And so, as a Deaf-Blind traveler in the years before cellphones, and a year before 9/11, I managed to get around Europe fairly well! I didn’t get lost, well, I did, but let’s deal with one story at a time!
It was the summer of 2000, the last summer of the millennium and I had just completed a decade of post-secondary education; I had a Bachelors of Arts under my belt, I wanted to celebrate!
My trip included stops in: London, Paris, Berlin, Prague, North Italy, Rome, then back to Paris. Except for ten days in Paris with my best friend and future wife, I was traveling solo. I would decide the rules, the destinations, eating wherever I was hungry. And I did a LOT!
The experiences detailed below can be upsetting, scary even, for a hearing sighted person. Yet, if that person was Deaf-Blind, the emotions would be more strong: confusion, frustration, apprehension.
After, I think it was, 10 days meandering the streets of London, I headed to Heathrow airport to catch a pond-jumper to Paris. Because my lover was flying directly to Paris from Toronto, we had everything planned out. My plane was to arrive 45 minutes after hers. So, she would wait for me. Blissful moment anticipated!
While en route to Heathrow, I decided to board the plane with nothing but the clothes on my back, my wallet and a book. Oh, and my white cane! I thought; What the heck, it was only an hour long flight right! So, why would I need anything else
I checked in at the airline kiosk, sent my backpack to the belly of the plane. I took my ticket, thanked the lovely agent, and went through Security without a problem!
In my experience, the best options for a Deaf-Blind solo traveler is to first and foremost find the departure gate. Then sit there to observe the staff. 20 years ago, I did not self-identify beforehand, probably because I didn’t want to seem “special” and the agents might be overly concerned about. Deaf-Blind flyer.
So,, on this particular day; I sat down close to the gate, read a few pages of Dean Koontz, while gnawing on some English toffee, while watching the staff. When I saw passengers queuing up, I knew an announcement was, well, announced: “Plane to Paris, boarding now.” or something like that. So, I queued up like a good traveler!
When I reached the agent, I showed my ticket, she probably said: “Hello, Mr. MacLean. You are seating in 12A. You have a window seat. Have a nice flight!” Being Deaf, I didn’t hear anything like that! I smiled, well, I hope I did, took my ticket and boarded the plane. I found 12A easily enough and sat down. I can imagine the flight attendants, upon seeing my white cane, offering to help me find my seat. 20 years ago, I probably turned them aside; independently stubborn am I. BTW; 12A is a guess, and irrelevant anyways.
So, I am sitting there, buckled up, reading Koontz… yeah yeah… I can feel the vibrations of the plane. I am excited about meeting my best friend in Paris within the next hour or so; exploring the city, having fun, learning about each other, growing our love for each other. Paris is really the city of Love!
Then, suddenly, everything changes.
First, I feel the jet engines going off. That is the most startling experience ever, one second I can feel the engine is thrumming, its a good vibration of a jet in action. And then it stopped! Everything became still and, lifeless!
Then, five seconds later, I observe people standing up, queuing to get off the plane. There was probably an announcement to exit the plane. My first impression is that this plane had something wrong with it; an innocent assumption. So, I closed my book, stood up, remembered I was still buckled in, sat down, unbuckled myself, stood up and followed the sheep back to the terminal.
While I was a tiny bit confused, I wanted clear answers right, so I wrote down on the back of my ticket: “What is happened?” and showed it to the flight attendant at the plane entrance. She was, moments ago, ebullient and gracious, now overwhelmed and cranky! She was being assailed with other passenger’s demands for attention, for explanations, for information.
When I showed the flight attendant my note, she did not write anything down, instead she beckoned, ordered me, to follow her. I suspect she thought that I could lipread!
So I followed Bo-Peep like an obedient sheep, with a bunch of other sheep; she led us to a desk with two lines of people in front of, you guessed, two airline workers on two computers.
Finally, Bo-Peep remembered, or realized, I was DeafBlind, and wrote something down on a piece of paper. I can surmise she wrote something like: “These people will help you, wait here.” But she could have also written more information, like “Queen Elizabeth has been assassinated, wait here!” or “Airline delayed, wait here!” or even “Let’s go to my hotel, wait here!!”. I can’t recall because, I lost the paper, and it was not very informative anyways!
Bo-Peep flashed me a smile, and then vanished into the crowds of fully-aware passengers, while I was quite possibly the only one unaware. About 45 minutes had passed since that moment the engines were turned off!
Being an obedient sheep, I joined the queue, waited for my turn to speak to the desk jockey. When that came, I showed her a note saying I was Deaf-Blind and asked, again, “What happened?” question.
The Jockey looks at the note, looks at my ticket, and tells me something. I can’t hear her, because A) she’s is talking to the computer screen and B) I am Deaf-Blind! I gesture for her to “write it down”… She cottons on and writes something like: “Flight Delayed. Wait here. We will find a seat for you. Please go ahead and eat and drink whatever you wish.”. She pointed to the glass doors behind her, which I entered reluctantly, to realize almost immediately that I was in a First-Class Lounge!
With beer cans chilling in three fridges, and a couple of trays of cellophane-wrapped sandwiches, and treats, and NO guard or nosy waiter in sight; I rapidly consumed six big cans of beer, a few sandwiches, a couple bags of crisps (Chips)! I read some more Koontz and had a shower. These first class lounges have everything! Even a shower, complete with towels and shampoo!
During the rest of the afternoon and evening, my flight was supposed to leave in the morning, I do recall going back to talk to the jockey several times, trying to find out what happened and when my flight would be. Even if I was a bit inebriated, I still was intent to be in my lady’s arms that night!
No one answered my question: What happened?
Later, a new desk jockey rushed into the lounge to find me; he wrote that he found a seat for me! Oh boy! Finally! I grabbed my book and tied my shoes, and raced after him. He put me on a plane, leading me right to a seat and actually helping buckle me in!
I was excitedly waiting for takeoff when suddenly some man had to burst my bubble!
He gestured me to follow him. For a brief moment I thought of resisting, and remaining on the plane, but that notion was vanquished quickly! I just wanted to get to Paris and into the arms of my lover, not handcuffed behind my back!
Dejectedly, I followed this Killjoy back to the first class lounge, plotting his immediate death and torture; too much Dean Koontz I reckon.
Sometime later, more likely some time later, a bloke wearing airline insignia approached me, handed me a note:
“Craig, are you going to Paris?”
I nodded yes, not getting my hopes up. Mr. Nice Guy gestured to follow him, he actually had to guide me like a real (semi-drunk) blind person! Mr. Nice Guy got me on a plane, helped me into my seat, but I buckled myself up faster than he could. He bid me adieau and left. Next thing I knew, I was airborne! Zooming to Paris at last!
I had a quick word with God, thanking him. After that, I had a quick nap. It was the first time in 13 hours that I had a snooze! I was beyond relief to finally be on my way to Paris!
Yes, you read that right! I was at Heathrow for over 13 hours! And not once did anyone tell me what happened, why the planes were grounded!
While everyone was aware of what was happening, was it a regicide, a terrorist attack, and faulty toilet, I was not aware. And no one bothered to tell me! Even as far way as Vancouver BC, knew what was happening!
Now, while I was marooned in first class lounge these things were happening outside:
- My girlfriend had arrived in Charles de Gaulle airport without a problem
- When I failed to arrive, she called my Mum in Vancouver to ask what was happening,
- My Mum couldn’t answer that question, so she called Heathrow,
- My Mum ordered the airport to find me, reiterating that I was Deaf-Blind.
- Eventually, my girlfriend decided to brave Paris at alone. She lugged her luggage to the hostel we had booked, taking le Metro!
- My Mum went out and bought her first computer that morning, had it set up, and she emailed me to make sure I had arrived!
After I arrived in Paris, I went looking for my girlfriend, unaware that she was at the hostel. I found an agent at a kiosk who offered to help me get to the hostel. I remember that she called the place to ensure my girlfriend was there. After confirming that she was, the agent put me in a cab who drove me to the hostel. This was around 2 in the morning, but when I arrived at the hostel, they let me in, taking me to my girlfriend’s room. The girl gave me an enormous hug and I knew, at that moment, I would never be without love! There were tears and kisses and a warm bed!
Three days later, my luggage arrived!
You are all wondering What happened? Why was the flights out of Heathrow grounded? What I understand is that there was a problem with a printer or computer malfunctioning that caused airplanes to get confusing signals or none at all. That is what I always thought as happened. And I was right! I did find a article on this, you can read this BBC news clip here.
While it is true that I was traveling solo, I did inform the ticket agent at the gate that I was Deaf-Blind. I did self-identify and there was no problems. I just wish that they had better support for disabled travelers then, as they do now.
Oh, and remember that I was placed and removed from a plane? I never did learn what happened to that flight. I can again surmise that that flight was heading, not to Paris, but to Canada. Thank you Killjoy for pulling me off that flight, I retract plotting your demise.
It was a bad experience, but I learned a few things: Always be prepared, True Love conquers all, and always smile even in the worst of situations!
I need to get off this computer as I can barely see straight now!