Braille Monitor                                                                                April 1986

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American Airlines Says Jail
Police Say No Media Reflects Progress

by Marc Maurer

How important is discrimination to people who practice it? How far will an individual or a company go to preserve a feeling of superiority over others? At what point will the police say no? On Sunday, December 15, 1985, four Oregon Federationists (Matt Millspaugh, Diane Hayes, Ken Harrington, and Shelly Cather) boarded an American Airlines plane in Dallas to fly to Portland. They took their assigned seats (exit row) and were ordered to move. They declined.

American officials first pleaded, then blustered. When this failed, they called the police to have the Federationists arrested. But the word is getting around. The Jacobson case (settled in favor of the blind a few months ago in Louisville) is having its effect. The police refused to do the airline's dirty work. Although the police were apologetic they declined to take the Federationists into custody. They said no.

American was now faced with the embarrassing alternative of backing down or coming up with another solution. They found another solution, but it was costly--probably in more ways than one.

Since the airline could not have the four Federationists arrested, it evacuated all passengers from the plane and started over. Another plane was found which had seats with the same numbers but not in an emergency row. The Federationists were boarded with the rest of the passengers, keeping their original seat numbers and flying on to Portland without further major incident.

It was a childish (and also an expensive) demonstration by American, and it got them nowhere. Passengers were delayed; the airline proved no point; and they looked worse than if they had graciously accepted the inevitable. But prejudice dies hard, and attitudes change slowly. The incident was reported in the Portland Oregonian Tuesday, December 17, 1985:

Protesters Delay Flight To Portland

By Elizabeth Coonrod of The Oregonian Staff

Four members of a national advocacy group for the blind refused to give up their seats near an emergency exit on a Dallas-to-Portland flight Sunday night in protest of the airline's attempts to move them.

Their refusal to move from the assigned seats caused American Airlines to transfer all 110 passengers to another flight and delayed passengers' arrival in Portland for more than two hours. No one was arrested, but the protesters' action was the latest in a series of incidents during the past 13 months in which blind passengers have protested airline policies that restrict seating for the handicapped.

"We didn't ask to be assigned those seats, but there was no reason for us to move," said Dianne Hayes, a Portland resident and President of the Portland chapter of the National Federation of the Blind.

"They just came on board and told us we weren't allowed to sit there," said Hayes, who is legally blind and had a guide dog with her.

Hayes, Matt Millspaugh, Ken Harrington and Shelley Cather (who is sighted) all are members of the National Federation of the Blind and were returning to Portland after a demonstration in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Millspaugh said he knew how to use the emergency exit and would have shown the airline authorities had they asked him. Millspaugh compared the group's situation to that of any other individuals asserting their rights.

"If a woman or a black person were harassed and asked to sit in the first row or move back 10 rows, they shouldn't have to do it," he said. Joe Stroop, manager of external communications for American Airlines in Dallas, Texas, said the three blind people boarded the plane Sunday night with seat passes they obtained prior to their arrival at the airport.

"We asked them to move, and they refused," he said, adding that American's regulations state that no person whose condition might hinder speedy evacuation is allowed to sit on the inside, in front, or behind the seats next to a wing emergency exit.

The airline asked the airport Department of Public Safety officers to remove the three, who refused, Stroop said. "So we decided to substitute a different type of aircraft where they could sit in their same assigned seat (and not be near an exergency exit," he said. American's policy has been approved by the Federal Aviation Administration." This is how it was reported by the Portland Oregonian, and there was more to come. In an editorial on Monday, December 23, 1985, the paper said:

Who's Blind To What

On first impression, the protests of some blind airline passengers over not being allowed to sit near emergency exit doors seem pointless. Obviously, one assumes, blind passengers are not as able as sighted ones to cope with an emergency.

Why "obviously?"

That is the question that underlies the resentment of some blind persons over their treatment by some airlines-- treatment based on the often misguided assumption that the blind are unable to perform needed tasks on their own. The National Federation of the Blind argues that airlines have not compiled convincing evidence that blind passengers are less able than typical sighted ones to open an emergency exit door and jump out of the airplane. The less militant American Council of the Blind believes there is a safety factor and does not object to policies preventing blind persons from sitting next to over wing exits.

At least one airline agrees with the Federation. Frontier Airlines has adopted a policy that says that blind and deaf passengers are not to be considered handicapped and are not restricted as to where they may sit.

A Frontier Airlines spokesman told the Oregonian that evacuation tests and actual emergencies led to the conclusion that blind passengers pose no special problem compared with sighted passengers also unused to functioning in an emergency. Also, he noted, most evacuation tests are run in darkened hangers with some exits blocked. In those conditions--with smoke or darkness making it impossible to see--persons used to not seeing could cope better than sighted passengers.

Most airlines, however, continue to have rules prohibiting blind, infirm, obese and pregnant persons or young children from sitting next to the emergency exits. Recently, an American Airlines Dallas-to-Portland flight was delayed more than two hours when blind pasengers refused to give up their assigned seats near an emergency exit.

The Federation claims that being asked to change seats embarrasses the blind passenger, sends a false signal of helplessness, and inconveniences other passengers--all without need. American Airlines oficials, however, contend that the regulation is based on a valid concern for safety of all passengers. The Federal Aviation Administration has left the matter up to individual airlines.

It is pointless for the FAA to hang back and let the dispute fester. Either there is a valid safety concern here or there isn't. The Frontier Airlines example suggests that the answer is not as clear-cut as other airlines assume. The obvious next step is to conduct further evacuation tests with disinterested evaluators to lay the groundwork for an informed, factually based regulation reflecting the true--not assumed capabilities of blind travelers. Where blind people sit on an airplane is not the basic issue here. Rather, it is the soundness of the judgments that are made about what people can and cannot do.

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