Editor’s note: This is part of a series on health and accessibility issues for holiday season travelers.
Cindy Wentz of Watertown is a world explorer, having visited destinations such as Kolkata, India, Italy, and Bhutan, and most recently embarking on a trip to Vietnam. For Wentz, an independent living consultant, being blind doesn’t limit her experience of discovery.
“My husband is also legally blind. We have taken trips on our own to the Caribbean Islands, Hawaii,” said Wentz, a member of the Bay State Council of the Blind, an advocacy organization for the blind and visually impaired, affiliated with the American Council of the Blind.
Wentz has a condition called retinopathy of prematurity. “I was born premature. I got a lot of oxygen in the incubator, and that caused a lot of retinal damage.”
Too-high oxygen amounts in the incubators of premature babies can lead to visual impairments, including retinal detachment. Wentz said, “I’ve always been legally blind. Since middle age, I’ve been losing more vision. I have relatively little vision now.”
With the holiday travel season soon to get under way, advocates for the blind shared their tips on successful travel without barriers. The Americans with Disabilities Act as well as state laws spell out requirements for accessibility, but advocates say there is more work to be done, including better informing people about what full accessibility really means.
Wentz said, “For the person who has decent travel skills, uses a cane or a guide dog, has common sense and problem-solving ability and a little bit of willingness to get out there, do stuff, and take risks, travel is quite possible.”
“I’ve experienced the full spectrum. To some extent, it’s like everybody else,” said Mika Pyyhkala, of Boston, director of digital accessibility for Wichita, Kansas-based Envision, which provides services for the blind and those with low vision. For work, Pyyhkala’s travels include trips between Boston and Wichita.
“I have always focused on travel and technology,” Pyyhkala said. Pyyhkala has been blind since birth, with a genetic condition known as Leber’s congenital amaurosis, or LCA. Pyyhkala is completely blind, and began learning Braille at age 5.
“I’ve had a career in [information technology] as well as in the disability civil rights advocacy arena,” said Pyyhkala, whose professional experience includes the National Federation of the Blind and the Association of Blind Citizens, both of which are consumer-led advocacy groups.
Pyyhkala said, “You can have a great or a terrible travel day. It depends more on the person, than if they are blind.”
Wentz said the advent of ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft have been a boon, travel apps accessible to the blind have helped smooth the path for many blind travelers.
State and federal accessibility laws require ride-sharing companies and partners to accommodate passengers with service animals.
Wentz does not use a service animal, but noted that some passengers who do have complained about being denied access.
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Ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft share their policies about service animals on their websites.
When it comes to ride-sharing, Wentz said, “Another thing people have to work out is how are we going to find our Uber and make sure we get into the right vehicle?”
Wentz said, “I am street-smart enough to ask the driver for their name. I usually text the driver and say, ‘I’m blind, this is what I’m wearing. You need to find me.’”
“People who are blind and have other disabilities can request assistance in navigating from the airport to the gate, and that generally works out. But again, it’s an extra layer of stress.”
When traveling by train, Wentz said, “Usually, when I get on the train, I’ll say, ‘Where is the bathroom?’ ‘Where is the dining car?’ You can request help at your point of disembarcation.”
The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority has a guide to accessibility to MBTA services, including buses and trains. In 2016, the MBTA, the Department of Transportation and Perkins School for the Blind joined forces in the launching of a bus app for the blind.
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The MBTA’s South Station complex in Boston includes several bus and subway commuter rail lines, access to Logan Airport in Boston through the subway Silver Line, and access to the Amtrak train line.
Wentz said, “If I’m at South Station, I usually ask for help finding the track, because you don’t want to miss your train.”
The region’s airports have information on accessibility services.
Logan Airport in Boston‘s information on accessibility includes the Aira networkapp, for safer airport navigation. Aira connects users to live agents via a mobile app and/or assistive smart glasses to navigate every step of the airport, from the curb and check-in area all the way to the gate.
Worcester Airport, like Logan Airport, is governed by Massport. Worcester Airport’s accessibility information includes accessible and family restrooms located in the terminal, audio and visual fire alarms in case of emergency.
If a passenger with a disability requires assistance to or from the gate or needs medical equipment such as oxygen at the gate, a pass provided by the airline must be shown at the security checkpoint.
In case of emergency, audio visual fire alarms and automated external defibrillators are available throughout the airport.
Manchester-Boston Regional Airport, Manchester, New Hampshire also notes that services are available for blind and low-vision customers through the Aira network app, free of charge. Customers can connect with professional agents who act as visual interpreters by downloading the app or calling 800-835-1934.
T.F. Green International Airport, in Warwick, Rhode Island, recommends customers informing airlines in advance about accessibility needs. For questions about the screening process or require special assistance, please visit the TSA website or call the TSA Cares Helpline at 855-787-2227.
If a passenger needs assistance, Wentz recommends asking in advance. “You can formally request assistance when you book your flight. That is probably preferable to just showing up.”
Wentz added, “Generally, someone will take you from the ticket counter to the gate, even stupid things like going through security, find the box to put your stuff in, and finding it when it comes out on the other end. Airports are complicated for anybody.”
In 2019, Massport, which oversees Logan Airport and other air travel sites, began requiring Uber and Left to pick up and drop off airport passengers at the airport’s central parking garage. Passengers with disabilities may still be picked up and dropped off at airport curb locations, or at accessible locations in the central parking garage.
“A lot of apps can provide nonvisual information,” said Pyyhkala. “The iPhone is more like a computer than a phone. Apple builds in accessibility. So, all of the iPhones, and to some extent Androids, can have a built-in reader…so long as the apps are coded correctly in an accessible way. Using an airline app, I can get the gate number, baggage, delays.”
Third-party apps especially for frequent travelers include. Flighty, TripIt,FlightAware, and LiveATC.
To keep tabs on luggage, Pyyhkala recommends placing an Apple AirTag and or Tile inside bags and cases. “Can track luggage overall, and also provide a phone notification and audible queue when your bag arrives at baggage claim.”
Logan Airport and airports have partnered with Aira to provide navigation support on demand. The airport, as an “Aira access partner,” pays for these minutes used by a blind consumer. There is a local Aira executive in the Boston area, Pyyhkala said.
Pyyhkala noted that mobile apps are not covered by the Air Carrier Access Act Part 382 regulations prohibiting discrimination based on disability, although airline websites are. “So they generally work somewhat, but they all have glitches or work-arounds you have to learn.”
A frequent flyer might discern the glitches, but the occasional traveler might find it harder, Pyyhkala said. “And each airline and hotel has different glitches and work arounds you have to try to get around.”
Envision offers a podcast, Accessible Toolbox, targeting information sharing with the blind community, including on ride-sharing and other aspects of travel.
Pyyhkala said the travel sector overall could improve by hiring more people in decision-making and policy positions who have experienced a disability. “If you don’t have a plan or a budget, just putting it up on your website doesn’t make it so.”
While at Boston College, Pyyhkala worked as an outside travel sales agent. “At 19, I learned how to issue tickets, and all the workings of the airline system, operating out of my dorm room at BC,” Pyyhkala said. “I think a lot of times, the industry focuses too much on compliance, and what do we absolutely have to do based on the law, as opposed to focusing on usability, and the overall experience.”
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“There are always things we can improve,” said Mia Healy-Waldron, deputy director of aviation customer service for Massport, which oversees Logan Airport. Massport has enlisted an advocacy group to work on access issues. “All the terminals and garages have elevators, and they all have Braille. Terminals may or may not be intuitive. We are always trying to look at that and see if we can do a better job.”
Healy-Waldron said this includes reviewing of signs, including appearance, and placement, for airport visitors with low vision. Healy-Waldron said partners in working on improvements include the Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired, the Boston Center for Independent Living, and the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind, a state government agency.
When it comes to safety and wellbeing, Pyyhkala said, “Just about anybody needs to be aware of their surroundings and what is going on, not just thinking about the airline, or the Uber driver.”
Pyyhkala added, “I haven’t felt that often in danger, but I think it does behoove people to have some situational awareness, and not wait for someone to necessarily help you.”
Blind and low-vision Massachusetts travelers talk changes, challenges – Wicked Local
Editor’s note: This is part of a series on health and accessibility issues for holiday season travelers.