Preparing Blind Students for Airport Success

19 Mar
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Liz Wisecarver, MA, NOMC

Liz Wisecarver, MA, NOMC

Liz earned her master’s in Orientation and Mobility from Louisiana Tech University after attending the adult training program at the Louisiana Center for the Blind. She currently lives in Oxford, Miss. and teaches cane travel to public school students.

I took my first flight just four years ago to attend an event in Washington, DC with other students and staff of the Louisiana Center for the Blind. As a blind person ,I wondered how I would keep track of everything, like gate numbers, seats, and times for flights.

My travel instructor took time to discuss airport travel with me and compare it to the techniques we were already using on the streets. That first flight—and the many more since—was successful both in terms of outcome and my confidence level in independently navigating through concourses at my own pace.

Now, as a travel instructor myself, I talk with students who are often first-time flyers about independently and successfully navigating complex and unfamiliar airports. Airport travel really does combine many of the same techniques your students are accustomed to using for indoor and crowd travel.

Unlike traditionally-trained travel instructors, though, I believe that any blind student—regardless of how much residual vision he or she has—can navigate the airport without an escort. While students will certainly ask for directions along the way, an escort (who almost always shows up with a wheelchair in hand!) will slow the students down, reduce their flexibility, and limit their ability to orient themselves to the airport for the next time they fly.

It’s helpful to break down the airport process into segments (pardon the pun).


As frequent flyers will know, students first need to obtain boarding passes and check any luggage that they will not take on the plane. When I first flew, I was afraid that I would forget my flight number, departure time, gate number and seat assignment. Fortunately, many airlines allow passengers to check in 24 hours in advance via the web or on a mobile app. Some airline apps, such as the Fly Delta app for iPhone, provide real-time flight information and electronic boarding passes in an accessible (or mostly accessible) format. While it’s important to double-check gate information with airport personnel, the app is a big step-up from the days of relying on TV monitors throughout the building.

In terms of finding the check-in counter, I tell students that it’s just like mall travel. You’re going to hear some people waiting, and it’s easy enough to ask, “What airline is this?”

If it’s the wrong one, I tell students to pick a direction and point, saying, “Is such-and-such airline that way?”

The yes or no answer gives students all they need to know to start moving in the right direction.


Once students have checked their bags, security is almost always left or right. While the ticket counter staff may ask students if they want assistance, I encourage them to just ask for directions. We wouldn’t expect them to be guided from store to store in a mall, yet for some reason many travel instructors expect that students will do this in an airport. I couldn’t disagree any more strongly.

Sound cues will lead the way to the security line, too, including TSA agents giving passengers instructions, beeping metal detectors, and luggage moving along conveyer belts. TSA agents may try to direct blind students through a shorter security line, which they can always decline. Following others through security provides auditory cues as to the location of conveyer belts, bins for smaller items, and metal detectors. In the shorter, “accessible” lines, these cues are usually absent.

Security procedures do not change frequently and will be explained by TSA agents. Students will have the drill down after their first time. First-time flyers should review TSA’s rules and regulations beforehand. It is important that students feel comfortable identifying their luggage and personal items both tactilely and in words (if asked the color of their bags, for example). Specific markers like a special luggage tag, a ribbon, or duct tape can be placed on handles to make bags more distinguishable.

There is some debate about whether TSA agents must X-ray white canes. Many agents have told me that if canes don’t collapse, they don’t go through the X-ray machine, since they may get caught and break. In this case, students can walk through the metal detector with their canes and then a TSA agent rubs a small piece of paper over the outside to check for residue of explosives. If the student’s cane collapses, it likely has too much metal to pass through the metal detector, so it must be collapsed and placed on the conveyor belt.

Finding the Gate

Just like a mall, airports have large, open areas that progress down corridors with stores, restaurants and points of interest arranged on either side. There are food courts, escalators and plenty of people from whom to gather information. In the case of airports, corridors extend into hallways of gates. I encourage students to pay attention to the sounds and smells around them as well as the texture underfoot. Gates are typically arranged numerically, usually evens on one side and odds on the other side (much like street addresses). In many airports, the hallways are tiled and the sitting areas around the gates are carpeted, which can help students stay on track. This isn’t always the case, however, so it’s important that students learn to adapt to new environments.

Students can gather information about the gate numbers from those around them, and make a judgement as to how far he should continue before checking again. It is useful to check with other passengers or the gate agent upon arrival to make certain the flight has not been moved.

To Pre-Board or Not to Pre-board

Once at the gate, students should take note of their group (or zone) numbers and seat assignments. Electronic boarding passes are very helpful for this reason, though other passengers are almost always happy to read the tickets, too.

Students should know that they do not have to pre-board the flight. Boarding alongside other passengers provides auditory cues, more opportunities to gather information, and demonstrates that blind people can learn to travel independently just like anyone else. Following the line can be particularly easy when the people ahead of them have a rolling bag. Once on the plane, students can ask on which side of the plane their seats will be.

Federal law permits blind customers to keep their rigid canes next to them during taxi, flight, takeoff, and landing. Their canes, called mobility devices, can be stored against the fuselage between the window and chair, much like in cars. Students may need to explain this to flight attendants, and I encourage my students to print those federal regulations out and be ready to show them to flight attendants. I pack a spare folding cane in my carry-on bag, just in case something happens to my straight cane while traveling.

The Layover

There are many opportunities to accept or decline assistance during a layover. Again, I encourage students to travel independently when time permits. Barring another condition that impacts a student’s mobility, there is absolutely no reason that a student with a two-hour connection should not traverse the airport independently.

Personally, I like to take my time and explore on my own, but I will not chance missing my flight if my layover is less than 30 minutes in another terminal. Skycaps are available when departing the plane and throughout the terminals. A student who does request help must firmly—but politely—decline any inappropriate or unnecessary assistance, such as wheelchairs, electric carts, or human guide. Students can walk alongside the skycap and carry on a normal conversation to maintain their orientation. They should not be embarrassed to ask for other things they may need, like a stop at a coffee shop or restroom, when walking with assistance.


Finally, the flying is over! It is now time to find baggage claim and hop in a cab, bus, shuttle, train, or whatever type of transportation is available to leave the airport. Often, students can pay attention to foot traffic and walk with other passengers traveling to baggage claim, which is often located downstairs. Just like they did when finding the gate, blind students can gather information to locate their luggage carousel, which will be numbered according to the airline or terminal. Students can approach the carrousel and touch each bag as it moves by. Again, it is important to recognize checked luggage by both touch and description.

Traveling can be stressful for anyone, blind or sighted, but apprehension about navigating as a blind person does not have to be the reason. It is important to encourage students to give themselves time and patience to explore without being in a rush or concerned about making mistakes. Students will learn how to graciously accept and decline assistance, recognize patterns, and be more flexible as they travel independently more often. Discussing the order of events, useful techniques, and expectations of success with your students can go a long way in ensuring a productive learning experience at the airport.

Photo courtesy of Nicola, on Flickr

The following two tabs change content below.
Liz Wisecarver, MA, NOMC

Liz Wisecarver, MA, NOMC

Liz earned her master’s in Orientation and Mobility from Louisiana Tech University after attending the adult training program at the Louisiana Center for the Blind. She currently lives in Oxford, Miss. and teaches cane travel to public school students.

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