by Peggy Chong
From the Editor: Peggy Chong is probably best known for her series of articles that gained her the name, The Blind History Lady. Many of her beginning articles were first featured in these pages, and now she has a website which is https://theblindhistorylady.com.
In addition to all of the work she does on history, she also is very involved in her local chapter and state affiliate. In this article she tells us about the outreach her chapter has done to Southwest Airlines and the positive response it has received. Here is what she says:
The Braille Monitor for many years has printed articles regarding air travel and the blind. Most of them have expounded on our frustrations with the airlines and their staff. Last summer at our national convention we heard from Blane Workie from the office of Aviation Enforcement and Proceedings (see the October Braille Monitor, https://nfb.org/images/nfb/publications/bm/bm18/bm1809/bm180908.htm). She told us that things are changing for the better for passengers with disabilities.
Recently, the Albuquerque Chapter of the NFB of New Mexico hosted its annual White Cane Banquet as part of our Meet the Blind Month activities. Our speaker was Southwest Airlines Representative Dallas Thomas who spoke on the policies and practices of Southwest Airlines in regard to its blind customers. The presentation was received enthusiastically by the crowd. But there is much more to the story than just a speaker for our White Cane Banquet.
In early June of 2018, Curtis and I were rushing to catch our Southwest flight at the Albuquerque airport. We approached the service counter and got checked in. We said we could not work the kiosks as they were not accessible. The ticket agent told us that yes, they were accessible, but she was not sure how they worked. The three of us went to one of the new kiosks and found the headphone jack. Curtis plugged in his headphones and started to explore. Unfortunately, as we had already checked in, we did not want to mess up our reservation by experimenting. Besides, we had to get to our gate. Before leaving the ticketing area we asked if there was someone we could call when we got back, who could tell us more. She gave us a name and phone number, and we were off.
When we returned from our trip, I called the Southwest phone number and left a message that I would like to know more about the accessible kiosks and can we come and test one out. The message was passed on to John Johnston, ABQ Assistant Station Leader, Ground Operations. Mr. Johnston told me later that his first question to the staff member who gave him the message was, “Do we have one of those?” When his team member said that they did, but no one knows how it works, Mr. Johnston said that maybe they better figure out how it works!
Next, he gave me a call to talk about the kiosks. Not long after our first contact, I asked if he would like to address our White Cane Banquet in the fall and promote the new kiosks. He said he would get back to me about speaking and when our members can come out and test the kiosks. I thought this would be the end of our communication.
Nope, each Friday he called and gave me an update. Mr. Johnston took our request seriously and contacted the national Southwest Airlines headquarters in Texas to learn how the kiosks worked, if there were instructions on those things, and who would be the best speaker. Dallas Thomas was assigned to come to Albuquerque and present to our group.
Dallas Thomas did know about the accessibility initiatives of Southwest, but not the specifics. He too did not know exactly how the kiosks worked, but he would get back to me. I asked if we could get from him step-by-step instructions for operating the kiosks at the airport. He said he would get them to us when he had them.
Mr. Thomas participated in many meetings at the Department of Transportation on accessibility including the DOT’s Access Advisory Committee where he represented Southwest Airlines. At several of those meetings, he had a chance to discuss accessibility issues with our own Parnell Diggs to better understand what blind passengers experienced when traveling and what we wanted. Thomas said that Southwest wants to not just meet the standards set by the Department of Transportation, rather it wants to reach for a goal of total inclusion and take the necessary time to actively work toward that goal.
My reasons for asking for the step-by-step guide were of course to understand how the kiosks worked, but more importantly, to find out if Southwest understood how they worked. Did a blind person have input on the design of the kiosks? Had a blind person even test driven one of them before implementation? The next ten weeks proved to be most enlightening for me.
Dallas Thomas not only got me the step-by-step instructions, but he also made sure they worked. When Mr. Thomas went to get the instructions, there were none. When instructions were created and he got a copy, he went to the testing center where they put up three test kiosks and walked through the instructions himself. I bet he never spent so much time preparing for a speaking engagement before.
His presentation on October 20 before seventy-two registrants for our White Cane Banquet shed further light on why Dallas was willing to find out how the accessibility functions worked before our event. He told us that in testing the nonvisual access, the techies turn off the screen. When they test, they are truly using nonvisual access that you and I would use. What a concept! It is so simple and common sense, yet very few designers today think of doing such a simple and time-saving step before implementation.
Dallas explained that Southwest wants inclusion for all, no matter if one is a customer or employee. No matter if we are blind, deaf, or just an infrequent flyer. When Southwest began to replace outdated equipment and software, it knew it had a big job ahead. But Southwest wanted to do it right the first time and not add on to an old and outdated product. This meant that the kiosks that had to be accessible had to communicate with the reservations information that blind customer service reservations operators would use as well as the software for the rest of the company. Dallas said that they took longer than they had hoped, but, as they roll out each new component of their new systems, they have been coming on with very minor hiccups and with no or little disruption to operations and customer contacts. Dallas also told us that from this point on, all new kiosks at Southwest will be accessible and that all kiosks operated by Southwest will operate the same. We will not have to know if this model has this feature or not. Everything will be standard. He received much applause for these comments.
The in-flight entertainment component was also discussed. Many of us know that on Southwest there are no seatback entertainment options. But, did you know that Southwest has an accessible entertainment option? Yes, on the device of your choice—I used my iPhone, but you can use your android device as well. After turning on airplane mode, I went to settings, Wi-Fi, and looked for the Southwest network. Not being a big techie expert, it took a couple of tries to figure it out, but I did. The in-flight entertainment killed time, but I think I will still bring my Victor Reader Stream.
Dallas explained that it is much easier for every passenger to access entertainment on the device they are most familiar with rather than spending too much of your trip fighting with a new device. Designing a seatback system that would need to be updated (both hardware and software) each time new devices become popular could prove to be more expensive. The audience agreed with his comments. I guess many of us had experienced the frustration of trying to relax with in-flight entertainment options on an unfamiliar seatback device.
Another revealing comment on the philosophy of Southwest as a company came from Mr. Thomas during his presentation when he discussed a Southwest senior reservations manager who lost his vision a few years ago. Nothing in Mr. Thomas’s comments indicated that Southwest thought the man should retire early. On the contrary, he spoke about it as if it was natural that the blinded employee would have to make a few changes in how he carried out his duties and continue on with the company in the same position. As head of reservations, the now-blinded Southwest manager is in charge of the reservations call centers where several blind people are employed and using speech and Braille output equipment that is compatible with Southwest’s new software. Since the rollout of its new software, according to Mr. Thomas, more blind reservations agents have been hired by Southwest.
Although not everything is perfect, Southwest has been open and willing to talk to us about its kiosks and how they work, as well as open to suggestions. Members and guests attending the White Cane Banquet left with a warm feeling toward Southwest and an eagerness to try the new kiosks. Does that mean that we will never have a bad trip? Probably not, but at least many of us now feel that if it happens on Southwest, our troubles will not be a result of inaccessibility or indifference on the part of the company.