Making airports more deafblind-friendly

Perkins spokesperson Jaimi Lard tells Logan Airport managers about her travel experiences as a person with deafblindness

A woman holding a white cane puts her face close to a sign at Logan Airport.

Perkins spokesperson Jaimi Lard, who is deafblind with some usable vision, reads a sign at Logan Airport.

November 15, 2016

An airport, with its sprawling terminals, complex signage and jostling crowds, can be a difficult place to navigate if you’re blind.

“It’s very bright, there are lots of things going on,” explained Jaimi Lard, a Perkins School for the Blind spokesperson who is deafblind with very limited vision. “To me it’s like a bunch of shadows and busyness just walking and passing along in front of me.”

Lard was speaking through an interpreter in a conference room at Boston’s Logan International Airport, where 12 managers gathered to learn more about how to improve the airport experience for customers with visual impairment – especially those who are deafblind.

In June, a woman who is deafblind was handcuffed by police at a Memphis airport after a misunderstanding with TSA agents. The incident sparked a lawsuit and caught the attention of David Ishihara, director of aviation services at Massport, which owns and operates Logan Airport. He invited Lard to present to his team a few months later.

“We figured we would have the conversation and hear from Jaimi to get a real world perspective on traveling through an airport with disabilities,” he said.

As Lard gave her presentation, a steady stream of jets took off into the gray sky outside the conference room’s window. But she couldn’t see the planes, just like she can’t see the signs that help sighted passengers navigate the airport’s labyrinth of corridors.

When Lard travels, she contacts the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to arrange for a passenger support specialist to assist her through security. A separate attendant provides a wheelchair and guides her to her gate. 

Lard has had plenty of positive airport experiences, but some of her friends haven’t been so lucky. Some have been separated from their guide dogs in the security line or left alone at their gate and missed their flight.

“You can imagine if you’re left at a gate and there’s no one there to tell you what’s going on, how that must make you feel,” said Perkins school psychologist Pam Ryan, who joined Lard for the presentation. “The impact, the emotional stress, is terrible.”

Issues that arise are often caused by failures in communication, Lard said. She encouraged her audience to ensure staff is trained to ask passengers what they need in a way that’s patient and respectful.

“My choice was to use the wheelchair (to travel through airports) because that reduces the stress on me, but we have to remember that other people don’t necessarily want that,” she said. “They might just want a guide to walk through the airport with them.”

Lard’s presentation led to a discussion about how airport employees should approach passengers who look like they need assistance, but haven’t asked for it. The tips were especially helpful to Jean Laguerre, who works in the public services department at Massport.

“We assist people with disabilities every day,” he told Lard. “I really appreciate having you here to give us some tools to go out there and talk to people who have a need for it.”