Braille Monitor August-September 1985
The story is told that when George III was on the throne in the 1700's and England ventured forth to the far frontiers, an English officer found his way to the Imperial Court of China. He asked for an audience with the emperor and was told that he could have it if he would kowtow. He asked what it meant and was told that he must approach the emperor walking. Then, at a certain distance he must get down on his knees. Still closer he must get on his belly and crawl. For the last few feet he must put out his tongue and lick the dirt. That was to "kowtow." After some reflection, he said that he would do it if a Chinese officer of comparable rank would kowtow to a picture of George, III, which he conveniently happened to have with him. I do not know whether the kowtowing ever occurred.
When Jeffrey Shane, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy and International Affairs of the federal Department of Transportation, spoke at the convention of the National Federation of the Blind in Louisville this summer, he counseled patience and understanding. The Federal Aviation Administration, he said, should not make a rule prohibiting discrimination against the blind. The matter should be left for the airlines and the blind to negotiate. You can't make people do things, Mr. Shane told us. The blind will have to convince the airlines. The problem, we kept telling Mr. Shane, is the very existence of any special rules or regulations affecting the blind. What we want is to be allowed to pay our money and travel in peace like anybody else. If we are singled out for special treatment, every airline employee who feels the urge will try to custodialize and bully us.
When Peggy Pinder (blind Federationist and lawyer, who lives in Iowa) left the convention to fly home she could not, in her wildest imaginings, have dreamed that she would encounter the kind of irrational abuse and harassment which she received from an Ozark Airlines flight attendant. She was badgered, lied to, and threatened with a fine--and for what? Because she would not read (or pretend to read) a Braille copy of a brochure which the flight attendant brought her, or alternatively answer a quiz. AND ALL IN THE NAME OF SAFETY. Yes, there is such a thing as selective insanity.
Miss Pinder wrote a letter to Mr. Shane, giving the details of what happened. Her letter was dated July 23, 1985. Mr. Shane called her on the evening of August 21, 1985. He began by apologizing for waiting a month to do it, saying that the letter had been lost in the mazes of his office and had just been brought to his attention. Mr. Shane's proposed remedies for the treatment Miss Pinder received demonstrate that he learned little at our convention, and perhaps is incapable of learning.
He said that this was doubtless an isolated instance and that it had simply been Miss Pinder's misfortune to encounter somebody with a "screw loose." Miss Pinder patiently explained to him (as we had repeatedly done at the convention) that the very issue we are raising is the fact that this sort of conduct is not an isolated issue. (The correspondence reprinted elsewhere in this issue of the Monitor gives ample evidence of the truth of our contention.) Mr. Shane seemed bewildered by it all and kept saying that he didn't know why blind people had to keep repeating their personal horror stories.
When he got past this first issue, Mr. Shane had a few other suggestions. He thought that if we could gather evidence that foreign airlines have no special rules or requirements concerning the blind, airlines in this country (who are, according to Mr. Shane, much impressed by the safety records of the foreign companies) might relent. He indicated that he might try to gather such information but made it clear that it was very low on his list of priorities.
Finally, Mr. Shane told Miss Pinder that she could have prevented the entire incident by simply doing what the flight attendant demanded. Yes, she could have, but there comes a time when humanity itself is diminished by demeaning submission. We do not live in Imperial China. Perhaps one of us might be willing to kowtow if Mr. Shane would reciprocate in the presence of a suitable portrait. Here is Peggy Pinder's letter:
Sioux City, Iowa
July 23, 1985
Mr. Jeffrey N. Shane
Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy and International Affairs
Department of Transportation
Dear Mr. Shane:
As every blind traveler these days must, I entered the Louisville Airport on my way home from the convention hoping for peace and prepared for disruption. The treatment I received was not the worst experienced by homebound convention-goers. Two of our members were arrested in Louisville after sitting in seats assigned to them by the airline, which turned out to be exit row seats. That is, of course, another tale.
Let me tell you about my homeward journey. I traveled Ozark Airlines, the only major air carrier which has continuously served Sioux City, Iowa, during my residence here and one with which I am consequently very familiar. Ozark's entire fleet is composed of DC-9 planes of two sizes, the shorter and the longer ones. The planes have a front exit, two overwing exits on each side, and the "tailcone exit only used under the supervision of a uniformed crew member " as the safety briefing says. I customarily sit in the smoking section and on the part side next to the fuselage, if possible. On Ozark planes, the port side has only two seats and the smoking section is between the rearward port overwing exit and the tailcone exit. Ozark has installed steel buttons on the sides of the overhead storage bin units at the point where exit rows occur for the easy location of exit rows by crew members in the event of an emergency involving loss of lights. The crews call these Braille knobs. I always listen to the safety briefings as the plane taxis to the runway to learn if anything has changed.
Some time ago, Ozark transcribed into Braille the printed safety cards placed in the seat pockets for sighted passengers. I read one once, and it contained information I already possessed about safety on Ozark planes.
I followed my usual custom as I boarded Ozark flight 718 scheduled to leave Louisville at 8:03 p.m. on Sunday, July 7, 1985. I was assigned seat 20-A and boarded without incident. The usual safety briefing was given. The plane took off for St. Louis. The "fasten seat belts" sign was turned off. Then the interesting portion of my trip began.
A flight attendant, later identified as Kay Damaso, came to my seat and stated she had a safety booklet that I was to read. I replied that I was a regular flier with Ozark and familiar with the material in the booklet. Kay replied that I was to take the booklet and read it anyway. I replied that Kay had done her job by bringing the booklet to me and that she was not responsible for making me read the booklet. I was well aware that this was not a requirement of Kay's job, but simply a service offered by Ozark. However, Kay began her contact with me in a very vigorous manner, so I thought I would reassure her by stating that I realized she felt she was doing her job. I said I didn't care to read the booklet and thanked her for offering it. I turned back to reading the book I had brought with me, and Kay insisted on continuing the conversation. Kay told me that if I knew about the exit rows, then I was to tell her what rows were the exit rows on that plane. I replied that I was familiar with the plane and Kay again told me that I would have to tell her where the exit rows were or read the booklet. Throughout the rest of the flight this choice, booklet, or quiz was repeatedly presented to me.
Kay stated that there was an FAA man on board and that, consequently, she was compelled to insist that I read the booklet or pass the test. Feeling that Kay herself felt her job was on the line with this matter, I took the booklet from her, placed it in the seat pocket in front of me, and told Kay that she had now done her job, that no one could deny I had taken the booklet, and that that should end the matter. Kay replied by stating that I would be subject to a heavy fine if I did not read the booklet or pass the test. I said that that was fine, that we would take the matter up when we got to St. Louis, and Kay replied by stating that I would not be allowed to make my connecting flight with Ozark out of St. Louis if I did not read the booklet or pass the quiz.
This remark genuinely focused my attention. Before this time I had merely been refusing a service a flight attendant mistakenly thought she was required to give me. When she mentioned the "heavy fine," I ignored the comment as clearly designed to frighten and intimidate me and as based on nothing. If any FAA requirement had been violated with respect to me, the airline and not I would be subject to penalties (though I knew FAA regulations were not involved here). But Kay had just threatened to ground me in St. Louis when I knew that there was no plane other than the one I intended to take leaving that night for Sioux City. When Kay stated that I would not be allowed to "make your connection on Ozark out of St. Louis," I was so startled that I simply replied, "What?" Kay repeated her statement and I decided that the matter had gotten serious. I turned to the man seated next to me in seat 20-B and apologized to him, knowing what was bound to follow, stating that the flight attendant didn't know what she was talking about, and then turned back to her.
The rest of my conversations with Kay on the plane merge together in my mind. In a fifty-five minute flight, we had four or five conversations on this topic, and I can't separate one from another. I told Kay that I wanted her name and address written down for me. She complied, handing me one of the two pieces of paper I have enclosed. Kay informed me that I would be taken in hand as soon as the plane reached the ground. She variously stated that I would be escorted through the airport to an unspecified location by the FAA man she said was on board and, at another time, by airport security. She did not use the term but clearly implied that I would be taken into custody for my failure to read the booklet while she watched. During each separate conversation, Kay mentioned the "heavy fine" I would have to pay for not reading the booklet. During the final conversation she said, "I don't know why you're doing this to me. I'm just trying to save you from a heavy fine."
Also, during every conversation Kay mentioned the "FAA man" she stated was ''in the cockpit." As Kay became more insistent, she mentioned this personage more and more and finally purported to be carrying messages from him to me concerning the requirement to read the booklet and the fine. Kay also brought me, at my insistence, the name, work address and phone number, and official title of the FAA man written down on a second piece of paper, which I also have enclosed. This second piece of paper, which appears to have been written by the same hand as the first, recites: "Mr. Paul L. Johnston, FAA St. Louis, Dist., Aircraft Safety Inspector, Regional Div., A/C 314-423-9257. "
At the conclusion of the flight I got off with the other passengers, stepping onto the jetway in my regular turn. At this point I was instructed by Kay to step to the right side of the jetway where an "Ozark vice president" was waiting to talk to me. I stepped to the side, and there was no one there but the flight attendant that I could hear. I told Kay that I was going on into the terminal since I couldn't hear a thing standing there on the jetway and also since I felt as though I were being taken conspicuously into custody by the flight attendant as the rest of the passengers walked by and looked. I had already told Kay on the plane that I was most desirous of speaking with her supervisor and I now repeated this, then started up the jetway. Kay told me emphatically to stay where I was. I just kept walking. Kay then told someone behind her in a loud voice that she would follow me, then ran up the jetway after me. This, of course, strengthened the impression I had of being in custody. When I arrived in the terminal I stepped to the side and began to wait. Kay had told me that the FAA man on board wanted to talk to me, and I very much wanted to talk to him. No FAA man appeared and no Ozark vice president either. I finally told Kay that I wanted to speak to these gentlemen and she replied that the FAA man had left because he had "a close connection" and that the Ozark vice president had left because he had "an emergency" to take care of. Kay stated that an Ozark manager was on her way. I said that was fine, that I simply wanted to talk to an Ozark ground official. Kay then stated that she didn't understand why I wouldn 't read the safety booklet or answer the quiz questions, that it would have been okay if I had simply pretended to read the booklet, but that I had to do at least that. Kay stated that I didn't understand the situation, that the fine on any airline which didn't require this was very heavy. By this statement, Kay revealed that she had known all along she was lying to me in the plane and known all along that, if there was a violation of regulations of this type involved, the airline and not the passenger would be the one punished. I asked Kay when was the last time she had required a sighted passenger to read the printed card or to answer test questions about safety. Kay replied that "that was different. "
An Ozark manager, Cathy Mahler, then appeared and asked what the problem was. Before either Kay or I said much of anything, Mahler stated that she had often seen me flying on Ozark through St. Louis and also stated that she was aware that most blind passengers preferred to be left alone and preferred not to receive any special treatment of any kind. I don't know, but I wonder if Mahler thought at this point that the flight attendant and I were having a disagreement about whether I would be "allowed" to walk through the airport by myself. At any rate Kay then stated firmly that the trouble was that I would not read the safety booklet or answer questions showing familiarity with safety. This concluded her presentation during which I was silent. I then stated that Kay had offered the booklet to me, that I had declined it, that the flight attendant had then repeatedly told me that I would be subject to a heavy fine if I didn't read the booklet or answer the questions, and that the flight attendant told me I wouldn't be allowed on my connecting Ozark flight if I didn't read the booklet. When I began to mention the threats of a heavy fine, Kay began to break in, stating that she had not said that and that I was lying. I ignored her, but she made the same statements about my description of her threats concerning my next flight. I asked Mahler if I would be allowed to take my connecting flight. Mahler didn't answer my question the first couple of times since she was getting considerable interference in her thinking from Kay's protestations but, on the third time, she replied to my question that yes, of course, I could take my next Ozark flight without any problem.
We were at a gate part way down the C concourse at Lambert. The C and D concourses meet just before the security checkpoint so that one is not required to re-enter security before passing from C to D. I walked up C to the intersection and was part way down D concourse when I heard a man jogging behind me saying, "Ma'am, ma'am." I was the only person around that area of the concourse and he was coming right up behind me, so I finally turned around and, as I did so, I noticed that he was carrying a two-way radio. He stated he was from Ozark and I almost lost it because I felt I was being pursued by Ozark Airlines. However, I said nothing and he went on to relate that he was a ground crew member from the flight I had just left and that he had heard the entire exchange between Kay and me in the terminal and had also heard Mahler when she arrived. This ground crew member stated that he wanted me to know that he had been stationed just outside the jetway in the terminal at the conclusion of my flight and that there was no FAA man on the plane. He had been so incensed at the flight attendant's statements overheard by him that there was such an official on board that he had followed me as soon as his duties were completed to tell me that. I replied that I hadn't for a minute believed that there was such an official on board, but that the flight attendant had given me a piece of paper with the man's name and title, which I showed to him. His confidence in his opinion was shaken by seeing a name and title, but he continued to insist that there had been no FAA man that he was aware of on the flight.
The rest of my trip went along without incident.
After I got home I called the number listed as the purported FAA man's work number, 314-423-9257, during regular business hours. I reached an eleven-year-old boy who stated that I was talking to a private house, that no one named Paul Johnston lived there, then inquired if I was calling about Bingo. Next, I called information and called the number listed in the St. Louis directory for the St. Louis FAA office. The person who answered the phone confirmed that I had reached the FAA St. Louis office and stated that no one named Paul Johnston worked there. She also stated that there are no job categories as "aircraft safety inspectors," that all safety inspectors are classed as "aviation inspectors" with a specifying word added to indicate which of three types of inspector the particular person is. She also stated that Kansas City and not St. Louis is classed as a regional office, so I next called Kansas City, where I reached the FAA regional office. I received the same answer there. No Paul Johnston worked there; there is no job title "aircraft safety inspector."
Mr. Shane, I did not get arrested and strip-searched in St. Louis as two Federationists did in Louisville. In that sense, I suppose I have nothing to complain about. But I was singled out, threatened, humiliated, ordered not to leave the jetway as though I were in custody, and treated as a second-class citizen. This was all done because of my blindness, the conclusions one flight attendant drew because of my blindness, and her statement that the FAA required her to behave as she did.
I can't explain why this particular flight attendant chose to go so far to try to intimidate and frighten me. Perhaps, as we discussed in Louisville, it was her position as a flight attendant that drove her to patronize all the passengers and to conclude, in my case, that her role as protector extended far beyond her duty to other passengers. She told me that the blind were different from the sighted for her purposes. Perhaps she honestly believed that she was required to make me read the booklet and when she found resistance believed she had no alternative but to make up the "heavy fine" and the FAA man to scare me into submission. Perhaps Ozark has simply missed on this one, mistakenly hiring a person who will overuse her authority whenever she can out of some need to be better than someone else. For whatever reason, Kay used the FAA and her statement that she was required to do what she did to justify herself to me and to the passengers near me.
Until the FAA gets itself out of the business of separating blind passengers and requiring different treatment for us, this type of treatment will occur. United said of the two arrested passengers in Louisville that they plotted to be seated in exit row seats so that they could make a heroic stand and get arrested. This is nonsense. The passenger doesn't assign the seat; the airline employee does with the screen visible only to him or her.
But we the blind are not entering airports looking for trouble or waiting to create confrontations or hoping to engage in heroics. We enter airports like everyone else, with a place to go, having made the choice to fly there. Some people love to travel. Some find it a chore. Some are frightened by flying. But if you are a blind person in America today, any of this pales before what may happen to you, quiet and peaceful and compliant though you may be, when you step into the air travel system. Please, Mr. Shane, try to find a way to eliminate from our lives this constant threat of hard words and hard deeds by others that the blind face whenever we fly. You don't know when it will strike. But when it does, it is always unpleasant, usually publicly humiliating, and sometimes costly and violent.