Braille Monitor January 1986
NINNESCAH is a magazine which is published primarily for the airline industry. Its editor is Ellis Reida. On October 9, 1985, Mr. Reida came to the National Center for the Blind in Baltimore to interview President Jernigan. He wanted to know what the controversy involving the airlines was all about. The interview appeared in the November-December, 1985, issue of NINNESCAH).
In fact, almost the entire issue of the magazine was taken up with the air line problem. First came an editorial by Mr. Reida, followed by the interview with President Jernigan. Here are the editorial and the interview:
What Do Blind People Really Want?
After reading the interview beginning on page two, readers may be tempted to dismiss Dr. Jernigan as a "fanatic," and thus that his arguments in general have little merit. This conclusion could be a mistake.
Almost certainly air carriers have missed two fundamental points in the position of the Federation of the Blind. They are that restrictions in service are unwarranted by the facts, and are a humiliation to a class of people.
It is illustrative that Dr. Jernigan constantly compares the problems of blind people in the United States to those of black people. This comparison seems central to Federation thinking. The first event in the civil rights struggle of black people in the United States also began with a transportation issue. In the fifties in Montgomery, Alabama, a boycott was launched against the city bus company, because black people had to sit in the backs of buses There was no question of denial of service, and the back of the bus got there as quickly as the front. The issue was that the forcing of a class of people to sit in certain areas was a violation of their civil rights.
The airlines have the argument of safety to justify restrictive seating, but the Federation insists that this principle is based on prejudicial thinking, and not on actual safety realities Dr. Jernigan's presentation probably is strongest when he attacks these assumptions. The
Federation position possibly might be made even stronger. To use only one example, recently the Association of Flight Attendants have complained that the permitting of excess baggage in the cabin is a safety hazard. On October 28, 1985, the New York Times had a lead article on the subject, and gave graphic descriptions of abuses. Reports concerning the recent tragedy at Manchester, England, indicated delays in evacuation because passengers tried to rescue cabin baggage.
Yet, the Air Transport Association is arguing against stricter regulation of cabin baggage. It is hard to escape the suspicion that the reason is that such restrictions would impact on a class of passenger about which the airlines have great financial concern, the business traveler.
Since the actual safety threat from a blind passenger in an exit row seems certainly no greater, and by all evidence much less, than the excess baggage of business travelers, the airlines seem open to the charge that they can be selectively concerned about safety, depending on what class of passenger is being restricted.
Dr. Jernigan is wrong in his belief that airlines are deliberately persecuting blind passengers. However, he is on firmer ground in charging that they approach the problem of safety in a haphazard way.
They need to give attention to this problem.
Blind Passengers and Air Travel: A Conversation With Dr. Kenneth Jernigan
Reida: Would you sum up the situation which exists for blind people today in air travel, as you see it? President Jernigan: I think that you have got to take it in phases. Back in the fifties and sixties blind people had no trouble flying at all. I guess that I, myself, flew perhaps a million miles in those days. If one needed any help, some member of the crew would give it. If one did not, there was no question. That doesn't mean that someone might not ask if you wanted to board ahead of time, and maybe you might decide to do so for some reason.
However, it didn't carry with it any idea of force or compulsion. The storing of the cane, for example, was an informal affair, which was worked out for the convenience of the passenger and the airline with no problem. It might be stored at the seat, or if you wanted, the "stewardess," as we called them in those days, might put it someplace else if you asked her.
Then the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was passed, and with it the requirements for affirmative action for the disabled. Certain things changed in the psychology of the airline industry. In the first place, more people were traveling. The airlines became (despite their propaganda) more like buses than the airlines of old. They became a means of mass transportation, and ceased to think of people as individuals, and more as a mass to be moved.
Also, the new requirements of attention to disabled people caused the airlines to begin to give thought to it. "We have a problem that we didn't know that we had." They began to feel that they had to prove to the government, the public, and maybe even a little to themselves, that they were conscious of the disabled and were setting up affirmative action programs.
Too, perhaps without actually realizing what they were doing, the airlines lumped all disabled people together, and thus each individual in a subgroup was considered to have all the problems of each person in each other subgroup. The composite of such lumping was the concept of a totally helpless individual who could scarcely travel outside the home, let alone go on an airplane.
This situation led first to an offer of assistance, then anger when the offer was not accepted, and a resistance to the refusal with the dodge that it is a matter of "safety."
As the lumping of all disabled occurred, and as blind people found themselves the objects of special attention, then airline personnel began to hunt for things which seemed to be problems. Maybe we had better preboard you because you will be a problem to me. You may block the aisles, or be trampled in the rush. You need time to seat yourself and get accustomed to the flight so it won't be a strain on you. There were preboarding, and postboarding, and the business of whether you could keep a cane at your seat. When blind people said "no" to conforming to the rules, it embarrassed the people who had made the offer. Hardening of attitudes and then confrontation developed. After a lawsuit it was decided that it really was not a "safety" matter, and yes, you could keep your cane at your seat.
We have now come to the point where the airlines have determined among themselves, maybe not in a straightout conspiracy but there is talk among airline personnel, that they are going to make an issue out of it and put blind people in their places. Blind persons have just about decided that they are not going to be put in their places, unless you regard their places as being the same kind of citizens as other people in this country. We ought not be subjected to humiliation, browbeating, and all the rest of it. I think that is where we are.
Reida: As I understand it, you feel much of the problem began with the passing of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, including Section 504 mandating all federal departments to issue regulations. The CAB issued such regulations in 1981, and the airlines then felt that they had to issue rules in this area...
President Jernigan: I don't think that is right. I don't think that 504 mandates the development of any rules for blind passengers. Some airlines, incidentally, have stated that, for the purposes of air travel, blind persons should not be regarded as disabled. There is no reason to develop special rules, and the problem is when you develop such special rules. If rules were developed for blacks on airplanes, it would open the door for anyone who wanted to discriminate, dominate, or custodialize blacks to do it. Only when you say that the blacks have the same rights as whites, that there shall be no special rules, only then do you have an incentive for equal treatment and for people to be able to pay their money and travel like anyone else. For the purposes of air travel, blind persons should not be different. Let them travel in peace.
Reida: Do you feel that blind people have any handicaps at all in traveling by air?
President Jernigan: I think that individual blind persons may have individual handicaps, as individual sighted persons do. However, overall the average blind person is no more limited in air travel than the average sighted person. You don't test sighted persons to see what their panic level is. You don't test them to see if they have heart conditions, nor any other problems. Most people in this country are not perfect in their physical and mental health.
The perfect person scarcely exists. Blind people, as a group, get along as well in traveling as sighted people, and mostly what they need is to be left alone. They might need to ask where the jetway is when boarding a plane, or where the next concourse is located. Individual blind persons may even need to ask someone to give them a hand in finding a concourse. This type of thing was never regarded as a problem in the fifties and sixties, and is not regarded as a problem now. Such things are only incidentals.
For every ten billion passenger miles, you have one person who gets killed on an airplane. In all of the history of air travel, with the tens of thousands of blind persons who have traveled by air, there has never been an accident in which there has been some difficulty caused by a blind person exiting, or anything else. It just has never happened.
Reida: Let's go to some specific points. Airline safety officers say that blind passengers cannot sit in the window seat of narrow bodied aircraft because passengers must be able to look out the window to see if a fire is outside before opening the window. What is your comment on this rule.
President Jernigan: You may have noted in the most recent issue of the Braille Monitor that a pilot testified that a blind person would not be a hazard in the exit row. In fact, he stated that the best situation would be for both a blind and a sighted passenger to be in the row.
I would say that it is conceivable that in full daylight, with no smoke in the plane, other exits perfectly safe to get out of, plenty of time to get out of them, a fire right outside the plane but not close enough that heat could be felt through the window--yet of such a nature that if you stepped out of the plane you might get burned--if the blind person was the only one in the exit row in such a situation, he or she might be at a disadvantage.
However, if you have a situation where it is dark (that happens), if the lights go out in the plane (that happens), if there is smoke enough in the plane to obscure the view (that happens)--if you had only sighted persons in the exit row, these sighted persons would be at a comparative disadvantage and a safety hazard. I do not observe the airlines doing anything about the safety issue in this situation. The only time on record that a passenger even opened a window when there were flames outside, was when a sighted person did it.
In this context I would like to say something else. The person who is able to get off the plane first in an emergency has the greatest chance of survival. Now, blind persons do not say that they should be the first off the plane. But there are rules made by some airlines which require that they sit in the window seat along the fuselage, and as far as possible from the exit row so they will not be a hindrance to other passengers.
It is not right to say to blind persons, "Other lives are more precious than yours. We will come to get you when everybody else has got off." The airline knows that the FAA says that if you are more than ninety seconds in getting off the plane, you may not get off. What kind of safety are we talking about? What kind of standard of humanity is it that says that you may ride on the plane, but we insist that you always have the greatest risk of getting killed. You are prohibited from even having the luck of the draw in having equal chance to get out alive. That's not fair.
Reida: Let's go to the floor level emergency exit, where aviation safety experts say that the three occupants of the exit row must operate as a team during a planned emergency exit, and that a blind person would have difficulty functioning as a part of that team.
President Jernigan: Blindness is not a factor in this situation. But there are some things that are. Women are allowed to sit in such exit rows. However, women (on an average) are not as physically strong as men.
Also, people who are sitting in the exit row and have been drinking are not as capable of functioning as those who have not been drinking. Yet, the airlines repeatedly, consistently, and as a knowing act serve liquor to persons sitting in exit rows until they are intoxicated, and sometimes even pass out drunk. Therefore, safety surely cannot be very high on their list.
On the other side of the question: If the lights are out, or there is smoke in the plane, a blind person might be indispensible because he or she is trained in the techniques of functioning without light. In such a situation, the average blind person would have a great advantage over the average sighted person. It is much more likely that it will be dark, or that the lights will be out, or smoke in the cabin, than that a blind person will have difficulty opening a door or that there will be a flame immediately outside.
Reida: Some of these arguments seem persuasive. Why do you feel that the airlines have not understood. Is it a problem of communication?
President Jernigan: It is not a matter of communication. We might like to think that it is. It is a matter of pride, a need to feel superior, a lot of things. The airlines would have you believe that, except in unusual circumstances, they don't serve liquor in sufficient amounts to anyone to make them drunk.
That is absolutely false. On any airline that you wish, you can get all the liquor that you want. I have never seen anyone refused a drink on an airline because they were drunk. It happens on every flight in this country. It is not random. On every flight - literally every flight - you will find people who are drunk on the airlines. Since this situation affects the ability of everyone to get off the plane in an emergency, you would think that the airlines would have the decency not to argue about safety. Or alternatively, not to serve liquor to passengers in exit rows.
However, they deliberately and knowingly do it. I tell you that the average blind person has no greater problem getting off that plane than the average sighted person. However, I think that there is no one in his or her right mind who would argue that the average drunk person is as able to get off as easily as the average sober person. That is just insanity.
So to come to the question--why the hoopla? What is it? I think that it is this. Everybody needs to feel superior to somebody. Airline personnel are no exception. Everybody loves blind persons as long as they stay in their places, and are grateful when they are given things, and are very humble and bow their heads, and perhaps cry a little, and perhaps sing a religious song for you.
But when blind people begin to say: "No, we're citizens. We don't want to be unreasonable or militant, but we have the same rights as other Americans. We do not wish to be the objects of your charity and pity. More to the point, we don't want to serve as the means of slaving your conscience for the mangy things that you may have done. We want to pay our money and fly like anyone else and be left alone to do it." When we take that attitude, you are going to find resentment on the part of airline personnel because they love to custodialize and feel superior, to show that they are able to boss somebody. For example, you will have airline personnel who will come to you and insist that you read an instruction booklet in Braille. If you don't, they will threaten and try to intimidate you. A blind man is sitting minding his own business when a flight attendant comes up and demands that he demonstrate and prove that he knows how to fasten his seat belt.
Reida: You feel that a major part of the problem is a certain arrogance on the part of airline personnel, a feeling of superiority, and a desire to custodialize blind people?
President Jernigan: I believe that everybody has a need to feel superior to others. A lot of people deny this, but it is a natural human trait. We try to keep it in check by a system of laws, traditions, and a lot of things.
But there are certain groups that are fair game. You give charity to people that you feel superior to. People tend not to understand that about themselves. Also, airlines cloak what they do in all kinds of high-sounding phrases. Safety is the modern "buzzword." If you are required to sit in a bulkhead seat, it is a matter of safety. If you are required to preboard, it is a matter of safety. If you are required to post board, it is a matter of safety. If you are required not to sit in the exit row, it is a matter of safety. If you are required to sit in an aisle seat, it is a matter of safety. If you are required to sit in a window seat, it is a matter of safety. If you are required to sit in the back of the plane, it is a matter of safety.
Recently an airline made a rule that not only could blind people not sit in the exit row, but they could not sit in the row immediately before or immediately after the exit row. It was a matter of safety. Then, after discussion with the National Federation of the Blind, they said that they would remove the prohibition against blind people's sitting in the rows immediately before or after the exit row "as a concession" to us.
Well, was it a matter of safety or not? To remove it just to please us-- what does that say? That you don't care about safety? Or, if you get pressured a little bit, you disregard safety? Or does it mean that it never was a matter of safety, and you put the rule in because someone thought it was a matter of safety?
Or did you base your judgment on what sighted persons could do if they closed their eyes? When the airlines wanted to test how well blind people could exit a plane, they got sighted people, and had them blindfold themselves to simulate blind people. That's crazy. Blind people know something about techniques that sighted people blindfolded would be helpless to emulate.
Reida: Is there an alternate possible explanation for why airline personnel may have the attitude that they do? Being sighted, they share the general feeling that to lose one's sight is a terrible handicap, and thus blind people have a serious handicap. To offer help, therefore, may not be from a sense of superiority, but rather as a perception of need.
President Jernigan: It's the same thing, isn't it? You don't offer to help someone unless you feel superior to them. You don't offer to help people who are in as strong a position as you. It is a matter of airline personnel wanting to custodialize people and feel superior to them. If a flight attendant is rebuffed in an attempt to mother someone, it is sort of embarrassing. She is likely to lash out.
No group ever goes from second-class status to first-class citizenship without going through a period of hostility. It happened to the blacks. It happened in the women's movement. It happened with the Irish in this country. No group ever goes from subservience to full status in society without having people dislike them.
Reida: Recently a flight training instructor indicated that sometimes new employees, especially, will follow rules too literally out of a sense of insecurity. Do you feel that in such a case the attendant is being superior? President Jernigan: You are just putting it a different way. Look, your name is Reida. Suppose that we separate out all the people whose names begin with "R" and paint stripes on them, not to despise them, but so we can pity them. We make special rules for these people. Maybe the rules are not justified, but we think so. We also have a lot of people who are very literal at interpreting rules. They're new. They may have difficulty, but they mean well. Have patience with them. We are going to restrict you to certain seats and make you prove in general that you are not a menace to society. How would you like it?
Reida: I understand.
President Jernigan: The answer is--you wouldn't like it.
Reida: That's right.
President Jernigan: And we don't like it either.
Reida: The reason that I posed the question is not whether I--or you--would like it, but whether it makes any difference in strategy in changing something, if the motivations of the persons you wish to change are different. President Jernigan: The reason that we have laws is so we can take the whim out of people's treatment of each other. It is an attempt to regulate and mitigate prejudice. You see, ultimately it would be better if you did not look down on blacks. It would be better if you did not feel the urge to try to dominate and bully. It would be better if you felt in your heart that it was not worth considering the differences between blacks and whites. Nevertheless, we have to have laws to deal with people like you, if that is the way you feel. Laws are not made to deal with majority situations.
Also, mostly people don't want to go out and kill each other. There are laws to take care of the minority who will want to do that. There are laws against burglary. Mostly, you are not going to go around and steal your neighbor's property. But if there were no laws against it, you probably would be encouraged to do so, and we all would be a lot less civilized. So we must have laws to take care of you if you have the urge to treat people in ways that you shouldn't.
We are going to do a number of things to change the situation. We are going to spark Congressional hearings. Also, we are going to bring this situation to the attention of the public. We have been long-suffering to a fault. We are going to raise the conscience and the consciousness of both the public and of blind persons. Blind persons, incidentally, are not uniform in their feelings about all this, as with any minority. You can find blacks who are willing to be just as subservient as they have been thought to be--as the stereotype dictates--less so today because there has been a long period of conscience raising.
We will raise consciences by public education. We will be sure to be aware of these things within ourselves. We will do it by laws. And selectively and reluctantly we will do it by confrontation. All four of these elements are essential.
Reida: Following up on this topic, you had an interesting quote in the Braille Monitor. You said, "We will win in the courts if we can--in the streets and in the forum of public opinion if we must." President Jernigan: That's right. Reida: Now you have just had a setback in the court with a verdict against you in the US Air case.
President Jernigan: Minor. Incidental. Minor. We expect to lose most of them. One is all we have to win.
Reida: You will continue, reluctantly, to engage in confrontation? President Jernigan: Of course. The reason that we will engage in confrontation is not because somebody is going to go out and plan to have a confrontation. Did you read the letters in the Braille Monitor?
President Jernigan: You will notice that in the most dramatic event detailed in those letters the lady in question, after listening to the banquet speech at our convention, got to thinking about it. She had had to move twice before from an exit row seat when she had been so ordered. It hurt her. It humiliated her inside to be publicly hauled up and told that she had to move, when she knew that she shouldn't have to. That time she just couldn't do it.
So, unless we are prepared to say to our members, "You do not deserve equal treatment. Whatever anybody does to you, you must submit and tell them that you are grateful." Unless we are prepared to do that, we are going to have confrontations. When we say to blind persons that we are as capable of being as productive, good, and effective as other citizens, we deserve the same kind of treatment. When we do that, some blind people out there are going to decide that they have had enough. It was what happened with the blacks. It is what will happen with the blind. Reida: Some other organizations of the blind are giving the airlines the impression that they are not doing so badly. Doesn't this create some confusion?
President Jernigan: What kind of organization is it? A very small organization which claims to be a big one, but if you would go to one of its conventions, you would see.
Reida: There is an organization for the blind offering consultation to one of the large airlines.
President Jernigan: That is the American Foundation for the Blind. It is not a membership organization, but an agency. It totals only about 100 plus people. It is made up of paid staff.
Reida: Still, to the outsider there seems a lot of fuss and turmoil. How do you approach the problem of the blind organizations disagreeing with each other, and thus maybe making it difficult for the airlines, as an example, to sort out who is right, and who isn't?
President Jernigan: America has the same problem with its foreign policy. The farmers have this problem with agricultural policy. Whether it is good or bad, you can't expect every blind person in the country to agree with every other olind person. But beyond that, there is a strange concept abroad in the land. It wouldn't work in any other area, but people seem to want it to work with blindness. It shows what people think about blindness. It used to be the same with blacks. Let's start with the blacks. People used to think that if any black person could be found to disagree with what, at that time, the NAACP was doing, it showed that blacks could be ignored, that they were in disarray and didn't know what they wanted. I got a black here who says he wants something else. Or take the automobile business. You've got the car makers on one side. That is one force, no matter what you call it. On the other side is the United Automobile Workers. Their interests may be the same in some areas, but in others they may not.
The American Foundation for the Blind has a vested interest in having blind people appear to be dependent. They live on the notion that they are taking care of blind people, not blind people taking care of themselves. If they have a blind person on their staff as a spokesman, it still doesn't change what I'm talking about.
Let's go back to the black analogy. If you have a black in the government, that black cannot speak for other blacks unless other blacks elected him or her. The fact that he or she is black doesn't change that fact.
The only major, truly representative organization of blind people in the United States is the National Federation of the Blind. Yes, you also have the American Council of the Blind. However, it is a much smaller organization which is dominated and controlled by the governmental and private agencies doing work. for the blind.
I think that the attempt of airlines to get somebody who says they represent the blind, to take a counter view from ours, is an attempt to divert attention from the real problems that we are dealing with.
These problems won't go away because of that. One airline tried to hold a conference of such blind participants to try to "put the quash" on all this business, by making it appear that the National Federation of the Blind was an outside group, a bunch of little, sore headed militants, and a small group. That's all very fine, but the thousands and thousands of blind people who travel are getting enough of this, and nobody is going to make them be second class citizens. That is what has to be addressed.
Reida: Do I understand you to state that airlines have sought out other organizations, just to counter your efforts?
President Jernigan: I said that. It is my belief and understanding that they did that, and that the only reason that they stopped is that they might have been advised that it might be illegal to do it. That constitutes conspiracy.
Reida: I'm not trying to ask "hard" questions, per se, but rather am trying to get at the core of some of the differences which seem to exist.
President Jernigan: I don't mind if they are hard. I'm answering them the same way.
Reida: I have one more. There is the question of language which is sometimes used by the National Federation of the Blind. The use of certain adjectives...
President Jernigan: Look, before you tell me what it is, the language that we use is carefully thought out. We stand by it. We mean exactly what we said. We understood what we said. Whatever it is, if we said it, we meant it.
Reida: I understand. But from the point of view of pragmatism...
President Jernigan: We are pragmatists.
Reida: That I believe. However, to quote one example. You had Mr. Shane (Mr. Jeffrey Shane, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy and International Affairs, of the Department of Transportation) at your convention in Louisville...
President Jernigan: He thought that he had us.
Reida: ...and he is in a position to effect change.
President Jernigan: Which doesn't mean that we are afraid of him. He is a public servant, not a master. Reida: I understand that, but in discussing him and his comments in the Braille Monitor, such words are used as "lame remarks..."
President Jernigan: I said that, I believe. They were lame.
Reida: ...that his remarks were of the same caliber as the rest of his reasoning-President Jernigan: That's right. His reasoning was shallow. And not only that but, in my opinion, it was arrogant and high-handed. Add those to the adjectives. I said that, and I mean that.
Reida: I'm not trying to collect adjectives from you. I'm trying to get to a different point.
President Jernigan: You want me to see if I can't soften it up.
Reida: No, that is not the point I am getting at. Rather, my question is focused on what is the most efficient way for you to reach your goals. President Jernigan: My goals won't be achieved by going hat in hand and begging.
Reida: The Braille Monitor says, "When he reads this, he will join his colleague, Mr. Murdock, in throwing a temper tantrum."
President Jernigan: That's right, temper tanrum! Murdock threw an absolute temper tantrum like a four-year-old child. A three-year-old would not have been capable of so much violence, and a five-year-old would have been capable of better judgment.
Reida: Now, your goals, as I understand them, are to get rid of prejudices which affect blind people and to get rid of the restrictions which prohibit blind people from living a full and complete life, without being bothered. In order to do this, you need to reach, educate, and secure the cooperation of a lot of decision makers in this country who have a role in some of these problems. Mr. Shane would seem to be one of these people. You not only take issue with some of his comments, a legitimate thing to do, but also, it seems to me, you denigrate his intelligence, his honesty, and indicate that he is childish. From a pragmatic point of view, when he reads the Braille Monitor...
President Jernigan: I sent it to him. I intended him to read it.
Reida: Aren't you putting him in a position where it will be more difficult to reach him, educate him to your point of view, and influence him?
President Jernigan: What do you think that we need from him? Shane is not going to be our friend. He is not going to do justly by us unless he is made to do it.
He sat in on a conference with us about a year ago and promised to do things which he didn't do. I won't say he lied. Let's just say that he forgot what he promised to do. That is the kindest way to put it.
And, furthermore, he tried to threaten some of our people. He said I don't want any highjinks out there at the airport. Notice that he said I don't want any highjinks. If I find out that you are out there trying to block any planes, I will be the first one to come out there and see if I can get you arrested. I--I--I. Well, that's tough. We answer it We, We, We. In other words, I don't know whether Shane is an honest man or not. He doesn't behave in a way that I would like to see an honest man behave.
Reida: It isn't my intention to focus on Mr. Shane, per se, except as an illustration of the rhetoric of the National Federation of the Blind, which has sometimes been commented on. You point out that such language is carefully considered and deliberate.
President Jernigan: Absolutely. We say what we mean, and know what we say.
Reida: I want to thank you for the time that you have taken to talk to me. It has already been more than scheduled. I wonder if you might sum up with a final comment?
President Jernigan: Blindness does not mean dehumanization. We live in refutation of it every day. All of us are coming to realize that the problem is not blindness, but mistaken attitudes. What blind people need most is admission to the main channels of daily life and citizenship. Not custody and care, but understanding and acceptance. Give us that, and we will do the rest for ourselves.
We are neither more nor less than normal people who cannot see, and that is how we intend to be treated. We want no strife or confrontation, but we have learned the power of collective action, and we will do what we have to do to achieve first-class status. We are simply no longer willing to be second-class citizens.