A friend of mine recently told me a story about how her elderly grandmother, who is in her eighties, had travelled to Spain. It was only the grandmother’s second trip ever, travelling abroad.
My friend, her mother, and the grandmother were all travelling together and the grandmother was briefed about what to expect at the airport. Whilst packing, my friend and her mum had distributed their clothes and toiletries between the three combined items of hand-luggage. They explained to the grandmother that, although they had done the packing for her, should she be asked by a security worker whether she had packed her own bag, to confirm that she had. The purpose of this question, they assured her, was intended for crimes considerably more sinister than sharing luggage space.
They all arrived at the UK terminal and the grandmother was enjoying seeing the sights and the activity of the airport. When they reached the security gates, my friend’s mother was separated from the group when she was directed towards another conveyor belt. My friend stayed with her grandmother. They had another discussion about restricted items and the importance of declaring any liquids in hand luggage, and then both sorted their belongings into trays, which they placed onto the conveyor belt to be scanned.
The grandmother’s bag was selected for further inspection, due to a suspicious item which had been detected by the scanner. (Spoiler alert: it turns out she had packed some face cream in her bag, not thinking this would be classed as a liquid.)
The grandmother, who finds verbal communication difficult without her hearing aids (which she had innocently taken off to go through the scanner) was asked the question, as predicted. The security worker spoke in a loud voice, with over-accentuated arm gestures, and although the grandmother was able to understand what was being said, she became nervous. Instead of simply answering “yes”, to establish that she had packed her own bag, she blurted out, “Well …no! … I mean they were putting all sorts of things in my bag!”
My friend burst into laughter! The poor grandmother had felt so nervous at the sight of the security officer waving her arms around, that she hadn’t been able to tell this little white lie.
The story prompted me to think about how stressful airports can be. I have lived and travelled in Europe and Southeast Asia, and have experienced many airports. Yet, I find airports in the UK to be some of the most stressful.
The main reason I find UK airports particularly stressful is because the customary code of behaviour for a large number of airport staff, seems to be shouting at travellers, often whilst herding them like livestock through the various elements of the airport procedures. The shouting of orders from airport workers increases my stress levels. This stress often makes me feel irrationally guilty and I sometimes even doubt my own credibility. Maybe I am carrying a sharp object. Maybe a bottle of water has somehow made its way into my hand luggage. Even with full hearing, this used to make me feel stressed. Now, with hearing loss and a sensitivity to sounds, the shouting seems louder, more uncomfortable.
Due to the lack of sound-absorptive soft furnishings in airports, I am frequently unable to understand what people are saying, as loud voices overlap each other, and the sound becomes distorted. I am a native English speaker and I feel stressed in this situation. Surely for other travellers, such as those whose first language isn’t English, this is also a cause of stress? Imagine being in an airport situation where staff members are shouting things you don’t understand.
During a recent airport experience, I was waiting in the queue at the security gate. I had already removed my boots and was holding my scarf and coat in my hands, ready to place in a tray to be scanned. As I approached the security conveyor belt, the shouting began:
INT. UK AIRPORT, SECURITY GATE – EARLY AFTERNOON
SECURITY WORKER shouts something at ME, which I am unable to decipher.
I look at SECURITY WORKER with confusion, but am now focusing my attention on her – ready to listen to whatever she yells next.
Do you have any liquids?
I put my head down as I begin to arrange my belongings into different trays.
SECURITY WORKER shouts something at ME, which I am unable to decipher.
I look at SECURITY WORKER again with confusion.
I’m sorry, I’m hard of hearing.
(Shouting, with accentuated lip movements)
Are you carrying any makeup?!
(Using a quiet voice, in an attempt to gently coax her volume level down a few notches)
I put my head down and continue to arrange my belongings into different trays.
SECURITY WORKER shouts something again at ME, which I am again unable to decipher.
I Look at SECURITY WORKER again.
Are you carrying any hand sanitizer?! Toothpaste?!
My belongings are neatly arranged into three separate trays. I look down as though I am giving this question some consideration.
I put my head down so as to not have to engage in any more questioning.
Do you have any lighter fluid in your coat pocket?!
I look at SECURITY WORKER again. OK, I heard her this time, but I have had enough, and feign mishearing.
At this moment a more perceptive security worker behind me taps me on the shoulder and directs me towards the body scanner, bypassing further interrogation.
I walk through the body scanner and the inquisition continues behind me.
ANOTHER SECURITY WORKER
Are you carrying a hairdryer, toaster, microwave?!
At the airport, I feel lucky to have some degree of hearing ability. Though not a simple task, I can generally navigate the system calmly and without needing to mention my hearing loss.
The one time that I did request special assistance, was when travelling with my boyfriend. This was more for research purposes than necessity. I was intrigued to see what type of support would be provided, and thought that perhaps this could be a good option for me when travelling alone. When booking my flight, I informed the airline of my hearing loss. Upon our arrival in Spain, we were met at the door of the plane by an airport assistant, with a wheelchair. He checked my name on a list on his tablet, and after witnessing me walk out of the plane unaided, asked me whether I needed wheelchair assistance. I was tempted to sit in the chair and get him to wheel me as fast as he could out of there. Instead, I signed my name in an electronic document, and his job was done.
I am aware that some airports now have a lanyard system to alert airport staff that the wearer has a hidden disability. It is not necessary for the wearer to formally declare their disability, and the airport staff can easily identify travellers that may require some extra help or attention. I haven’t yet used one of these lanyards, but think it is a great idea. And, for making airports more widely accessible, it’s definitely a step in the right direction.
But, my request to all airport staff, especially those who work in the security belt area, is simple: Please Stop Shouting. It can cause a lot of stress, especially for people with hearing loss, and isn’t helpful in aiding our understanding. Try speaking clearly and calmly instead. I understand you have an important job to do, and that you are probably tired, patience-drained, and may have been treated with disrespect by some members of the public. But, surely everyone, on first encounter, (whether they are wearing a lanyard or not) deserves to be treated gently and with respect.
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