Braille Monitor                                                                                January 1986

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An Old Dilemma With a New Twist

by Ramona Walhof

(Reprinted from the July, 1985, newsletter of the National Federation of the Blind of Idaho.)

When I first flew in 1962, a passenger agent offered to take me on board before other passengers. He showed me to a seat right across from the galley, and ne arranged for another agent to meet me at my connection in Chicago. All this special attention made flying very convenient and easy. Nobody objected. gradually, however, attitudes began to change - both mine and the airlines'. As the years went by, I realized that many of these services were neither necessary nor helpful. If I wanted to talk with friends or family before departure, preboarding became a nuisance and a humiliation. Sitting in the bulkhead seats could also be a nuisance and made one a spectacle. Between flights, passenger agents did not always come on time, which was an inconvenience. Worse still, a blind person was expected not to take a step without an escort. This was both degrading and inconvenient. Nevertheless, I tolerated all this until 1971 or 1972.

About the time the Federal Aviation Administration issued a notice of rule making with regard to handicapped persons on airlines, the National Federation of the Blind let it be known that it wanted to have some input into this rule making, and hearings were scheduled in several places throughout the country. Blind persons testified, and these rules were never adopted. Instead, however, individual airlines submitted similar rules to the FAA for approval. These often have been approved. It has taken many years of disagreement and confrontation, but the rule saying blind people could not keep their canes at their seats has been largely eliminated. The rule that said blind people must sit on blankets has been eliminated. Preboarding and escorts between planes are offered, but not required. There are still exceptional problems in these areas, but a very great deal of progress has been made. And still there is trouble. Last fall two blind persons on two different flights on two different airlines were arrested because they refused to move out of their seats in exit rows where they had been assigned. Later, charges against one of these persons were dropped. For the other, litigation is still pending. This is not something that affects only a few way across the country.

Sunday, July 7, 1985, I boarded United flight 869 with my two teenage children. There happened to be several other blind persons on this flight returning to their homes in various parts of the country from the convention of the National Federation of the Blind. Not surprisingly, two blind persons found themselves seated in the exit row. Not surprisingly, airline personnel insisted that they move. Nadine and Steve Jacobson of Minnesota refused to move. What followed took about forty-five minutes. Various members of the flight crew came to speak with the Jacobsons. Finally, a policeman came. I could not hear what was said by the crew but I heard clearly what the policeman said. It was this: "You have a choice. Either move or get locked up." Many of the passengers were angry and impatient to continue the flight. Federationists were tired after a long and busy convention and anxious to return home. But Nadine and Steve Jacobson did what they had to do. We should all be proud of them. They refused to move. Nadine spent part of that night in a cell locked up. Steve was deliberately separated from her. Their personal belongings were taken away. In short, they were treated like common criminals. All this because United Airlines doesn't understand. Although some of the sighted passengers on the flight were very angry, all of them respect the blind more than they did before. No doubt, the same can be said of officials of United Airlines. If pilots and flight attendants must strike for more wages and disrupt travel for thousands of people for months, then what little thing is it for blind persons to hold up one flight? But the stakes for us are much higher than a mere pay raise.

Why should we care so much about sitting in the exit row? The seats are no more comfortable. The chances of a crash are miniscule. So why are blind people willing to go to jail rather than move from the exit row? For that matter, why are airlines willing to cause blind persons to be arrested rather than let us sit in an exit row?

It has nothing to do with logic. If clear thinking is wanted, then it follows that no one seated in an exit row would be permitted to drink any liquor at all. Yet, liquor aplenty is served. If alertness is required, those seated in the exit rows might not be permitted to sleep. Such a thing has never been suggested. In an air emergency, the odds are extremely high that there would be a power failure. In such a case, an individual who is accustomed to relying on eyesight is most likely to panic and be ineffective at best. A blind person could function with or without light. Thus, logic dictates that blind persons should be seated in exit rows and shown how to operate the equipment. But logic did not create the problem, and it will not solve it.

The problem with the airlines has to do with attitudes toward blindness. Airline officials--like most of the public--think they know something about blindness. After all, they believe they couldn't function as they do without eyesight. It seems logical to them. It does because they have so little knowledge and experience with blindness. They do not think it is reasonable to sit down and talk to the blind about capacities and techniques. Although they would not say so, their actions and rules show that airline officials often think it is about the same to talk to the blind as it is to talk to a three year-old. You do it for fun or you do it with charity. You do not take into consideration the views of a three-year old when you are making policy for airlines, and you do not consider the views of the blind either.

Or do you? This is the question now to be settled. Partly, it will be decided in the courts. Partly, it will be decided by the blind. Are we determined and willing to pay the price? Partly, it will be decided by the airlines. How long will it take them to accept the blind as normal, competent, first-class Americans?

Whatever it takes, we will continue doing what we must until the airlines will deal with us as first-class citizens. We will be labeled as troublemakers and militants. We know that short-term unpleasantness is better than being smothered with kindness or hate. We know who we are, and we can never go back. All that is as true today as when Dr. Jernigan first said it several years ago. But there is more. We will move up in the world. Whatever it takes. The blind will be free and first-class Americans.

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