Travel News

The American Airlines “Deaf and Dumb” Scandal Is Sadly Commonplace

Locations in this article:  New York City, NY

1260065522493659183deaf-symbol.svg.medA Deaf couple from Texas has publicly shamed American Airlines for first losing their luggage, then returning it to them with a note attached reading “Please text–deaf and dumb.” Although American Airlines has apologized for its offensive gaffe, the ongoing issue that the travel industry has with the Deaf community is nowhere near resolved.

I’m a CODA—Child of Deaf Adults—and a travel writer, which means I am in a pretty unique place to see how the travel industry regularly gets it wrong with regard to its Deaf customers. Because most Americans have heard of the Americans With Disabilities Act, they know they’re supposed to accommodate the disabled—but they often lump people with various disabilities together in one uniform group, even though their needs are diverse. It’s very common—in travel, and in plenty of other places—for Deaf people to be brought instructions or information printed in Braille, the language used by the blind.

In one story, a man noticed that his ticket placed him in the exit row of the plane. He notified the airline that he could not be seated there, since he wouldn’t be able to “hear crew member instructions,” one of the requirements for passengers in that row. The airline moved his seat without any trouble, but apparently someone marked his ticket internally with the word “disabled.” The man arrived at the airport to find a wheelchair waiting for him. He was humiliated.

But that’s far from the only embarrassing thing I’ve seen or heard about. There are dozens of stories of Deaf people being assigned translators who use a sign language other than the one the passenger uses (fun fact, everybody: sign language isn’t universal) or Deaf people being assigned chaperones or minders who are used to working with unaccompanied minors. Many airlines still don’t subtitle their safety videos for Deaf passengers or provide captioning options on the in-flight entertainment.

The American Airlines note stands out to me for one specific reason—whoever wrote it seems to think that they were helping. A note instructing the delivery person to text instead of call makes complete sense. I’ve often requested that airline personnel contact my family via email instead of by phone, and they’ve been more than happy to comply. But the note failed by using “deaf and dumb,” a term that is not only offensive but hopelessly out of date. “Dumb” is a very old word for “mute” but, since people really like alliteration, the “deaf and dumb” term has somehow managed to stick around, however marginally.

AA’s failure to get the point is even more embarrassing ,considering that it may have been originally well-intentioned. Sure, they’ve apologized to the offended Deaf couple, and they will probably continue their PR campaign. But if they really want to make long-term strides in actually helping and supporting their Deaf passengers, how about treating Deaf people…like people?

By Lilit Marcus for Lilit is a New York City-based travel writer and tea addict. Her first book, Save the Assistants, was published by Hyperion. You can also look for her work in The Wall Street Journal, Teen Vogue, and The Forward. You can find her on Twitter @lilitmarcus