Braille Monitor                                                                                July 1986


Prejudice, Air Travel, and the Anderson Case

by Marc Maurer

In February, 1985, Russell Anderson sat peacefully in an emergency exit row seat on a USAir flight scheduled to go from Washington, D.C. to Indianapolis. Because he is blind, he was ordered to move. Russell Anderson insisted on his right to equal treatment, and he stayed where he was. Police officers were called, and he was arrested. The sole reason for this arrest was that Anderson is blind. If he had been sighted, the arrest would not have taken place.

Russell Anderson sued USAir. Despite a substantial quantity of evidence in his favor, the district court judge ruled that USAir would be granted summary judgment. The judge said that no matter what evidence Russell Anderson brought to the Court, there was no way that Anderson, as a blind person, could win. The case would not even be permitted to go to a jury. In reaching this decision, the judge employed (to put it mildly) an unusual kind of logic. For example, the decision says:

"The court can readily understand the desire of blind people to be treated equally with sighted persons to the greatest extent feasible. Nevertheless, there are situations in everyone's life in which a degree of autonomy must be given over to others in the interest of the safety and well-being of one's self and of others. This case presents such a situation. In this, the worst year in civil aviation history from the standpoint of the number of fatalities, the interest in air safety demands that every air passenger defer to the expertise of air transportation safety authorities and relinquish a measure of autonomy."

In other words, the judge says more people have died within the last year in air crashes than ever before in history. From this single fact the court concludes that every pronouncement of the airlines which includes the word "safety" must be regarded as inviolable. Even if there is no justification for these statements, and even if they are based entirely on prejudice, the declarations of the airlines must be followed.

This is an astonishing conclusion. If the safety practices of the airlines have caused more fatalities in the last year than in any other comparable period in history, it would seem that something is going wrong. As the accident rate escalates, and as the death toll rises, the safety pronouncements of the air carriers, according to this judge, become more sacrosanct. If the judge's conclusion seems illogical, one can only report that this is what he said. Note also the condescending tone of his remarks. He says that he could readily understand the desire of blind people to be treated equally with the sighted--but only to the greatest extent "feasible." However, he does not recognize the legal requirement that the laws be made applicable alike to all persons, blind and sighted. He tries to exercise what he would call "understanding." Nevertheless, he states with absolute clarity that the blind must comprehend their limitations, must give up control of their own lives, and must be willing to be custodialized by the airlines. In his words: "There are situations in everyone's life in which a degree of autonomy must be given over in the interest of safety and well-being of one's self and of others."

This is only the introduction. Despite sworn testimony by USAir officials that there is no one at USAir who knows why USAir has its policy to exclude blind people from emergency exit row seats, the judge asserts that the reason for preventing blind people from sitting in such seats is to enable the aircraft to be evacuated within ninety seconds and to prevent obstruction of the aisles leading to the emergency exits. Without saying so directly, the judge declares that blind people will not be able to evacuate a plane with the same speed as the sighted. Furthermore, he states that the blind will be an obstruction in the evacuation process. Of course, these assumed "facts" have not been established in the record before the court. However, this does not stop .the judge. He goes on to quote from a document produced by the Federal Aviation Administration. This document is not a rule, regulation, or policy. It was not made under oath, and it was not signed. The statements about the blind contained in the document were not based upon experience or observation. Nevertheless, the judge adopted part of its language as a basis for treating blind people differently from others. He says:

"Egress by way of overwing exits on aircraft without wing-to-ground descent devices," the judge says, quoting from the unsigned FAA document, "would expose handicapped passengers to injury." It is true that the wings of an airplane are several feet above the ground. If a passenger is evacuating through an over wing exit, that passenger must get from the wing to the ground. In this process, some injuries--bruises and sprained ankles--may occur. Of course, blind passengers are no less likely to be injured than the sighted. But neither are the blind more likely to be injured than the sighted. This judicial opinion implies that the rate of injury for blind passengers will be greater than the rate of injury for the sighted. Therefore, this judge ruled that it is reasonable to prevent blind people from being seated in emergency exit row seats. The only other conclusion which is reasonable in the circumstances is that exposing the sighted to injury is all right but exposing the blind to the same injury is not. This decision says that either the blind are unsafe or that the blind must be given super protection from injury even if this means segregation and discrimination. For the first proposition there is no proof. The blind reject the second as the outmoded and degrading custodialism which it is.

The heart of this unusual decision is contained in yet another sentence. It says: "Although Mr. Anderson's filings have shown that there are blind individuals who may be able to make these (safety) determinations in some circumstances, assuredly he has not shown that blind people as a class are so qualified." In other words, all blind people everywhere and in every circumstance must be able to make all safety determinations demanded by the airlines or else every blind person everywhere in all circumstances will be subjected to discrimination. This is the standard laid down by the court. If Mr. Anderson cannot show that every single blind person is capable of handling every single emergency conceivable (whether such emergency has ever happened or not), then he must be subjected to discrimination.

If this standard were employed to decide which members of the air traveling public would be seated in emergency exit rows, no one could sit there. No class of people can claim that every one of its members in every circumstance all of the time can make all of the safety decisions demanded by circumstance or whim of the airline. This standard requires more of the blind than is required of any other group. Has anyone ever demonstrated that all sighted people are capable of dealing with all emergency situations regardless of the circumstances? Of course not. It is ridiculous even to suggest it.

And what of the sighted passenger sitting in an emergency exit row with a drink in his or her hand? Why is it that the sighted passenger after two or three or four or five drinks is preferred to a sober blind passenger? The airlines never ask the inebriated sighted passenger to move. Why is it that the judge did not consider that the cabin could be full of smoke or that it might be night with the lights out? All of these factors (and more) were presented to the Court. The judge's decision ignores them.

Webster 's New World Dictionary of the American Language, Second Edition, defines prejudice as "a judgment or opinion held in disregard of facts that contradict it." There has been only one test of the capacity of blind people to evacuate a plane. That test was conducted approximately one year ago by the National Federation of the Blind. Blind people handled themselves in that evacuation with competence and dispatch.

Judges are not immuned from popular mythology or prejudice. Blind people do not have less ability than the sighted. However, judges are not born knowing this. In the long term the National Federation of the Blind will prevail in its effort to achieve equal treatment for blind passengers on airplanes. Ultimately we are determined that rationality rather than fear and facts rather than superstition will guide judicial decision-making. However, if this is to come true, we must continue to build the National Federation of the Blind. The way to educate the judges is to raise the voice of the organized blind to a level that the public can hear and understand the need of blind people for equal opportunity and fair, unbiased treatment.

Meanwhile, the Anderson case has been appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. The question before the court is as basic as justice itself. It is this: Will the airlines be allowed to treat blind people as second-class citizens when the facts clearly demonstrate that there is no safety-related reason for doing so? Arrayed against the blind are the mystique of the airlines, the popular belief that airline officials (all airline officials) are experts and that the blind are not, the notion that airline officials act objectively and not self-interest, and (above all) man's ancient fear of the dark with all that that implies.

The outcome of the Anderson case still hangs in the balance, and we may suffer a temporary setback in the decision; but doubt. In the struggle for equality and human dignity there can be no compromise. The airlines have nothing to lose but their pride and prejudice. For the blind the stakes are liberty and first-class status.