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When Kelli Adrienne Duncan, a Tampa, Fla.-based paramedic specializing in occupational health, was boarding a Delta flight to Hartford earlier this month, she wore a mask that read “Just Deaf, Not Rude.” The 43-year-old, who is deaf and uses sign language while speaking to others, wears the mask to let others know about her disability.
“My friend and I were flying...to visit family. I was so excited to see them and introduce her, I was on cloud nine,” Duncan tells Yahoo Life.
Unfortunately, that feeling was short lived — at least, temporarily. As the pair boarded, Duncan says they were greeted by two flight attendants.
“I wanted to make sure that my best friend and I sat together and since it was a double aisle flight, I needed assistance from one of the attendants,” Duncan says. “As my friend was looking to see which aisle we should go down, she heard the flight attendant who was behind me rudely say, ‘Are you really deaf?’”
Duncan recalls that her friend looked over at the attendant with disgust and assured her that Duncan was, indeed, deaf. The friend, who was visibly upset, told Duncan to just keep moving and eventually explained to her the rudeness of the staff member. While the paramedic was upset, she says she held her head up high, determined not to let it ruin her trip.
“I was very glad that my best friend was there because I usually travel alone and frequently struggle with communication due to the masks. I was very hurt to know someone would insult a disabled person who has had to deal with this my whole life,” she explains.
Indeed, being deaf or hard of hearing has proven to be especially challenging with the rise of mask use, which further hampers communication. While clear masks have been presented as a more accessible workaround, they have not yet become the standard. Moreover, clear masks are not free of their own problems (some individuals in the deaf community counter that there are still issues regarding these styles of masks fogging up, and point to the greater issues of the disability community being “routinely excluded in disaster preparedness plans”).
Duncan’s story finally caught the attention of the airline after her sister, ESPN sports commentator Lauren “Elle” Duncan, posted a tweet about the incident and tagged the airline.
“My sister, who is one of my biggest advocates and my rock, was quite upset and mentioned the incident on Twitter. Delta contacted her almost immediately and said they would investigate the incident,” says Kelly. She adds that the airline did a great job of reaching out, apologizing for the incident and expressing a desire to further discuss what a positive solution might look like.
“They told her they will have the crew attend sensitivity training and will look into providing masks that show the mouth so deaf and hard of hearing folks can read lips,” says Duncan.
Delta, when reached by Yahoo Life, noted the company cannot comment on specific communications between customers but said that the airline expects their “employees to treat all customers and each other with respect, and we do not discriminate against customers for any reason, adding that “the feedback we received will be incorporated in messaging to employees improving customer communication and awareness in a unique environment where masks may limit people’s ability to express themselves and be understood.”
While some individuals decide to boycott an airline after having a negative experience, Duncan says she’ll continue to fly Delta.
“They have been very supportive, and my goal is for them to use this as a teaching moment, to bring awareness that the deaf and hard-of-hearing community struggle every day during this pandemic with communicating with the outside world,” she says. “It’s hard enough in the best of times. It shouldn’t be made harder by the ignorance of other people’s struggles.”
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