What It’s Like To Fly When You Have A Visual Impairment

As I mentioned previously, over the coming days and weeks you’ll see the occasional post from a fellow reader who has applied to write for OMAAT on an ongoing basis. It’s possible that posts will still be in the publication queue after we’ve announced our decision, so we’ll be publishing these anonymously. We hope you enjoy the different perspectives!


I’m legally blind (not blonde, even though some days I get the two confused). I wasn’t born this way but I was diagnosed with a serious eye disease in both eyes 10 years ago and my sight is fading more every year. Sometimes I even forget that I have this small problem as it hasn’t hindered too much of what I can do (except drive and read proper books).

And I’ve been known to fall off a stage a couple of times while singing due to missing the steps.

Oh and I can’t read Departure or Arrival boards.

I love to travel like the rest of us and I’m fortunate that these days I get to spend a lot of time in Europe as well as other regular trips for business and pleasure. The first time I told my Mum (Mom for our American readers!) I was flying alone she almost had a heart attack.

“What will you do?”

“How will you be able to navigate the airport on your own?”

And a million other questions only a mother could ask. Even my husband wasn’t too fussed.

“Just make sure you pick me up that new release Jordan I want ok?”

What does my condition mean for me?

  • I can’t read signs even if they’re super large with massive writing; it’s a complete blur to me
  • People’s faces are a blur to me unless I know them well and can make out who they are by their features/hair/body types/voices (people often think I’m rude by staring but I honestly cannot make out their face and need time for my eyes to try not show me 4 faces at once)
  • The rest of the world is turning into a lovely haze with night being the absolute worst as I need someone to guide me/hold my hand in case I miss my footing

I do not ever call myself disabled or receive any type of special funding. This is what life has dealt me and I will never allow it to stop me living life! What you likely see well is the top left image. What I see is the bottom right image, but worse.

Just last month I took my first solo international flights in a year. This trip was a little different as I would be traveling on some airlines I hadn’t been on before and layovers in airports I hadn’t stopped over in. Normally I’m well organized and will request assistance in advance if I need it or will have another traveler with me for part of the way (or if I’ve been on a particular plane or at a particular airport and can remember the way I’m ok). I thought it might be interesting to share, as flying with a visual impairment is quite different.

The itinerary

I was flying to Athens, Greece from Melbourne, Australia.

  • one way Melbourne to Singapore on Singapore Airlines using 30k United miles (and $85.59 AUD in taxes)
  • a 7 hour layover in Singapore, for which I booked the Crowne Plaza Changi Airport to use on the short overnight
  • one way Singapore to Doha (90 min layover) and Doha to Athens both on Qatar using 78k Qantas points (and $182 AUD in taxes)
  • Rome to Melbourne via Bangkok with Thai Airways on the return leg using 85k Lifemiles (and $178 AUD in taxes)

I had flown with Singapore Airlines many times and know Changi Airport well but I had never flown Qatar Airways or been to Doha.

Booking using special assistance

Every airline has their own policy when it comes to travelers with visual impairment and those needing wheelchairs. You can find this on their website or by ringing their call centers to add it to your booking.

During booking there are some airlines that ask if there are any special service requests and you can select at that time, but not all of them do.

After booking I logged into every carrier’s “manage my booking” section and requested special assistance if it was available to choose (again, not every website has this option):

Singapore Airlines: As I booked the ticket through United Mileage Plus it wouldn’t allow me to request special assistance online; I called through and they made a note of it in my booking

Qatar Airways: Was able to tick the “visual impairment” box in my booking and it saved the information

Thai Airways: Every time I ticked the box an error came up and it wouldn’t save; this happened every single time I tried to “manage” anything to do with a ticket on Thai’s website, so I called them and they made a note in the reservation and also asked if I would need a wheelchair at the jet bridge

The journey

Melbourne Airport: No assistance was offered or made reference of when I checked in. As it’s my home airport I know it pretty well and didn’t get disorientated too much.

Singapore Airlines and Changi Airport: No direct mention was given to me when I checked in or boarded, however I let the cabin manager know that I would need assistance when it got too dark to find any lights, assistance with walking to the bathroom, help with reading the writing on the immigration forms and to read the menus (very small font!).

Meet and Assist were waiting for me on the air bridge and walked me from the bridge all the way to the Crowne Plaza Hotel (which I was incredibly grateful for, as the hotel itself was so dark I literally couldn’t see). They also offered a wheelchair but I declined.

Suite at the Crowne Plaza Changi

Qatar Airways: The cabin manager introduced himself upon arrival and said he noted my visual impairment and offered any assistance I might need. I found the lighting much better on the flights with them and it also didn’t hurt or strain them either. The aisle was wide enough for me not to trip or bang into seats so I overall found it very good.

Doha Airport: Again meet and assist were waiting at the air bridge and walked me to the business lounge at Doha Airport. They also arranged a meeting time in the foyer for them to return to walk me back to the plane for the next flight. There is no way I could have navigated this airport by myself with the signs/symbols way too small for me to read.

Athens Airport: No meet and assist at all upon arrival, however I know ATH extremely well (and the walk-ways are short and wide), and with an EU passport I was off the plane and in a taxi 10 mins after landing.

Thai Airways: Upon check in at FCO I was asked if I needed wheelchair assistance which I again declined. I have flown this route a few times and knew the A350 well, however I still let the Cabin Manager know that I would need help reading the menu and possibly assistance with walking through the cabin when it as dark.

Bangkok Airport: Meet and assist were waiting again on the jet bridge for me. I was very grateful for the wheelchair this time as after an 11 hour flight my eyes get extremely sore and tired and my motion isn’t that great. He wheeled me through security and all the way to the lounge and came back to get me an hour later for the next flight.

Melbourne Airport: Interesting my home airport said I HAD to use the wheelchair this time upon arrival as I again was greeted on the air bridge. And this slowed up the entire process. They wouldn’t take me to the e-gates (even though I’m eligible) as they said the wheelchair couldn’t go through (I said I was happy to walk but she said she couldn’t allow it?!). So I had to line up (or wheelchair up) in the normal lines to re-enter Australia which took an extra 45 mins. Frustrating.

During the trip: I don’t use public transport while traveling on my own. The main reason is that I’ve had incidents in the past when I’ve missed my footing while getting onto a train, bus or tram or even falling down stairs on a Hop on/Hop off bus! My goal with traveling alone is to be as safe as possible for my health without having to cause myself distress if something was to happen (and I’ve learnt that the hard way).

Conclusion

For those of you that travel with visual impairment, if you do need assistance it’s important to let those know during every step of your travel journey.

If your eye-sight is very bad ensure you have contacted the airline or tried to add the notes in the booking as there is a shortage of wheelchairs at some major airports if you do require one. Almost every flight I take lately internationally has around 10-15 wheelchair passengers with a range of health/disability/vision problems.

Mum is now happy I got through the trip with no major issues and my husband was extra happy as he did get that new pair of shoes.


As a reminder, this post was guest-written by a fellow reader. Feedback is appreciated, but please keep the comments kind and constructive.

Comments

  1. Very insightful article. As the guest mentioned how the dark Crowne Plaza proved to be a challenge, I imagine that boarding/moving around a dimly lit cabin is also difficult, especially considering different layouts of each plane.

    I imagine for passengers with visual impairment, any sort of fleet/cabin consistency is appreciated so that it would be easier for them to memorise the cabin’s layout? So basically don’t fly TG 😉

  2. Fascinating article thank you – I don’t think I’d ever properly considered the detail of travelling with a severe vision impairment and its great to get different perspectives on the blog. I’m particularly interested in some airport’s insistence that you use their wheelchair service, even to the point of not letting you walk in places you feel comfortable doing so – that must be quite frustrating. I wonder if it is in some kind of misplaced fear of litigation were someone to hurt themselves.

  3. Great article! Thank you very much for sharing this information. I am sure it is great for many to know that Qatar Airways excels at providing needed assistance.

  4. My Mum (Australian) is legally blind and a lot of what you’ve said rings true for my/our experience. Singapore insisted on a motorised cart while she was in transit- after flying Melbourne to Singapore and with an upcoming London flight she really wanted to stretch her legs. She was also mortified by how conspicuous the cart was and she couldn’t see if everyone was staring and glaring like she thought they were.
    Getting a seat near the toilets really helps too, but unfortunately people often congregate there, especially in economy, so it’s very easy to walk into someone in the dark.

  5. What a refreshing angle about flying that I’ve never thought of. Most of us grade a flight on how the food and seat of a plane are… How wonderful to read about another important layer of service. It also makes you realize, you never know what other passengers are dealing with, so it’s important it is to be kind to the people you’re flying with.

    This article really touched me.

  6. I command you for your positive attitude and will to carry on with your life.
    My Mom had also an eye disease (glaucoma) so I sort of relate to your troubles.
    Nice article, an “eye-opener”.

  7. Interesting read and a perspective most of us don’t think of every day! My eyesight when I’m not wearing contact lenses or glasses falls into the “nearly blind” category (-12 contact prescription), and last year I inadvertently threw away my contacts on a MEL-BWN flight. To make it worse, my glasses were in my checked luggage. Needless to say, the BWN-DXB-LHR flight that followed was rough, especially the transits. Major kudos to you for seamlessly making it a part of your daily life!

    PS, nice to hear from a fellow Melburnian here on OMAAT

  8. Excellent post, easy to read and gives insight to the challenges others have in travelling. Keep up in your trvels and writing also.

  9. How does in flight entertainment rate for you? I know there are usually some podcasts or audibooks or do you watch movies and just listen? Would be interesting for this blog to start noting non-visual entertainment options.

  10. Wow. What a great article. Thank you for bringing a different perspective to this great blog. Your article really touched me even though I am not visually impaired. Please keep on writing.

  11. I’m surprised ATH didn’t offer any assistance. I live in Athens and travel a few times a year, sometimes with a family member who has trouble walking and with their eyesight as well. Whenever we arrive at the airport someone is waiting with a wheelchair and brings them to us.

    But this article was very insightful and gave me a view on travel I never thought before. Excellent article!

  12. Thank you for this perspective on a side of travel that most of us would never think about.

    I assume you were flying in business class the whole way? I’m surprised you were able to grab a Singapore Airlines business class award from MEL to SIN using UA miles, I thought SQ blocked that route for partner premium cabin awards. Congrats on finding that!

  13. I love article. It is rare to find such an article based on his topic with many details and very well-written. Very easy to follow and insightful photos included. I hope to read more from this person.

  14. Hi Everyone! “Guest” writer here
    Thanks so much for your lovely comments so far! To answer some of your questions:

    @bgriff Yes I was in Business and silly of me to omit that from the article. I’ve found heaps of availability lately from MEL/SYD to SIN in J with SQ (usually only one seat though). I booked that sector back in Sep/October from memory as initially I had MEL-BKK with TG and this became available. (I also booked before United increased the amount of miles needed)

    @george Re ATH: I fly in/out of ATH at least 4-5 times a year the last few years. They have never been pro-active to assist.

    @ah Interesting question regarding the in flight entertainment. Many screens I find the visibility just not good enough for my eyes (especially on day flights when there is glare). The font is also too small for me. I bring my laptop and have pre-loaded movies on USB. I also use the Kindle/Ibooks app on my phone (with very enlarged text) to be able to read books still (I’m a big reader and miss reading proper books and magazines!)

    @Matt Hello from Melbourne!

    @ralf Indeed the Crowne Plaza is incredibly dark! After coming off a flight and entering that lobby and also the hallways to the rooms I almost ended up in the ponds on either side of the walkway!

  15. An interesting perspective. Last summer we took my dad on a trip to Asia and I thought that I could handle helping him navigate myself. In retrospect, I absolutely should have asked for help, particularly in airports I wasn’t familiar with. It would definitely be helpful to hear more about your experiences traveling.

  16. Great perspective to hear from travelers with special needs. I’m not sure it would merit a weekly post (too repetitive) but monthly would be good.

  17. Love your angle and the wit in your writing. It’s super nice to see your not so different take on life in general and then mastering individual travel hurdles most of us are oblivious of. Keep up the fantastic work. You certainly know how to make your way across the globe.

  18. @andy11235 Funnily enough I find traveling in Asia pretty good usually as the layouts of most of the airports are very wide (and stepping onto the trains between terminals doesn’t have a proper step). But for peace of mind do ask for assistance next time.

    @19nixxon91 Some trips are easy and even the difficult ones I don’t think of them as hurdles. I’m just a very normal fully self-funded traveler who just happens to have a slight problem (of which looking at me people wouldn’t even realise).

    @juno Thank you! But I don’t know anyone by the name “Juno”

    @jim I would get completely bored myself writing about vision issues while traveling! I have lots of real life experiences and tips to share about other areas of travel that I hope people would enjoy too.

    @Tom Yeah i’m not sure about MEL airport insisting that I use the wheelchair either. It was only the second time in my years of traveling that this has happened (It happened last year in BKK too and the attendant couldn’t speak English and I was waving desperately with my hands to explain I was ok to walk the 10 metres!

  19. Yay! Greece! Hope you enjoyed your time in our beautiful but otherwise dysfunctional country….

  20. Keep this person and fund them reviewing airlines level of help for pax that need assistance when flying economy. It’ll be instructive to everyone of the culture of the airline.

  21. You know, I never even considered how difficult traveling would be for a visually impaired person! Kudos to you for continuing to live your life on your terms. 🙂 And I completely know what you mean about the worried mom…I flew solo to Europe twice last year and my mom was insistent that I message her at each layover airport. (I’m 34 years old.)

  22. Interesting perspective and kudos to you for not allowing your disability to dictate your lifestyle – I don’t know if I’d have the same courage if I was in your shoes.

    I would be interested to hear the guest writer’s experience during IRROPS…As an experienced traveler with no disabilities (and speaking English as my first language) I still sometimes find myself confounded by the mass confusion and general dysfunction that can occur during major IRROPS. 99% of the time I can manage these things effectively but I’ve had multiple occasions where I find myself wondering how in the world “normal” people are expected to be able to navigate these situations.

    I’d also be interested to hear how frequently things go as planned (i.e. if you request assistance it is properly provided versus the airlines dropping the ball and you have to figure things out on the fly).

  23. Writing: 8.5/10. (It is pretty clear throughout the whole piece. )
    Content: 7.5/10 (This is very niche area. )

    Overall, I am impressed.

  24. Thanks for your story! I am also totally blind since birth, and I travel 3-4x a month mostly in the USA.

    I tend to specifically request that the airline NOT enter any type of SSR (special service request) in my booking saying that I am blind. I have a process i use when I board to ensure that they have not entered this code in my reservation without my knowledge.

    There are a number of blind people that also prefer that the airlines not label us in this way. I don’t want the airline to be “watching me,” and as I’ll note below the assistance in the USA is not considered largely to be of a high quality.

    So I tell people they are better off not using the assistance, and I think its just a matter of self confidence if someone will try it or not.

    I also travel to a number of the same airports frequently so I can remember the layout.

    At airports where I am not familiar, I will try to research the layout in advance, in addition to using other techniques. For example, there is a service:
    http://aira.io
    where you use a phone or wearable glasses camera, and you talk to a live agent who can help you navigate. It is not a perfect solution but it is a great tool to have!

    I don’t know how it is outside the USA for the most part, but a lot of people find in the USA that the quality of the contracted personnel providing disability assistance is not good. There are exceptions, but most people I’ve heard from say at least 50% of the time (and thats being very generous) the quality of the assistance is not good. The personnel do not appear to be well trained, often can’t speak English, or can’t readily answer questions. The assistance is often provided by 3rd party contractors that the airlines contract with. They have names like G2, FSS, and Prospect.

    The National Federation of the Blind
    http://nfb.org
    did an experiment where they had one group of blind people go on their own, and another group of blind people get airline assistance, and the group that went on their own independently got to the gate faster than the group that used the assistance. You often get stories of blind people missing flights or having other troubles because they waited for the assistance.

    I remember a story last summer where a blind person missed a flight because the assistant brought them to the wrong gate (likely gate change) instead of the blind person monitoring the gate using there mobile phone with the airline app or another app that provides real time gate information. Blind people use smartphones by way of screen readers which are accessibility features such as VoiceOver on iOS.

    I think a lot of people with disabilities may get tripped up because they rely on the airline or the contracted assistance personnel rather than taking the time (and it does take time) to become a savvy traveler. The same can be said of the general public as well, disability or not.

    I have actually had good service from Prospect (a contracted special assistance provider) at times in SEA and PHL, so I have to give them a shout out, but that is clearly an exception, an outlier, and not the rule by a long shot!

    Also you can often readily get assistance from other passengers, and that may provide a “better” and more dignified experience. For instance, a few days ago I arrived on B6 in SAN, hardly anyone connects at SAN, so all getting off of my plane would be going to baggage claim/ground transportation. So I just walked out and followed people from my flight, and it turns out at SAN they have actually made the appride/TNC Uber/Lyft pickup areas closer to the terminal which was nice, you don’t have to traverse the parking garage anymore.

    I should expand my horizons and try traveling internationally more, although I have heard in many locations they don’t even offer basic accessibility like Braille room numbers at hotels or accessible ATMs, which are a given in the U S of A!

  25. Very insightful article. I love a different perspective – as my parents age, I have been trying to understand how meet and assist services work. I think it would be refreshing as well as Informative to see more articles in this nature – ie ones that highlight services not commonly used.

  26. Interesting indeed, I myself travel with visual impairment and find on long haul flights the biggest problem is with the entertainment. If I fly in economy then the screens are often to small and there is not enough space to fit my 17″ laptop since the density of the seating is so high. There have been occasions where after requested assistance i had to wait for 45 mins outside the plane whilst someone was found to assist me, although this is not normally the case.

  27. Super article, well done! Brings a very important coverage area to this blog. All of us know someone who is handicapped in some manner and this is very helpful to hear from a first-hand perspective.

    Two votes from me to keep this guest writer!

  28. We have a winner!!!!!!

    This is what flying is for everyone really means.

    Even if she can’t contribute frequently (assuming the challenges of flying), she does bring in a very unique perspective that doesn’t involve CLICK BAIT.

    Please keep her.

  29. Great article.

    I am very nearsighted and have stationary night blindness. Nothing to the degree you write about, but signage is often tough – and I’ve stopped staying in W hotels, due to dark hallways.

    Please let this person keep writing.

  30. @ derek

    “Some of the mood lighting on boarding is too dark for anyone with bad eyesight.”

    And some of it is way too bright for people with light sensitivity conditions. There’s rarely a perfect “one size fits all” solution.

  31. This writer is a keeper because I have never read a blind person travel on a travel blog before. It’s an interesting perspective. While I’m not blind so writer’s experience isn’t particular helpful to me personally but it’s important to be inclusive. Hence having this kind of voice in your blog is important and differentiate your website from others even more.

  32. I’m a fairly voracious reader, and I read this blog more than any other website or publication. This post is a great example why. I didn’t even know I’d be interested in this until I was presented with it!

    Thank you, guest writer.

    @Tiffany and Lucky: I hope you might consider future guest posts like this even if the writer doesn’t end up on the permanent staff. Such perspectives certainly add something to the blog.

  33. Brilliant article – thanks for sharing this important information with us. May I ask, can we write about Deaf traveler perspective since we have some stories? 😉

  34. I can see just fine but it’s fascinating to read about someone else’s first hand experiences that might otherwise not be normal to the rest of us.

  35. Thank you for this great article!

    I hope you become a writer on this site; your perspective, writing skills, warmth, genuine approach and valuable information is really appreciated.

    Good luck…you need to be on here!

  36. That’s poor form by Melbourne Airport if the E Gates are not accessible to ALL those qualified to use them.
    I’ve noticed that many hotels keep corridors and some public areas unnecessarily dark….or just as bad, when they have motion detectors to increase the level of illumination….as that sudden change can be quite difficult /challenging for people with vestibular issues ( from which I suffer); many ‘W’s do this and more than a few Alofts ( and the Crowne Plaza Changi has always been too dark)

  37. Very well written and important article. Thanks for shedding light on this. All the best and well done.

  38. So happy to see a baby writer (not a diss, just slang in the entertainment world for a new writer) speaking from personal experience. That’s a very welcome polar opposite to the robotic, cut and paste junk found on some other blog that seems written by revolving door interns. While I realize OMAAT is searching for that one candidate to add to your team, how about making the guest writer column a regular feature? With all those articles waiting to be published, you guys are already off to a great start.

  39. Thank you for such an insightful article.

    I suffer from extreme myopia with slight astigmatism, but am fortunate enough that glasses can correct the issue for me. I can’t imagine what I’d do without my glasses. So far, so good- and I always travel with a spare pair. This article should also serve as a reminder that care of one’s eyes is important to everyone.

    All the best to you. Hope we will hear more from you here.

  40. First of all, remember that you DO NOT EVER need to accept assistance. If you’re being offered assistance and you don’t want it, especially in countries where there is strong support for people with disability, you have every right to refuse it. I avoid requesting assistance because I don’t want the problems associated with it, most notably that I am treated like an invalid when I am just as capable as most other traveller. Secondly, I recommend that you get Orientation & Mobility instruction, which will teach you how to travel without the need to rely on your vision, which will make it easier for you to travel in hotels with poor illumination and at night. Finally, I would say that you are allowing your disability to dictate your travels to an extent because you request assistance and rely on your vision in situations where nonvisual techniques are clearly superior.

  41. Interestingly I never gave this any thought but a few days ago was seated in front of a gentleman with a visual impairment on a United flight from MEL to LAX. He had a companion which I assume alleviated issues in the airports. One of the flight attendants was absolutely lovely in giving him very detailed instructions on where everything was on the plane – number of rows to the bathrooms, exits, etc. She even provided timing of all service, expected turbulence. She spent a lot of time with him and with all of the criticism United is receiving lately, there are excellent flight attendants out there.

  42. Not a bad one off post but I feel that if she were full time, she would continue to bang on about being blind more times than lucky advertises credit cards

  43. @bruce Thank you! I love Greece and hope to live there when I retire!

    @richard Thanks Richard however these days long haul I only fly Business but do plenty of Economy flying within Australia and Europe

    @Mika Thanks for your sharing your experiences

    @eskimo I travel more than enough! (probably too much for my liking the last few years)

    @Ben I myself would get utterly bored if I had to write about vision issues. I’m just a normal fully self-funded traveler like many people on here that has plenty of knowledge and travel experience on a variety of topics.

    Thank you again to everyone for all your comments and for reading my article.

  44. @Guest Writer. You are an inspiration. Beautiful perspective and attitude toward life that myself and many others can learn from.

  45. The author is VERY knowledgeable and resourceful.
    @Roger, you must always know when it is necessary to request assistance as age and/or disability become a hindrance to you and the airline: they must be made aware of any potential problems for their own sake. Self-reliance is great until you need help, as Ayn Rand found out in her old age!

  46. Clever, clever Ben. You post much more grounded post like this since it’s been TMZ/buzzfeeding all week. Nice move to balance out your sexual appetite and self entitlement about Silver airs. It’s their fault not knowing who you are and didn’t reply to your request right? How dare they!

  47. Mika, you are correct, many countries outside USA, Australasia and the EU countries do not offer braille options. But if you ever go to Asia , people are very helpful, because they are used to assisting lots of their own blind nationals , who mostly carry white sticks .

  48. I would like to read posts on what it’s like to travel with a disability. I do not have a disability, but am mindful that it’s not always easy for many travelers. I think this writer offers a unique perspective. Perhaps there could be a regular contributer series on traveling with a disability. Thanks for this post, Guest Writer!

  49. Very interesting. My husband is legally blind and pretty self sufficient but airports can be a nightmare for him. I’m mostly with him but there’s always times when I can’t stay with him, like at security or immigration. I have sometimes had to resort to yelling “he’s blind” when we’ve been separated and he doesn’t know what’s going on. Qantas attendants are great, they read out menus for him, help him find the toilet etc.

  50. As a travel agent who dated someone who’s deaf in one ear and who has a friend that’s completely blind, I really appreciated this kind of post and perspective. Thanks! Keep them coming! I’d also enjoy hearing about your experience exploring these destinations.

  51. Really enjoyed this post. The author clearly is comfortable in writing and it’s easy to read and well thought out. My favorite so far from the guest writers and I would be happy to read more and think it’s great there could be a new writer coming from somewhere other then the US

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