Singapore Airlines may be one of the world's top-class airlines but they're rock bottom-class when it comes to accommodating disabilities.
They were great about meeting my Philippine Airlines flight when I arrived in Hong Kong from Manila, getting my baggage sorted out and checked in, getting my paperwork ready for my flight to San Francisco, and getting me through all the security checkpoints.
My flight to San Francisco didn't leave for another five hours, and I asked if I would be waiting in one of the airline's lounges. "Oh, no, those are only for business and first-class customers," I was told.
Oh well, I thought, as long as I am somewhere safe and close to a restroom, and can get help if I need it, I'll be OK.
I was wheeled to a remote corner of the terminal and parked behind some kind of counter next to loudspeakers blaring out announcements. It was so loud my bones vibrated. While my skull was buzzing from the loudspeakers, my skin and eyes were shriveling up in a strong cold draft blowing in from a door that I assume was some sort of service access door opening out to the runway. I was out of the direct path of people rushing back and forth, but in the direct path of that cold wind. I closed my eyes and braced myself for a few uncomfortable moments until we moved on.
Then the Singapore Airliens staff person helping me told me that someone would come get me when it was time to board my flight. I had to make her repeat this four times. Twice because I couldn't hear her over the loudspeakers, and twice because I couldn't believe I heard her correctly.
"Excuse me," I said. "You are going away now and leaving me here alone for five hours until it is time to board my flight?"
"Don't worry," she said, "someone will come get you when it's time to board."
"In five hours. My flight does not leave for five more hours," I reminded her. "You are leaving me here alone, with no access to help, for five solid hours?"
"Well, someone will be here to help you when it is time to board," she said again.
"So who do I ask for help during the next five hours? How do I even get anyone's attention in a place like this??" I had to shout over the loudspeakers. "You realize I am almost totally blind and almost totally deaf in this noise--" I was shouting even louder now to make myself heard -- "and how can I talk to anyone in a place like this???"
She just looked at me. My anger was boiling now, and I had no trouble making myself heard over the loudspeakers. "You are stranding me here where I have no access to any help, I have no idea where I am, no idea where the restroom is, no idea even where the opposite wall is!??"
She put her hand on my arm and said, "Ma'am, please wait, I call my supervisor."
She walked off -- to a quieter spot where she could hear on her phone, I assume -- and left me there, stuck and fuming. She was back in a couple minutes and said she was very sorry but she was not allowed to take me to the airline lounge because it was only for business and first-class customers.
"Are you telling me that Singapore Airlines thinks it's OK to abandon one of their customers who happens to be deafblind in a place like this with no help, for five solid hours!!!? I can't even get to the other side of this room without help, and I have no idea where the restroom is."
"Ma'am, I can get you to a restroom."
"Good," I said. I really did need to get to one. "Let's go." It took more than five minutes to get there, and my anger boiled even more to realize they really were going to leave me stranded for five hours with no help or even a restroom within my reach. The most reasonable thing to do would be to either put me in one of their lounges, where I would have been sefe and needed minimal help from their staff, or at the very least in a coffee shop where I could get to a restroom on my own and maybe have a cuppa while I waited.
After I finished in the restroom and got back into the wheelchair, I could tell she was headed back to the same awful drafty bone-buzzing corner. I told her to stop. "I will NOT go back there," I told her. "You must take me somewhere safe."
She pulled into a gate waiting area that was not in use. You could still hear all the airport noise, but it was calm and peaceful, and loudspeakers were not blaring right onto our ears.
I turned to her. "Do you have any idea how bad this makes you look? Singapore Airlines is so inhumane that you think it is OK to leave a deafblind woman stranded in a remote corner with no access to help, or even access to a restroom, for five hours?? You guys are so stingy you won't put me in one of your lounges where you could leave me all day if you had to and I would be safe with minimum effort and expense on your part??"
"Ma'am, I am sorry," she said, and put her hand on my arm. "I understand, I really do." And I think she did. The poor girl was just following orders. "Is this place OK?" she asked.
"This is fine," I said, "as long as I know where the restroom is so I can get to it. And I need to know where and how I can ask for help if I need it."
"I will stay with you until your flight," she said, and then asked me if I wanted to get something to eat.
I told her I wasn't planning on getting dinner at the airport because I would be fed on the plane, and anyway I didn't have any Hong Kong dollars on me and didn't want to go through the trouble of changing any currency. But I would like to refill my water bottle.
She took it and brought if back full, and said she had vouchers for dinner. So I had dinner at the airport after all. It was good, too. I asked her to pick something out for me that she liked, and she brought me some kind of roasted pork with a spicy sauce, vegetables and rice. There's nothing like a good meal and a couple nice hot cups of tea to mollify a mighty wrath, and even though I was -- and still am -- angry and disgusted with Singapore Airlines, I appreciated how hard and sincerely the girl was trying to make things better for me.
Her name was Renee, and she was only 23 years old. We had quite a nice chat over the next few hours until it was time for me to board. "So you couldn't talk your bosses into letting me into one of the lounges but you got them to buy me dinner and mollify me, eh?" I asked her at one point.
"Well, yes," she admitted.
"Well, you did good," I told her. "I'm still mad at your bosses, but not at you."
So now I'm on the plane about half-way to California and home. And as my adventure draws to a close, the amazing thing to me is how things worked out so well even when -- especially when -- things seemed to go so wrong. Singapore Airlines was unbelievably unreasonable and inhumane in their attitude toward my need for special help, but I still got all the help I needed.
And somehow, my encounters with all the special people who helped, from Mayu to Mr. Amarasuriya and all the Lions, to Natalie and Renee and Prandy and his family, all add up to something much better and more important than if everything had gone just as I originally planned.