Albuquerque's Sunport and one of my favorite childhood cookies, mamool, have been virally memorialized on social media in Naomi Shihab Nye's poem, Gate A-4. Even though I usually fly on the B terminal, I always recall this poem as I pass the A terminal turnoff and turn left at Lincoln Fox's Dream of Flight sculpture -- it helps me remember that my home airport is an easier place to be brown and deaf than others.

Flying while deaf brings with it a set of challenges. For one, despite the fact that it is twenty-five years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, most airports still rely on audio announcements. Some airports supplement this with visual paging screens for announcements; most of these airports are located near areas with large deaf populations, such as BWI. After commuting twice a month between ABQ and DC for twelve years, I regard myself as a pretty seasoned (domestic) air traveller. 

Yet even with visual paging systems and text messaging updates, there are still times when I miss important information that's transmitted over the public announcement system at the terminal, such as announcements of gate changes or flight delays. Over the years I've developed a few strategies to help get this information in a timely manner. (It has been my experience that text announcements often take a little longer to get than the announcements at the terminal; sometimes this can be a significant delay.)

I preempt missing these announcements when I check with the gate crew by doing a few things to increase the odds that they'll remember to communicate this information to me. I opt not to use my voice when telling them that I am deaf -- writing this information on a piece of paper. I do this for two reasons: so that they'll remember me is one, but also because when I am asking for information or directions, people fall back on the habit of looking down at their computer screen or looking in the direction they are pointing. Each habit reduces the chance I'll be able to speechread them, since their faces and lips are not fully visible. By engaging in the act of writing down the information, I set an expectation that they will write back to me, which allows me to get accurate information without the usual guesswork of speechreading. (If I speak, they resist writing, ignoring the pen and paper I hand to them and opting to speak to me instead.)

I also leave a note at the desk for them to pass on during crew shifts, and I always wear something that is distinctive -- it might be my pink backpack or a bright red fleece vest or a jaunty newsboy cap, but I make it easier for them to pick me out of a crowd. This is also the reason why I have neon pink hearing aid earmolds. (I include this identifying information in the note I give the crew.) I stay close to the gate desk or gate because I have to be vigilant so as not to miss anything, but sometimes nature calls, and I cannot always ensure that I'm there at the exact moment that an announcement is made.

Most of the time this strategy works pretty well, especially at my two home airports, where I now know several gate crew employees, who often greet me in ASL that I've taught them over the years.

There's another issue, though, that comes up for me when anti-Arab sentiment is heightened, as it is now.

That's the matter of intersectionality -- a concept developed by law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw that's made its way from academia into the mainstream. Here's the basic idea: when one is a member of not one, but two identity groups, the assumptions about the groups aren't just additive (think black + woman), but interactional. What it is to be a black woman involves more than the generic identity assumptions of what it is to be black, and what it is to be a woman, but how these different identities interact and intersect.

If you are a sighted deaf person who relies on the fairly typical characteristic of looking around to supplement any auditory information that you don't have access to, that scanning behavior is to be expected, and is easily explained.

If you are a brown deaf person at an airport, and your deafness is not visible (via a cochlear implant or neon pink earmolds), this scanning behavior can (and is) read differently. Add to that an accent that is not-quite-American (my vowels sound continental or northeastern Canadian), and a passport that has an unusual visa from KSA, and that's a recipe for additional attention from TSA.

So I have a list of things I do before I fly if I am going someplace other than my home airports. Some of these are deceptive.

  1. I don't speak to anyone using my voice, since my voice marks me as "other". (I sign in ASL to anyone who signs to me, though!)
  2. I use my driver's license as ID rather than my passport, because of the aforementioned visa from Saudi Arabia, with the picture of me in hijab. (I'm not Muslim, but the photo required I cover my hair.)
  3. I leave all of my Middle Eastern jewelry at home, and I play up my ambiguous ethnic appearance with southwestern jewelry. (This invites another set of questions about 'otherness', of course.)
  4. I delete any Arabic language emails on my phone. (I don't read Arabic, really, but I subscribe to a bilingual listserve for Deaf Arabs.)
  5. I stash extra copies of my passport and birth certificate in each piece of luggage I have, just in case -- my suitcase, my backpack, and my purse. (I've been in more than one situation where this has come in handy coming home from an academic event.)
  6. If possible, I remove ID from my wallet that shows I live in two cities. Airport security sees this as another flag, and it doesn't matter that I can point them to hundreds of conference bios online that note I live in two places (yet another intersectionality strategy) -- if they want to detain me for a while, they will. And they have.

Here's the thing about intersectionality. My (white) deaf friends have often pushed back against my accounts of my experiences by offering their experiences as counterexamples; neglecting to see that their whiteness (or at least, non-brownness) buys them a pass that I cannot purchase.

My fellow MENA and MENA-American friends get the heightened airport scrutiny all too well given FWA, but don't understand how being deaf can possibly amplify some concerns, telling me that I "should use my voice because I can". This undercuts my point that it isn't just the TSA security issues of being brown that come into play, but the intersectionality of being BAD (Brown And Deaf), which includes issues like not being able to respond when security personnel is shouting at you from behind to stop, as happened to me at a venue this Sunday. (All ended well -- this wasn't at an airport, but at a peace and justice museum.)

Flying while Brown And Deaf means that sometimes you have to decide whether you want to deal with little indignities now or later.

Here's a recent example.

On Sunday night, I changed planes to catch the last flight to Albuquerque from Chicago. I approached the woman at the gate about 15 minutes before we were about to board, pointing to my preboard pass (which notes 'DF', for "deaf"), and then pointed to myself and a spot about 6 feet away from her, next to an outlet that I was planning to use to charge my phone. She shook her finger at me, and shouted "NO, STAY HERE! DO NOT MOVE!" and pointed to a spot right next to her.

Puzzled at first, I stayed where she indicated. (A white deaf person might have moved anyway, but intersectionality has taught me to be prudent if nothing else. Given that I was at a Southwest Airlines terminal at Chicago's Midway airport, where some discrimination against Arab-Americans had already gone down a few days earlier, I was especially nervous about being singled out.) Defying an airline employee gets security called in no time, and this woman was adamant that I not move. 

So I waited at her side.

After ten minutes, she walked me over to the preboarding seating area, jabbing with her finger and pointing to me to sit down as she talked to an elderly woman about me. I couldn't catch everything that she said, but it seemed that this woman was told to assist me. Two minutes later, the elderly woman grabbed me by the arm, while another woman flanked me, as we walked down the jet bridge to board the plane. In all my years of air travel on Southwest Airlines, I have never experienced such a thing, and found it patronizing and humiliating to be escorted in this way. It was a sharp counterpoint to how I'd been regarded over the weekend as a respected academic, but this wasn't the first time I'd dealt with such cognitive dissonance. (Under-represented academics know that to be presumed incompetent is part of the deal and what we've unwillingly signed on to --  although not without resistance!)

I calculated whether to use my voice privileges or not, but worried that using my voice might get me pulled off to chat with TSA  -- since of course deaf people don't speak, and if I were to speak now, that very act of deception would be branded "suspicious". As this was the last flight of the night to my destination, I wasn't about to risk not sleeping in my own bed.

So I let the paternalism play out. 

Once I boarded the plane, I wrote out my usual note to the flight attendant, a beefy and fit middle-aged man who looked like he was former military or law enforcement. ("I'm deaf; I cannot understand announcements, please write these down for me; I'd like a club soda no ice no lime; I fly all the time and know the safety drill for this plane Boeing 737-800"). I included an addendum that I am highly literate and did not need nor did I appreciate the unwanted escort service, and delivered the note with a charming (and I hoped also disarming) smile, so as to defuse any possible defensiveness of the airline. (Astute observers will note that I've now added gender to the intersectionality mix.)

I got an apology for my troubles, plus a full can of club soda delivered to me before we left the gate.

But during the two and a half hours of flight time, I couldn't help but think about whether anyone else from the meeting I'd attended had to jump through so many hoops just to fly home. I hope not.

[EDITED to fix typos, plus add the name of the airline and location.]


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