Braille Monitor                                                                  August-September 1985

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Air Travel and the Blind

An Address Delivered
by Marc Maurer
At the Convention of the
National Federation of the Blind
Louisville, Kentucky, July 3, 1985

Within the past year two blind people, Judy Sanders and Russell Anderson, have been arrested on airplanes. Neither of them was causing a disturbance, and neither of them was intoxicated. Their only offense was that in the random seat selection process they had taken seats in emergency exit rows--and that they are blind. When airline officials demanded that they move and accept different seats (something not required of others), they refused.

This year the incidents leading to arrest involved exit row seating. In years past, as the blind of the nation know, the reasons trotted out by the airlines have been different. Sometimes the blind have been removed from planes because they would not give up their canes. Sometimes arrest has come because blind people with dog guides would not submit to segregated seating in the bulkhead row. The reasons put forward by the airlines for their treatment of the blind have changed, but the pattern of intimidation has not. The blind want the same freedom that others have--to travel without restriction, without hindrance, without embarrassment, without confrontation, and without discrimination. It has been inordinately difficult to achieve this eminently simple and reasonable wish.

Whenever a restriction is placed upon the blind or whenever a special rule is created for the ostensible benefit of blind passengers, there is always a predictable rationale advanced by the airlines. It is not, the airlines tell us, discrimination or segregation--it is only a matter of "safety." The Federal Aviation Administration (the FAA) is charged with creating safety rules for the airlines. Several years ago the FAA tried to write rules for the handicapped through the governmental rulemaking process, subject to public scrutiny and the safeguards of due process. Apparently the FAA couldn't make such rules. Instead, it adopted a regulation at 15 CFR 121.586, which turned this function over to the airlines. This regulation, published under the revealing title: "Authority to Refuse Transportation," states that an air carrier may not deny transportation to the handicapped-- unless the airline has previously adopted a rule which authorizes the denial. Predictably, the airlines responded by making of this "carrying the blind" passenger mysterious and complex.

The airlines wrote restrictive policies and sent them to the FAA. The FAA approved the policies and sent them back. Then, the airline tells its blind passengers that it (the airline) is required to take certain steps and required to impose certain restrictions, because this is in accordance with FAA regulations. It has become tiresomely familiar to the blind that both the airlines and the FAA attempt to dodge responsibility for the restrictive and discriminatory rules which are practiced against the blind. The FAA says that there are no federal regulations restricting the carriage of the blind. However, airline policies approved by the FAA include such practices as required preboarding, required seating in bulkhead row seats, required seating only in window seats, required seating in the rear of the aircraft, required postboarding, and exclusion from emergency exit row seats. The airlines say that the Federal Aviation Administration required them to adopt rules for carrying blind passengers, and the Federal Aviation Administration approved the rules they adopted--and it's only a matter of safety.

These rules are adopted despite the complete lack of evidence substantiating the claims of airline officials. There has never been an incident in which a blind person contributed to an injury on a plane or delayed an evacuation. The basic assumption upon which these rules are based is completely erroneous. All of the available evidence shows that blind people handle themselves in emergency evacuations as well as sighted people do.

These cases involving arrest of blind people are the most egregious, but there are dozens of others. People Express Airlines, one of the carriers which insisted that blind people be arrested, told Mary Ellen Reihing that she could be seated only in a window seat. People Express made it clear. By placing blind people in the window seat, they will always be the last to evacuate in an emergency. This makes it safer for the sighted.

Then, there is Southwest Airlines. Because Southwest wants to insure that blind passengers are seated in the proper place, it has adopted a policy which requires blind people to board ahead of other passengers. They said it was simply a matter of following Federal Aviation Administration regulations. In order to keep aisleways clear, they said they must board blind people before everyone else. Do they really mean it? Would any airline adopt, let alone enforce, such a regulation? Can the time of boarding really have anything to do with safety? The airline made its answer in an incident which occurred to Margo Downey and Harvey Heagy less than a year ago. Southwest Airlines requested that they preboard, and they declined. Margo, who uses a dog, and Harvey, who carries a cane, told Southwest that they would board with the other passengers. When it came time for the passengers to board, Margo and Harvey were forcibly prevented from stepping onto the jetway. Southwest told them that Southwest policies required preboarding. Failure to preboard meant that they could not fly. And, again, it is only a matter of "safety."

If a plane crashes, survival may depend very largely upon the speed of the evacuation. If there is fire inside the cabin, seconds count. Blind people are kept out of emergency evacuation rows, because the airlines say that the blind will slow down the evacuation. If the assumption is true, then the rule is reasonable. If the assumption is false, then the rule is discrimination. What is the basis for the assumption?

Until April 3, 1985, no empirical data had been gathered about the capacity of the blind to evacuate aircraft. The airlines and the FAA conducted certain tests to see if blind people could evacuate safely. In these tests, were there any blind people? No. Blind people were not evacuated, because they might be injured. Instead, simulated blind people were used. The bias, which assumes that the blind are less competent than the sighted, is so much a part of airline thinking that even when the tests were conducted to determine the capacity of the blind, a disadvantage was built in. The officials conducting these evacuations conducted the tests in such a way that they guaranteed poor results. No person can be blindfolded for a moment or an hour and expect to possess the skills of the ordinary blind person. It is true that the ordinary blind person can do the ordinary job in the ordinary place of business as well as his or her sighted neighbor if he or she has training and opportunity. However, a blind person who has become blind just ten minutes ago has no training, no understanding, and no experience with blindness. Such a person is very likely to regard blindness as synonymous with helplessness. It is as reasonable to think that a blindfold will teach the skills of blindness as it is to think that a pilot's uniform will teach the skills of flying.

On April 3, 1985, an event occurred which demonstrates the capacity of blind people to handle themselves in an evacuation. Thirty people, twenty of them blind, went to the Baltimore-Washington International Airport and boarded a DC10. These people went through an evacuation. When this evacuation was complete, the demonstration was made. Blind people handle an evacuation in the same way sighted people do. There was the same amount of nervousness and anxiety, the same willingness to help, the same desire to get it right, and the same characteristics of physical coordination and athletics that are shown in the population at large. One airline official who observed the evacuation remarked that it appeared to be the same as all others. Blind people are not slower, less capable of handling themselves, or a greater danger than others. This is what the demonstration taught.

But it taught something else. The problem with the demonstration was not with the blind but with the sighted airline officials. Those airline officials, who had charge of the DC-10, told blind people that the evacuation would be conducted in exactly the same way that the evacuation would have been conducted if only sighted people were involved. However, when the actual evacuation got under way, this was simply not the case. Sighted airline officials attempted to help blind people more than they would have helped the sighted. They got in the way. Blind people were prevented from reaching the exit, because (in their attempts to help) airline officials blocked the space. Although the evacuation time for the blind was good, it could have been better still. By getting in the way and offering more help than was necessary, the airline officials slowed the evacuation and prevented the participants from getting out as fast as they would have without interference. In other words, the age-old stereotype of blindness prevented this demonstration from being an accurate measure of the capabilities of blind people to evacuate from a plane. Even when these airline officials sought to have a completely objective demonstration of the capabilities of blind people in exiting, their prejudices about the abilities of the blind betrayed them. The members of the National Federation of the Blind who participated in this evacuation did well. The airline officials, who brought their prejudices with them, did not. Most of the arguments which are made can be characterized as idiotic.

Blind people will not block an emergency exit or have more trouble than sighted people. The blind, after all, are not wider than the sighted.

However, there is one argument which has some superficial appeal. It is this: If a blind person were seated in an emergency exit row, and if the plane went down, and if there were fire or smoke outside the emergency exit, a blind person might not know this. That blind person might open the emergency exit, permitting smoke or fire to enter the cabin. This would increase the danger to the passengers inside. According to airline officials, an emergency exit was once opened when there was smoke or fire on the wing outside. The exit was opened by a sighted person.

If a blind person is seated in an emergency exit row and if there is an emergency, there are circumstances in which blindness would be an advantage. At least half of the time it is night. Planes fly whether it is dark or light. If it is dark or there is smoke inside the cabin, the blind person will be able to handle the emergency better than a sighted person.

It is reported that there will be smoke inside the cabin in approximately fifteen percent of the emergency situations requiring evacuation. The danger to passengers has been greatly increased because they were unable to see in the smoke. Despite the fact that blind people are far more capable of working competently in darkness than the sighted, the airlines persist in saying that the blind may not sit in emergency exit rows--and it is only a matter of safety.

Of course, this misses the whole point. The airlines' protestations that this is simply a matter of "safety" are not true. Safety is not the prime concern of the airlines. Of more importance to them are their profits and their status. They want a glowing image in the mind of the public, and they want to make money. If the airlines were really concerned with safety, they would not sell liquor to passengers in emergency exit row seats.

Jeff and Zena Pearcy are blind people from Texas. Within the last year they boarded a plane and sat in an emergency exit row. Airline officials came and told them they must move from their seats. They refused. After considerable discussion, the airline officials backed down, and Jeff and Zena Pearcy remained in their emergency exit row seats. They were seated in the aisle and the middle seats of the emergency exit row. A sighted man sat in the window seat. He had been drinking heavily. Indeed, he had drunk so much that he had lost consciousness and could not be roused. In fact, this sighted man slept through his stop. He continued on the flight to another city, although he had no wish to go there and although he had no ticket. This man, insensible with drink and immediately next to the emergency exit, was not told to move. The Pearcys, because of their blindness, were instructed that they must move.

It is not a matter of safety. It is something much worse and much uglier. It is the old need to assert superiority and strive for status. The drinking public cannot be dominated. There are too many people who drink. There are not as many blind people. Perhaps, in the minds of airline officials, they think it is easier to dominate us. The question remains: What shall the blind do? We have written to the airlines, we have discussed this problem over and ever again. We have faced harassment and belittlement. There has been confrontation. Some of us have been arrested. There are several lawsuits pending. We have talked about shutting down an airline. We had a demonstration at Washington National Airport against V.S. Air. U.S. Air flies to Louisville, where this convention is being held. It would be no problem to bring the force of the Federation to bear against this airline.

When Russell Anderson was arrested, a suit was brought against U.S. Air. In responding to some of the papers, U.S. Air said: "This whole business was a pretext for publicity over a trivial incident." This demonstrates the mammoth misunderstanding of the airlines.

When the independence of the blind is seized, and when control of the lives of blind people is demanded, this is not trivial. Take away independence, and you take away with it the possibility of a good job and a free life.

The airlines cannot continue to take authority over the lives of the blind. Domination and control will not be tolerated. I hope that reason can replace prejudice and that fairness can replace bias in our dealings with the airlines. There is one thing I know. The blind will not forever tolerate arrogance, insensitivity, and presumption.