Braille Monitor                                                                  November 1985

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Ozark Airlines
More on the Safety Hoax

Human beings like to avoid thinking when they can. One of the favorite methods is to lump anything and everything under a general term of approval or disapproval and let it go at that. In the early 1950's, for instance, everything was "communistic." If you didn't like an individual's clothes or lifestyle--if you disagreed with the way he or she thought or spoke--if you didn't like the haircut or the food on the dinner table, you dismissed it as "communistic," and that was supposed to be sufficient. The sad truth is that often it was. The matter was complicated by the fact that there actually were communists in the country and that they meant us no good. In short, it required thinking--and people resist thinking if there is any way to do it. Today's catch phrase (especially, when society deals with the blind) is "safety." If you want to dominate a blind person, or if you want to browbeat or take out your frustration or just show that you are the boss, say it is necessary because of "safety." If you want to refuse to rent an apartment to a blind person, you are not discriminating. It is just a matter of safety. If the blind person is denied living quarters on the second floor of a building or kept from applying for a job or refused insurance coverage or told where to sit on an airplane, it is all a matter of safety. Madness tends to build upon itself, to become cumulative--and the airlines are a prime example.

Jim Moynihan (long-time Federationist and a staff member in the Federal Office of Civil Rights in Kansas City) can give personal testimony. What possible connection with safety can there be with the requirement that an individual return a Braille brochure to an airline attendant? Well, apparently there is a good deal.

In mid-September of this year Jim Moynihan was going about his business and doing his job as any law-abiding citizen might. He was returning home to Kansas City via Ozark Airlines. And then--he got trapped in the safety hoax:

Kansas City, Missouri
September 16, 1985

Dear Dr. Jernigan:

On Thursday, September 12, 1985, I was returning home to Kansas City, Missouri, from Waterloo, Iowa. Since there was no direct flight, I was scheduled on Ozark flight 687 at 12:30 p.m. to St. Louis, Missouri. I asked the ticket agent for a regular seat in the nonsmoking section. I particularly requested not to be assigned to the bulkhead seat. Although I use a dog guide, I find a regular seat to be more comfortable, and there is plenty of room for Dean under the seat. The agent assigned me to seat 14-B on this flight.

My next scheduled flight was Ozark flight 656, leaving St. Louis at 3:30 p.m. and arriving in Kansas City at 4:30 p.m. On this flight I was assigned seat 14-C. The ticket agent said I would be flying on DC-9's. The seat numbers had no particular significance at that time for me. I seated myself on flight 687. An airline official approached me and told me I would have to move since I was sitting in an exit row. I told him that I was sitting in my assigned seat and that there was no problem. After a few minutes went by another airline official told me that I would have to move or security would be called. I had not expected trouble and was caught off guard. I was well aware of our problems with the airlines and had had confrontations on previous flights, but this was more serious. The airline official told me that only able-bodied passengers could sit in the exit row. I complied with the order and moved to another seat. The airline official thanked me and left.

I realized that I had been intimidated and that I had let blind people down. Above all, I had discredited myself. I also realized that my past mistake was history and could not be changed. I asked myself what I would do if the situation were repeated. I resolved that I would hang tough. If a future incident occurred, I would be mentally ready.

During a two-hour layover in St. Louis I tried to relax by watching the St. Louis Cardinals play the New York Mets. Then, I boarded the plane and settled myself in seat 14-C, which was on the aisle. Since there were no other passengers occupying that row, I slid over to 14-E, which was the window seat. An airline official approached me and told me that he was sorry, but I would have to move because I was sitting in an exit row. I told this person that I did not want a hassle and that I was sitting in my assigned seat.

After a few minutes a gentleman introduced himself as Steve Covacker - the airline manager. He told me that I must move to another row but added that I would have the whole row to myself. He told me that the plane would not fly unless I moved. I told him that there was no problem and that we should proceed to our destination. He then told me that there was a Federal Aviation policy that prohibited blind persons from sitting in exit rows. He then called it a Federal Aviation Regulation, referring to it as an FAR. I politely requested to be provided with a copy of this document. The manager said that he would not debate with me, that I would either move voluntarily or the police would be called. I told the manager that I preferred to remain in my assigned seat.

An announcement was made over the loudspeaker, apologizing to the passengers for the delay. The announcement explained that a passenger was sitting in the exit row who should not be there. The announcer said that it was hoped that the situation would soon be resolved.

At this time some of the passengers decided it was time to enter the discussion. One passenger informed me that a mistake had been made and all the airline wanted was for me to change seats. Another passenger told me that I was in a no-win situation. The plane would not fly if I stayed in my seat. It certainly was not worth getting arrested.

I explained to these passengers that this was a matter of principle. Airlines had been taking canes from blind people, forcing blind people with guide dogs to sit in bulkhead seats, preboarding and post-boarding us, treating blind people like invalids by making them ride electric carts, and generally treating us as helpless and incompetent. I believe that these passengers gained some comprehension of what I was trying to say, even if they did not agree with me.

Then, a lady sat down next to me and introduced herself as Officer Gray. She said that a mistake had been made and that the airline might not have been aware when my reservations were made that I was blind. I told the officer that it was not necessary to explain that I was blind when making the reservation and that I was simply sitting in my assigned seat. I explained that blind persons did not have to sit in special seats. The officer said I would be physically removed from my seat. I told her that I would stay in my seat and she left.

At this point the passengers in the bleacher section decided to get in to the act. One passenger called me a horse's ass and said I had no right to inconvenience 156 other people. I told him that I had not asked for his thoughts on the subject. He told me that he didn't give a damn whether I asked for his thoughts or not. Another passenger remarked loudly to his neighbor that the dog had more sense than I did. A lady said that she felt like a hostage, only I was the one who was going to be arrested. I repeated to the passengers that the problem was being caused by the airline and that we should fly to our destination.

The airline manager sat down beside me and asked to see my boarding pass. The boarding pass read 14-C. The manager asked if I would agree to move two seats to my left, which was the aisle seat 14C. He told me that a flight attendant would sit by the window. I realized that this was the seat to which I had been assigned and that I would still be sitting in the exit row. I smiled and told him that I agreed.

The plane took off at 4:15 p.m., forty-five minutes late. An announcement followed over the loudspeaker apologizing for the delay and offering the passengers complimentary beverages and cocktails to make up for the inconvenience. Everybody cheered. The flight attendant handed me a Braille brochure which contained a lot of incomprehensible mumbo jumbo about safety.

At the end the book instructed its readers to return the volume for reasons of safety. Such nonsense is mind boggling. The airline attendant sat next to me only during takeoff and landing. The rest of his time was spent serving those free cocktails to the eagerly receptive passengers.

I can now appreciate what Paul Kay, Rick Fox, Mike Hingson, Judy Sanders, and others have done in the fight for equal treatment with the airlines. I learned a lot about myself and about the courage and tenacity of Rick, Mike, Paul, and Judy. I almost forgot Steve and Nadine Jacobson. They displayed guts and grit, and we owe them a debt of gratitude.

We need to help the airlines and the general public understand our point of view. We also need to stand firm and steadfast in the face of opposition. When we meet the situation head-on without flinching, we gain self-respect and the respect of others.