Braille Monitor                                                                           November 1986


Confrontation with the Airlines Increases

by Kenneth Jernigan

Until a few years ago, the blind had very few problems with the airlines. We bought our tickets, boarded the planes, and rode like anybody else. If assistance was needed in boarding or deplaning, it was asked for and given without any fanfare. It was simply part of the normal routine of flying.

But that was another time, almost another world. Today there is growing confrontation, and there is every sign that it will increase greatly (very much greatly) before it gets better. For the past several years (and, especially, since the infamous case involving Steve and Nadine Jacobson in the summer of 1985--see August-September, 1985, Braille Monitor) we have been reporting the cases involving abuse of blind persons by airline officials. Now, the abuse has reached a new peak of viciousness.

Since several thousand blind people attend the convention of the National Federation of the Blind each year and since blind persons are more and more determined to resist custodialism and second-class treatment, the period from late June to early August is the time when the incidents multiply. Traveling to and from this year's convention, blind persons experienced massive and widespread abuse by employees of the airlines. Several people were arrested for violating federal regulations which did not exist, and others were subjected to treatment wihch would hardly be believed if it were not described in detail and verified by witnesses. In this issue of the Monitor we present a panoramic view of airline conduct as it has been for the past few months and as it continues today.

As the facts are set forth, the situation is certainly not reassuring--not just for the blind but for anybody who travels by air. There is no consistency--no rationale for what is done. A passenger is arbitrarily moved from a nonexit row seat into the exit row and then verbally abused and threatened because his cane is allegedly blocking the exit row aisle. Liquor carts are parked in that same exit row aisle, blocking it; and a passenger is told by a flight attendant that if he intends to drive when he arrives at the airport, she will not sell him another drink. He gives her his word, and she pours more liquor for him.

A plane is delayed. A flight attendant goes into an emotional tantrum and has to be taken off. In the meantime free drinks are poured to compensate for the delay (a customary practice), and many of the passengers get drunk and live it up with airline complicity. When the whim strikes, blind passengers are treated like normal human beings (even when they are seated in exit rows) and everything is peaches and cream. A female ground agent tries to make a blind businessman ride in a golf cart instead of walking, and when he courteously declines, she treats him like a little child and seeks to jolly him along by telling him how pretty she is. With understandable annoyance he lets it be known that he is not a candidate for seduction. There are uglier incidents. United Airlines officials insist that there are federal regulations preventing blind persons from sitting in exit rows. They lie to the police, incite other passengers against blind passengers, and try to get blind passengers to deplane by lying to them about whether the flight is being canceled. Flight attendants remove their name badges so that they cannot be identified as they intensify their abuse. After inciting the passengers, airline personnel do nothing to try to stop physical attacks upon blind persons who are guilty of nothing but refusing to move from the seats to which they were assigned.

While sanctimoniously talking about obeying the law, airline officials violate the law themselves. They sign blank complaints against blind passengers, the complaints being filled out by the police after the airplane in question has gone. Airline employees undertake to make blind persons move from an exit row so that they may place a frail, elderly lady in it. They do not identify blind people as being blind. They make blind people move from exit rows while knowingly permitting people who are unable to walk to remain seated there. The air conditioning in the airplane fails; the compass fails; and the integrity fails.

Going home from this summer's convention in Kansas City, Sharon Gold and other Californians were badgered by United Airliens officials and placed in a situation where their very lives were in danger. The danger was created by United Airlines employees, who deliberately tried to incite other passengers against the blind. Fred Schroeder, Director of the New Mexico Commission for the Blind, was also arrested. So was Jan Uribes of California. Jan Uribes is diabetic and needed food. At Bakersfield, California, United Airlines employees caused her to be removed from a seat which she had occupied all the way from Denver. They left her in the Bakersfield airport without money for food and refused to honor her ticket for the remainder of her trip to Fresno.

Larry Krejci, President of the National Federation of the Blind of Hawaii, is relatively new to the Federation. He attended his first national convention this summer in Kansas City. When he and his wife Olga, along with their small baby, went to the Kansas City airport, they were assigned seats in the exit row of the airplane. They had not asked for these seats, and they were obviously blind.

After they were seated, the usual badgering and abuse began. Larry asked Olga to take the baby and move to another part of the plane. He told her that he would stand his ground and that she should meet him in Chicago, which was the next stop on their trip.

A man and a woman, who identified themselves as Kansas City police, came to Larry's seat and told him they were placing him under arrest and removing him from the plane. They were not Kansas City police but airport security agents. The woman ultimately agreed with Larry and told him that if she had been in his situation, she would have behaved exactly as he behaved. He was ultimately able to book passage on another flight to Chicago, where he met Olga and the baby and continued home to Hawaii.

It must be emphasized that the material contained in this issue of the Monitor is only a fragment of the total picture. It is not exaggeration to say that the blind of the nation are now in crisis and that nothing less than physical safety, our right to be free, and our dignity as human beings is involved. We are at a critical stage of confrontation with the airlines, and we will now make a major breakthrough and go forward or fall far back down the ladder we have been climbing. It is certain that we cannot stay where we are.

This is a call to conscience and action. What we do during the next year will have far-reaching implications. It may well be a key factor in determining whether we go on to full citizenship or fall back to the fear and superstition of fifty years ago. Every person who reads this article and the ones to follow should determine what he or she must now do and what we the organized blind movement must do. The decision is ours to make. Let us hope that we have the courage, the intelligence, the determination, and the moral commitment to make the right decision and to see it through to the end.