A week ago I flew from Gatwick airport for a holiday. Having heard of their new scheme to provide additional access support to disabled travellers, including deaf people and involving an identification ‘lanyard’ (last time I wore one I was in the girl guides and it had a whistle on the end), I decided to trial this, in the interests of research, hoping that my, admittedly low, expectations (as a result of previous experiences) would be met.
I don’t think it’s particularly helpful to only complain, I do want to see improvements made at Gatwick for all deaf travellers, so I’ve amended my original blog to provide suggestions for improvement under each observation.
On my early morning arrival, the new reception area was closed and empty. I flagged down a member of staff to unlock the area. They did this, gave me a ‘lanyard’ (which did not appear to indicate what the specific issues were), did not ask what my access needs were, was not easy to lip read and ushered me to a chair in the area marked unnecessarily with the ubiquitous wheelchair symbol. They sat behind desk too high for many to make a phone call. I assumed the call was to someone who would provide communication support. No – another person arrived, took my case and beckoned me to follow.
~The first action should be to discover what the person needs and provide what is actually needed.
The staff member (who was not at all easy to lipread) rushed off with me following and whizzed through baggage drop and security too fast for me to collect my thoughts and prepare – I forgot I’d left my kindle in my bag as a result so was called aside by security. This person was impatient with my request to speak slowly and clearly. Yes it’s nice to queue jump, who doesn’t want to avoid hanging around, but that was not what I asked for or needed.
~All airport staff need to demonstrate a minimum of awareness training in relation to all access needs.
The next thing was that the person accompanying me ushered me to what I can only describe as a holding pen area, where wheelchair users and others with mobility needs were, slung a buzzer on another lanyard over my neck and set it for a certain time. I was told to return to this area when it buzzed.
~It’s not necessary to lump all disabled and deaf people together in one area. I think a buzzer is potentially a good idea if it could show your boarding gate number and buzz an hour before the gate opens, but not to ‘herd’ us together.
The buzzer went too soon for me to get the newspaper and chocolate I was about to buy. On returning to the ‘pen’, I was corralled with another woman onto a mobility vehicle, despite my protestations I could walk to the gate. We were ushered to a priority boarding area. I’m sure this works very well for many people with mobility issues, but was not necessary for me. As a result, I had to wait longer at the boarding gate than I would have normally done and missed the chance to buy a paper or even select the free newspaper I wanted or to get the drink & chocolate I had intended to get. I asked for one and did get it – but not the one I asked for. Deaf people need access to communication and information first; we may also have other needs, but if not, we don’t need priority boarding, we need communication support, especially at check in and security.
~Staff with at least basic sign language skills should be part of each airport team; an on site interpreter should be available when requested (this may already be provided but was not offered). These staff need to be the ones to escort deaf people through check in etc.
Thumbs up to Gatwick’s service to people with mobility needs, (although it seems they too would miss out on the free newspaper of their choice as a result of being trollied!) Thumbs down to their service to deaf and hard of hearing people. Room for improvement and one star for the attempt. I’m well aware of the challenges inherent in managing so many passengers going to so many places but the main lesson for Gatwick is to treat people as individuals and find out what they actually need first. Then ensure those needs are met.