must pay to sit there.



When you get to the gate, go directly to the gate agent and identify yourself. Ask him or her to approach you when pre-boarding begins.

At some airlines, pre-boarding is first, before all other passengers. At other airlines, pre-boarding happens after first-class boarding. One of the advantages of pre-boarding is you can find space for your carry-on luggage! Many airplanes in the US domestic market do not have enough storage room for every passenger’s luggage.

Note: Many of the smaller “airlink” planes require everyone to “gate check” all their carry-on bags except for purses and computer cases, and other small articles. On such flights, the articles are also returned to the jetbridge after landing.

The main reason for pre-boarding is to allow a flight attendant to provide you with an individual safety briefing before other passengers charge into the plane.


Safety Briefing

A flight attendant is required to come to your seat to familiarize you with the layout of the aircraft, and basic safety procedures. The flight attendant must also ask how he or she can assist you during flight.

Common requests and communication from hard of hearing or deaf passengers include:

  • Tell me when safety announcements are made.
  • Tell me if our plane is going to be late.
  • Let me know about turbulence forecasts.
  • Can someone accompany me to my next gate?
  • I communicate in writing. I lip read.
  • Please write down important information and bring it to me. If an important announcement is made, please bring it to me in writing.

Some deaf people wave me away when I attempt to provide an individual safety briefing.  “I travel all the time,and I don’t need any special attention.” Quickly, I point out the locations of the two closest sets of exits, the flight attendant call lights, and the lavatories. Then, I mention to don an oxygen mask right away in the event of decompression. (I have never been on one yet!)

Safety demonstrations and booklets

If you are on a plane that is video equipped, the safety demonstrations (seat belts, oxygen masks, smoking prohibition, etc.) are captioned.

Generally, airlines also have their safety demonstrations in written form. Puzzlingly, the written form is sometimes a Braille booklet. Deaf people feel surprised, if not shocked, when handed a Braille card! I hope flight attendants do not assume deaf and hard of hearing people have all been taught Braille!  Written words, found typed around the Braille language, enables you to read up on emergency procedures and safety features of the aircraft. Other airlines have separate informational booklets about your airplane that a flight attendant will offer you.


In Flight

Nowadays many non-safety announcements happen in the air. Airlines promote credit cards, the Skymall® shopping catalog, and featured merchants accessed through the on board wifi Internet system. There is no need for the flight attendants to convey this marketing information to you.

However, as arranged in your individual briefing, a flight attendant will tell you during flight when it is safe to use electronic devices, and when you need to turn them off.  They inform you of predicted turbulence, delays, and other irregular operations. They sometimes get connecting gate information for you. But if they do, be aware that gates sometimes change at the last minute, especially at major airports.


General Advice

If you are connecting through a major airport such as Chicago, Atlanta, or Dallas, make sure that you have enough time to make your connecting flight. Just because a flight is offered online doesn’t guarantee that you’ll make the connecting flight. There is a trend to offer flights with a half-hour connection time in huge airports. Under ideal circumstances, that short connection may work. If your flight is even a little bit late, it will not. Airlines recommend minimum connections on their websites, but the connection advice is not always easy to find. Do not ever book a flight where the connection is less than the suggested minimum connection time.

Your carry-on bag

If you pre-board your flight, you will likely have room for your carry-on baggage. Because most airlines charge extra to check luggage, with Southwest Airlines still the exception, passengers bring more luggage than ever on board. When the flight is two-thirds full, many planes in the domestic market run out of overhead bin space. Some passengers end up checking their carry-on bags at the gate unexpectedly.

Always bring your keys, medicines, and necessary medical articles in a purse or tiny carry-on that fits under your seat. If required to check a larger carry-on because there’s no room for it on the airplane, remove your medicines, medical devices, hearing aid related items, computer, and keys. Checked bags rarely get lost. However, lengthy and unexpected mechanical or weather-related delays require that you have your medicines and medical equipment handy. In the unlikely event that a checked bag goes missing after your journey, you’ll be glad to have your keys to start your car and open your house.


The Air Trip

In short, at each point of contact in the airports and on the plane, convey your special hearing-related needs directly to an employee. At the ticket counter, at the gate, on board the aircraft, at baggage claim, etc.  It’s a great idea to wear those buttons that say, “Please get my attention. I’m hard of hearing.” Let everyone know!

By the way: if you declare yourself as “deaf”, you may not sit in an emergency exit row. Keep in mind that emergency exit seating is not about the legroom, though that’s a bonus. You are expected to help in an evacuation, hold the slides until the last person exits a damaged or burning airplane, etc. You must be able to hear commands from a flight attendant and rapidly convey those commands to other people, while responding to passengers and flight attendants in a likely noisy and chaotic environment. Most hard of hearing people I know have zero interest in sitting in an exit row, but for those who like the legroom, you now know that you now have other even better options!

Have a nice flight!

Rosie Geer is a flight attendant for a major airline. She has shared insights based only on her personal experiences and research. Policies may differ depending on the airline.

A STORY OF FEAR by Michele Linder


I’ve been going through TED withdrawal.  I remedied that this morning by making time for the things that make me think further.  TED Talks certainly do that.

NOTE:  If you click on the link below to watch the TED Talk yourself, don’t forget to enable the captions in the language of your choice.  Do this by resting your cursor on the screen.  The gray bar appears to the right of the pause symbol, with captioning menu.  You can also read the transcript of the video by clicking on the red-lettered, “Show transcript” button.  This is located below the right hand side of the video screen.

This morning’s Talk, entitled “What fear can teach us”, by author Karen Thompson Walker, began with a story that took place in 1819.  It was about twenty American sailors who became shipwrecked after their whaling vessel was struck by a sperm whale and sank.  The twenty sought refuge in three small whaleboats. They began weighing their options, making and delaying decisions based on their fears.

You’ll have to watch the TED Talk for yourself to see how the story turns out.  You can well imagine if you’ve read “Moby Dick”, as this story was later used by Herman Melville as research for his book.  Mr. Melville speculated, had these men made an immediate decision to steer straight for Tahiti, the closest land mass, instead of letting their dread decide their fate, they might well have avoided their sufferings.

What I will share are some of the interesting things the author had to say about fear:

“We all know what it’s like to be afraid. We know how fear feels, but I’m not sure we spend enough time thinking about what our fears mean.

As we grow up, we’re often encouraged to think of fear as a weakness, just another childish thing to discard like baby teeth or roller skates.  It’s something we fight. It’s something we overcome. But what if we looked at fear in a fresh way? What if we thought of fear as an amazing act of the imagination, something that can be as profound and insightful as storytelling itself?

Because that’s really what fear is, if you think about it. It’s a kind of unintentional storytelling that we are all born knowing how to do. And fears and storytelling have the same components. They have the same architecture. Like all stories, fears have characters. In our fears, the characters are us. Fears also have plots. They have beginnings and middles and ends. Our fears also tend to contain imagery that can be every bit as vivid as what you might find in the pages of a novel. Fears also have suspense. Our fears provoke in us a very similar form of suspense. Just like all great stories, our fears focus our attention on a question that is as important in life as it is in literature: What will happen next? In other words, our fears make us think about the future.

…a big part of writing fiction is learning to predict how one event in a story will affect all the other events, and fear works in that same way. In fear, just like in fiction, one thing always leads to another.

So if we think of our fears as more than just fears but as stories, we should think of ourselves as the authors of those stories. But just as importantly, we need to think of ourselves as the readers of our fears, and how we choose to read our fears can have a profound effect on our lives.

…how can we tell the difference between the fears worth listening to and all the others? The novelist Vladimir Nabokov said that the best reader has a combination of two very different temperaments, the artistic and the scientific. A good reader has an artist’s passion, a willingness to get caught up in the story, but just as importantly, the readers also needs the coolness of judgment of a scientist, which acts to temper and complicate the reader’s intuitive reactions to the story.

And maybe if we all tried to read our fears, we too would be less often swayed by the most salacious among them. Just as the most nuanced stories in literature are often the richest, so too might our subtlest fears be the truest. Read in the right way, our fears are an amazing gift of the imagination, a kind of everyday clairvoyance, a way of glimpsing what might be the future when there’s still time to influence how that future will play out. Properly read, our fears can offer us something as precious as our favorite works of literature: a little wisdom, a bit of insight and a version of that most elusive thing — the truth.”

People call me brave and fearless, but I’m not so sure about that.  What is true is that I’m good at looking for the meaning in fear and the story worth telling.  How and why I know how to do this probably isn’t interesting to anyone but me. I’ll spare you the details and just say that on a daily basis, for most of my life, I witnessed someone close to me who let crippling fear limit their life.  Being a keen observer, I learned that fear isn’t always necessary.  We have choices.  Irrational fear is unhealthy, but fear is also sensible and useful.

Hearing loss is scary.  Once the life you know and love undergoes an unexpected and unwanted change, the first reaction is fear.  I’ve experienced this over and over throughout my life with progressive hearing loss.  Each new level of not hearing causes me to be fearful.  I wonder how I’ll cope, remain independent, and able to communicate.

I had some wasted years by not applying all I learned about fear to my hearing loss.  Once I let it, fear wrote the story of my most successful coping strategy.  I take a situation where I’ve floundered. I’m fearful just thinking about the next time a similar thing will happen. Then, I look for the meaning in the experience.  I analyze why I panicked, and think about how I could have handled the situation better. What might I try the next time when something similarly frightening happens?  Then, instead of waiting for that situation to arise, I create it.  I put myself in the very situation that made me afraid.

I like to think of it as taking myself on a field trip or a conducting a scientific study.  When I place myself in an uncomfortable situation in the name of research, it allows me to take things less personally. I am able think more critically about it.

Also, when I’m in control, I can choose a time when I’m in the best frame of mind to deal with it.  I’ve done this with solo travel, both domestic and international.  I experiemented with the best way to ask for accommodation and how to interact with airline and airport staff to get results.   I did an extensive field trip when I was working out how, when, and if I needed to inform others about my hearing loss.  What labels (hard of hearing, hearing impaired, deaf ) work best, and what’s the best way to ask for what I need.

Granted, some fears aren’t so manageable, but many are.  We can learn how to use what we fear to our benefit.  Just as the shipwrecked sailors had a choice, we can choose what our fear provides. Is it something profound and insightful?  An “amazing gift of the imagination, a kind of everyday clairvoyance?  Is it a way of glimpsing what might be the future when there’s still time to influence how that future will play out”?  Or is it a more dramatic and irrational story, one that’s the most “lurid” and “vivid” and causes us to use poor judgment or limit ourselves?

When you look at your fear in a fresh way, and read it with the balance of an artist’s passion and clear judgment, then you have the presence of mind to choose what happens next. You can change your future.

Field trip anyone?