Editor’s note: This is part of a series on health and accessibility issues for holiday season travelers.
From visiting an elephant sanctuary in Thailand to the frozen beauty of Iceland, Sheila Xu has traveled the world, and aims to bring it closer together, especially for people who, like herself, are deaf.
“I was born profoundly deaf in both ears to two hearing parents,” said Xu. “I recently learned that my deafness is a recessive genetic condition, with one copy from each parent.”
Xu is a full-time student working on her dual master’s of public policy and master’s of business administration, studying both at Harvard Kennedy School and the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. In addition, Xu holds a bachelor’s degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
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After graduating from school, Xu aims to build partnership between the public and private sector, to create equitable and economic opportunities for the deaf communities.
Xu wants to break down barriers for marginalized deaf communities in the US and the world. Although Xu has journeyed throughout Europe, Asia and the US, Xu has found much to improve upon for deaf travelers.
“A truly accessible and inclusive travel experience for the deaf in the travel industry has still a long way to go, and we are not there yet,” Xu said. For example, airlines and airports need to redesign their system to allow deaf travelers to travel with less stress and for greater ease of communication.
What accessibility rights does a deaf air traveler have?
The Air Carrier Access Act spells out the rights of passengers with disabilities, and has been amended several times since its passage in 1986. A Disability Bill of Rights describes the fundamental rights of air travelers with disabilities.
For deaf passengers, this includes:
- Information and reservation services accessible to the deaf, hard of hearing, and deaf-blind. Airline reservations and information for the public must be available to those who use a text telephone, also called TTY, through the airline’s telecommunications relay services, or other technology.
- Passengers should alert airline personnel that they are deaf or hard of hearing to receive accessible information. US airlines must make sure deaf and hard-of-hearing passengers have prompt access to information given to other passengers.
- Airlines must always display captioning on all televisions and other audio-visual displays.
- An airline may require a deaf-blind passenger to travel with a safety assistant in some situations, to communicate the safety briefing, and evacuation during an emergency.
- The Federal Transit Administration provides an online complaint form for suspected violations.
What are other resources for deaf travelers’ rights?
Here are some resources to help deaf and hard-of-hearing travelers:
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Deaf at a family dinner:Family dinners are incredibly lonely for Deaf people like me. They don’t need to be.
Is there technology that is helpful for a successful travel experience?
Xu cited several tech tools she finds helpful for travel:
- Google Translate, which Xu said is great for translating from written English to other languages
- Note-taking apps with supersized fonts, such as Big Notes for writing out orders and questions
- A smartphone with a local data service to be able to use maps, apps, and more
- A portable vibrating alarm for the deaf, Xu said, “to wake me up on time”
- Travel-sized dehumidifier, Xu said, “to make sure my cochlear implant [an electronic hearing device] stays dry and clean.”
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What information is helpful to know during the holiday travel season?
“It pays to be prepared early, and know your rights as a deaf passenger,” Xu said.
Xu advised, “Download all the flight apps and sign up for texting services from the airlines to get informed of any flght cancellations, delays, and gate changes. They’ve been handy many times.”
If a deaf traveler misses a flight and needs to get on the next available one, but isn’t comfortable talking with an agent, Xu said, “Use one of the kiosks that allow you to rebook quickly.”
Xu said deaf travelers should feel confident to advocate for themselves. Most importantly, do not be afraid to ask for help or clarification from fellow passengers and employees.
Accessibility can vary depending on where a person visits. “Many activities, excursions, museums, and more do not provide sign language interpreters,” said Xu, noting that she has observed this more outside the US.
What can a person gain through traveling
“Deaf people can travel just like anyone else, including solo backpacking, which I did for a year and a half after my college graduation,” said Xu.
Xu’s mission is a culmination of past endeavors, including teaching American Sign Language at a university in Venice, Italy, and conducting Fulbright research on deaf Italian entrepreneurs based on her thesis at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “The Emergence of a Deaf Economy.”
Xu founded a consulting business to provide strategies for deaf-owned businesses to communicate the value of their brands in English and American Sign Language.
Xu added, “I’d encourage the deaf to travel more often to see and explore the world. You may learn more about yourself as a person and increase your skills and confidence in your ability to navigate and communicate with a variety of people.”