Train announcements are hell for me as a Deaf person, but still, they should stay

In our new post, Liam O’Dell describes his personal experiences of navigating the rail system as a deaf person, and his thoughts on the proposed cutting back of announcements and real-time information.

Deaf woman waiting for a train to stop

A Common Experience

It was on the way back from reviewing a theatre show that it happened, and funnily enough the access failures from train staff on-board were so farcical, the whole situation felt like it came from an auditorium too.

The train had broken down, and the only way that this was being communicated to us was through a garbled tannoy announcement from a member of train staff who perhaps lacked a certain confidence when it comes to public speaking. That, or the sudden change in the normal routine has left them as flustered as it has made me.

Fortunately, I could just about make out the individual telling all passengers that the lights were going off before it happened. I dread to think how a Deaf British Sign Language (BSL) user would have understood what was going on, or indeed reacted, when they wouldn’t have been able to hear the announcement about the lights. They would have been distressed, in almost complete darkness, unable to communicate well due to the lights being out.

After airing all my grievances above about how horrifically inaccessible tannoy announcements are to Deaf people like me, you’d think I’d be overjoyed at any steps to reduce them, right?

No. Quite the opposite, in fact.

An empty train station

What is in the News?

If you missed the news over the weekend, the plans to cut down on “tannoy spam” were unveiled by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps on Friday, when he said passengers are “all too often plagued by an endless torrent of repeated and unnecessary announcements”.

“That’s why I’m calling for a bonfire of the banalities to bring down the number of announcements passengers are forced to sit through and make their journey that little bit more peaceful,” he said.

Examples of the “banal announcements” which face the scrap are what the Department for Transport (DfT) considers “self-evident instructions” – advice which includes instructions such as having tickets ready when leaving the train and keeping volume levels low.

The principal issue with this proposal is that these announcements are relied upon by blind and visually impaired people. While it may not be the most accessible medium to us Deaf people, that does not grant us the right to take away an access provision from another group in our shared disability community. The solution is to create an information infrastructure where measures which benefit Deaf and blind people separately can co-exist.

It’s also worth investigating just what exactly the DfT is implying by an instruction being “self-evident” – in what sense is the situation “self-evident”, and if the answer is that you would expect to have to use a ticket barrier in the station in order to leave it, then you would be correct, but how would a blind or visually impaired person know when the train is pulling in outside of the arrival times on their mobile phone?

The news release goes on to mention that “there will also be new curbs on the maximum frequency at which remaining announcements will be heard”, but trust me when I say that, as a Deaf person, these inaccessible announcements certainly don’t need a maximum limit on how loud they are. They’re shockingly quiet to begin with.

Main waiting for a train

Rushing winds from open windows and the gentle hum of an engine are just two things which play their part to drown out the automated announcements, which can even be garbled through the speaker system. I’m reminded of something a DeafBlind friend of mine mentioned to me recently about amplification, and that’s that volume and clarity are not the same thing, and do not complement each other. If a voice is quiet and mumbly, boosting the frequency only makes that grumbling white noise louder, rather than clearer.

What the Department for Transport have correctly recognised is that there is an over-reliance on audio-based information when travelling, and certainly during delays. I’ve had station staff shout distorted information about some disruption to my journey through a megaphone, details which were impossible to make out from the other end of the station platform.

I could have asked another commuter what was said, but that doesn’t scream independence, and I’ve had my requests brushed off or laughed at before – which I’ve assumed was because of the British anxiety and awkwardness around not saying anything at all to anyone in these crowded environments.

Anyway, I digress. Is there a tendency for station staff and train companies to immediately adopt an audio-first approach to rail information? Absolutely. Does that mean audio announcements should be scaled back altogether? Absolutely not.

In this instance, we really need more information, not less.

More specifically, we really need an equal and comprehensive approach to travel info – not just tannoy announcements, but text communications for Deaf people like myself. If a train breaks down and the tannoy system is useless, I have no idea what’s going on. Screen displays often glitch, go offline or are turned off altogether during disruption, and those displays are essential to me as a Deaf and autistic person when it comes to keeping to targets.

Let’s get that sorted instead.

Who’s Voice is Being Heard?

The DfT’s proposals honestly just seem like another instance of a vocal minority of non-disabled people whinging about accessibility being inconvenient (akin to an on-screen BSL interpreter being ‘distracting’) and demanding it be removed.

Go put your headphones on or scroll Twitter, Timothy.

What’s also concerning is the fact that the review – to take place “over the course of this year” – will identify “redundant messages” and start to remove them in “the coming months”.

Disability groups will be contacted, of course, but what concerns me is who defines “redundant”? If a bunch of non-disabled civil servants at the Department for Transport are responsible, even if they consult with these groups, then it’s a cause for concern. Redundant, by definition, refers to something which is “no longer useful”, but if it’s still useful to one disabled person, I’d argue that that’s a reason for them to stay.

As Mick Lynch, general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT) perfectly puts it, “no one has ever complained about receiving too much information about rail services”. Information aids accessibility, which fosters inclusion and independence – we shouldn’t really be stifling that.

Focus on the Real Issues

A far more pressing issue related to rail accessibility is ensuring all information is communicated across different platforms. Screen displays are often faulty or out of action (meaning I have to send several six-digit numbers to their team on Twitter to get it reported), and disruption is only often communicated on social media or audio announcements. If a Deaf person doesn’t have a social media account, I’m not too sure what they’re encouraged to do.

The real issue at the heart of our inaccessible rail system is attitudes and effective communication – both internally and externally. I assume there’s a tendency for rail staff to use megaphones or tannoy announcements to share information about delays because that’s far easier than figuring out how to display the information in several paragraphs on departure boards or train screens. Cutting corners on access, however, is simply lazy, and benefits no one.

Similarly, a collapse in internal communications when it comes to booking assistance means that wheelchair users are unable to get off at their desired stop because a ramp wasn’t ready for them. If we’re going to talk about poor communication, let’s look at the frankly shocking situation happening internally.

It isn’t just our trains which are breaking down; it’s the communication between rail staff, too.

Let’s not make the UK’s rail infrastructure – which is already dire for Deaf and disabled people – even worse by removing accessibility measures. Instead, it’s time to go much further to overhaul travel communications as a whole.

We must end rail’s overreliance on audio and make travel information truly multiplatform. If the Transport Secretary wants to get rid of the “banalities” of the rail network, then reducing inaccessibility – not increasing it – is a good place to start.

Liam O’Dell is a freelance journalist and campaigner specialising in deafness, disability and social media. He is a regular contributor to the Deaf news blog The Limping Chicken and his work has also been featured in The Stage, HuffPost,, The i and The Independent. He recently won the Young Freelancer Award at the Freelancer Awards for his coverage of the #WhereIsTheInterpreter campaign.

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