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Deaf Travelers Sue S.F. Airport

Transportation: They seek more visual information, other improvements at the busy facility.


SAN FRANCISCO — Anyone who has felt frustrated while traveling through an airport in this post-Sept. 11 world should consider what happens to Colin Piotrowski.

Each time he goes to San Francisco International, the 30-year-old college student--who has been deaf since birth--struggles to negotiate an obstacle course of ticket counters, boarding gates and security areas that offer him no visual information, and where workers lack training in sign language.

Relying on a haphazard combination of written notes and the often incomplete departure and arrival screens, Piotrowski has nearly missed flights and has been waylaid at security checkpoints where no one could communicate why he had been detained.

"It's nerve-racking and embarrassing," he said through an interpreter. "Once, I apparently set off an alarm and these security people rushed up to me. And even though I pointed to my ears, that I couldn't hear, they kept talking, giving me orders. I know I'm deaf, but those trips to the airport really make me feel disabled."

Piotrowski is now a plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit filed Wednesday against San Francisco International Airport and the city that runs it. The suit accuses the defendants of flagrantly violating the needs and rights of travelers with hearing disabilities by failing to fix "multiple access, communication and training problems" at the world's ninth-busiest airport.

Sid Wolinsky, director of litigation for the Oakland-based nonprofit Disability Rights Advocates, a co-counsel in the suit, said access for the deaf has become a serious problem at most major American airports. But he ranked San Francisco International among the nation's worst for the way it treats those who are deaf or have hearing problems.

Activists say SFO recently completed an $840-million renovation, but did not spend even a minimal amount of money to upgrade services for the deaf.

"The way most airports deal with deaf access is pretty slipshod and incompetent, not to mention illegal," Wolinsky said. "But San Francisco International has become a disaster waiting to happen for most deaf travelers."

Airport officials said Wednesday they had not seen the lawsuit but defended their practices in assisting deaf passengers. "We abide by the current codes," said Ron Fong, an SFO construction inspector. "But we know there's always room for improvement."

The lawsuit, filed in federal district court in San Francisco, calls for the creation of visual boards throughout the airport with emergency, flight and paging information, along with monitors at gates with information about pre-boarding, delays, gate changes and cancellations. The suit also requires that security checkpoints post signs containing common commands or questions; provide training for airport workers in communication with the deaf; install text telephones for the deaf, and hire sign-language interpreters.

"SFO does not have one telecommunications device for the deaf," Wolinsky said. "There's no way for the deaf to use the courtesy phones. They can't respond to pages; they don't even know when or if they've been paged. In evacuations, there are no signboards. All we're asking is that the airport pay at least as much attention to its disabled travelers as their new art collection they seem so fixated upon."

Wolinsky estimated that as many as 10% of the 40 million passengers who use SFO each year are deaf. He said many of the changes, such as installing text telephones, can be done free of charge by local phone companies.

Fong acknowledged that the airport does not have a sign-language interpreter on staff.

And although SFO has text telephones, or TTY machines, that allow deaf passengers to answer pages and contact airport security by typing messages on a keyboard, he also acknowledged that the courtesy phone cords did not reach the text machines, rendering them useless for the disabled.

"That's not our fault," he said. "Our security people say if we made the phone cords any longer, they could be used as a weapon."

Wolinsky said complaints have risen tenfold since Sept. 11, when airports tightened security measures. While deaf travelers once could have hearing friends or family escort them to a departure gate, those escorts are now stopped by security.

Most airports earn failing grades in assisting the deaf, he said, including Los Angeles, Oakland and San Jose. However, facilities in Portland, Ore., and Atlanta have been sensitive to the needs of disabled passengers, proving that it can be done.

Barbara LaBrosse, Americans with Disabilities coordinator for the Portland International Airport, said the facility has a visual paging program where deaf passengers can get information about evacuations and other emergencies.

"It's pretty simple," she said. "I don't know why such services wouldn't be more widely used."

Added Wolinsky: "Airports have long been more than an inconvenience ... a dangerous place for the deaf. After 9/11, they've become a nightmare."

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