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January 4, 2004

Tight security often means rough ride for deaf in airports

From: San Antonio Express, TX - Jan 4, 2004

By Patrick Driscoll

San Antonio Express-News

As David Long waited at San Antonio International Airport to catch a flight to Chicago, a loudspeaker blared the announcement that his boarding gate had changed.

Other passengers slowly picked up their bags and made their way to the new gate. But Long continued to sit, unaware of what was happening.

Long, flying to Chicago to attend his brother's wedding, couldn't hear the loudspeaker. He's been deaf since birth.

After a while, airline agents noticed Long hadn't checked in at the new gate. So they paged him over the loudspeaker.

"Welcome to the world of the deaf," said Kay Chiodo, president of Vital Signs Inc. She is also an interpreter who was with Long to ensure he got on his flight.

Maybe gate agents were counting on Chiodo to relay the message to Long, said Carlo Bertolini, a spokesman with American Airlines in Fort Worth.

But it would have been better if they sought him out anyway, he said. After all, his ticket said he was hearing impaired.

"Obviously, (that would be) good customer service," Bertolini said.

Navigating an airport in the post-9-11 environment can be frustrating for anyone. But it's even tougher for deaf and hard-of-hearing travelers, who often rely on a hodgepodge of written notes and arrival-departure screens to keep up with what's going on.

A federal lawsuit awaiting trial in California has brought the issue to the forefront.

"It's groundbreaking," said Melissa Kasnitz, an attorney with Disability Rights Advocates, a nonprofit law center that filed the lawsuit. "We would not be surprised if airports across the country looked to (a court decision) as a model."

The lawsuit says San Francisco International Airport violated the rights of deaf people when $800 million worth of renovations and construction were done without meeting their needs.

The lawsuit calls for visual message boards throughout the airport, monitors at gates to display schedule and gate changes, more text telephones, and sign language interpreters.

Under federal laws, airlines must ensure that people with disabilities have timely access to information given to other passengers, the Federal Aviation Administration says on its Web site.

And areas of airports built or refurbished since 1992 must have text telephones and ways to visually communicate public broadcasts, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In a two-year renovation recently completed at San Antonio's airport, three text telephones were added, bringing the total to six. Fire alarm strobe lights also were installed, as was a system to translate broadcasts visually that hasn't been activated.

"We are compliant" with the law, said airport spokeswoman Lisa Burkhardt-Worley.

State officials haven't inspected San Antonio's airport to see if the renovations comply with a Texas law that mirrors the federal disabilities act but is more stringent, said Patrick Shaughnessy, spokesman with the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation.

"They do have up to a year after the renovation is complete to schedule that inspection," he said.

The FAA, which is responsible for ensuring that airports follow the disabilities act, was unable to say last week whether San Antonio meets the requirements, agency spokeswoman Marcia Adams said.

In San Antonio, neither the airport nor major airlines provide interpreters for the deaf. Federal law demands "effective" communication, and the air carriers say they do what they can to meet that, including writing notes or allowing companions to accompany passengers to gates.

"We do work to communicate with our customers in the best way possible," said Whitney Brewer, a spokeswoman with Southwest Airlines.

James and Edelmira Raimondi of Universal City, who fly once or twice a year and have traveled the globe, devised strategies to cope with being deaf. They keep their eyes peeled, follow other passengers, and ask questions every few minutes.

"Between the two of us, we can figure it out," James Raimondi said through an interpreter. "We always have to have lots of patience."

But if a major problem or emergency happens, such as a security breach or medical crisis, the Raimondis don't think a few words on paper will do the trick — not if details are important. They also risk missing out on whole broadcasts.

"It's so limited for us," Edelmira Raimondi said. "If there's a problem, we're stuck."

When communication is lengthy, complex or important, sign language becomes vital for deaf people, said Rosaline Crawford, an attorney with the National Association of the Deaf.

That's because many deaf people use signing as their primary language, and the syntax is so different from English that it's like a foreign language.

A 1996 study by Gallaudet Research Institute in Washington, D.C., shows that deaf students ages 17 and 18 on average read at a fourth-grade level.

It's even worse for Long, who is borderline retarded, said his brother Greg, a professor at Northern Illinois University who teaches students how to work with deaf people.

Though fluent in sign language, Long's literacy skills are at a first- or second-grade level. He can read individual words but often can't understand the context.

The glaring barrier that creates was apparent as Long, 49, wound his way through San Antonio's airport. Chiodo hung back at each step to see how airline and government workers interacted with him.

When a ticket agent wanted to know whether he wanted to check his luggage or carry it onboard, she wrote a note asking, "Check or carry?"

Long simply smiled and shook his head to indicate yes. He later said through an interpreter that he thought she was talking about money.

Chiodo said phrasing the question in sign-language syntax would sound something like, "Luggage yours airplane worker themselves on plane or luggage yourself with airplane on?"

A gate agent decided to try talking to Long. He didn't understand a word but said through an interpreter, "She had a nice face, a nice smile."

Greg Long, who helped him get through the airport in Chicago, said airlines and airports need to do better.

Greg Long spent several hours making phone calls just to arrange for him and Chiodo to accompany his brother past security checkpoints at each airport.

"They actually got a little snippy with me," he said. "It shouldn't take this degree of effort to get somebody like my brother through an airport."

© 2004 KENS 5 and the San Antonio Express-News. All rights reserved.