Future Reflections Summer 2006
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by Merry-Noel Chamberlain
Editor’s Note: Can your blind child walk around your block unaccompanied? Cross a street independently? What about flying across the country without an assistant? Most airlines define unaccompanied children to be those ages twelve and under. Could your thirteen-year-old fly, for example, to the NFB headquarters in Baltimore, Maryland? For the past two years, over twenty blind kids about this age have done just that so they could participate in the NFB Science Academy program. What level of cane-travel skills would your child need? How many orientation and mobility lessons? How much independent travel practice in other settings? Ultimately, of course, no amount of preparation can take away the fact that there is always a first time for everything. It cannot be avoided. There is an old Chinese proverb that goes something like this, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” Here is Chamberlain’s story about her first flying experience; the courage it took, and the confidence she gained because she took that first step to “soar through fear:”
I stood in line next to my husband Marty at airport security check-in, and my stomach felt as if the last hurricane that pounded Florida were roiling inside me. It was the first time I was going to travel independently by plane since I had become blind. This day I was on my way to Kalamazoo, Michigan, for weekend classes at Western Michigan University. Having a father in the military allowed me to travel extensively between Europe and the United States when I was growing up. But this was different. I thought how lucky I was that Marty had been given a special pass to escort me to my departure gate. Marty was very supportive, and I tried to appear confident as I clung to his sleeve. My heart was pounding, and my head was full of questions such as how was I going to be able to find my connecting flight? Where exactly should I stow my long white cane on the plane? What did the Braille Monitor suggest? What should I do if the airline wanted to take my cane away from me? Hadn’t I read stories in the Monitor about such situations? I was terrified at the possibility of having some sort of confrontation with the airline. I concluded that perhaps I should have brushed up on plane orientation and mobility.
What had I just overheard? Was the flight cancelled? Would luck be with me and Marty have to cancel his weekend plans in order to drive me to Michigan, which was what I secretly hoped for? That would be fine with me, I told myself. I really didn’t need to sit in on that elective seminar, did I? If we left within the hour, I would be in Kalamazoo tonight, just in time for class.
As we inched our way forward, the voices became louder and clearer. The hurricane in Florida had grounded planes in Tennessee. Too bad, I happily smiled to myself. I didn’t have to face my fear today, and Marty was going to have to drive me after all. We quickly exchanged my ticket, zoomed over to our house two miles away, packed an overnight bag for Marty, and headed towards the sunrise, leaving Des Moines behind us.
What a loss, the great opportunity to learn; to explore new terrain; to discover—using the discovery method—how to travel by plane. For several weeks afterwards, I regretted having my secret wish come true. Also I felt guilty for monopolizing Marty’s time by taking away his weekend and for being so selfish. If I could have done it over again, I would have embraced the learning experience of making that flight independently.
The opportunity to fly again came sooner than I anticipated, and this time I was eager to take the challenge. Western Michigan invited me to attend the 2005 Josephine L. Taylor Leadership Institute in Boston, which meant I was going to fly even farther than I would have the first time. Although I was nervous, I reminded myself how much I had regretted missing that learning opportunity. I also told myself that, if I was going to expect my students to face their fears, I needed to do the same thing. Besides, how could I face my own fears if I couldn’t even set foot on a plane? How could I show my face at a leadership conference (of all places) if I couldn’t be a leader?
The day soon arrived for me to jump and hold on tight to the bungee cord. I decided that I would take this opportunity to immerse myself totally in the flying experience. Well—except for the beginning when Marty would walk me to the gate to send me off. Perhaps that was the romantic side of me or a tiny bit of residual fear. I’ll never tell.
I won’t detail each flight, just report the highlights. Each plane, I discovered, had its own personality deriving from the cabin crew on duty. When I chose to enter the plane before the other passengers, the crew made a point of describing the overhead air and light functions to me. Later, when a passenger was seated beside me, one crew member introduced me to her, informed her that I was blind, and asked if, in case of an emergency, she would escort me to the nearest exit. Of course she said that she would, but I doubted it. That would have been the last thing on her mind if the plane made an emergency landing.
Generally everyone was helpful. One time a passenger retrieved my cane from the overhead compartment when I was experimenting with storage options. I tried putting it there a couple of times but ended up feeling more comfortable with it stored between the seat and the window. Not once did anyone try to take the cane away from me, which pleased me.
As I say, I wanted the total experience and decided to pick my battles later when it came to changing planes in Minneapolis, St. Paul. There I was stopped by a gate agent as soon as I exited the plane and was escorted to a row of blue chairs that displayed the handicapped icon on the back. I was instructed to wait there for the shuttle that was on its way to transport me to the next gate. I said that I could walk, but he insisted that it was quite a long way to my gate. So I sat and waited. Finally the electric cart arrived, and we went for a long, long ride. I was happy for the ride but felt that the cart was totally unnecessary. My layover was long enough for me to have walked, and I would have loved the opportunity to explore some of the shops along the way.
As I was nearing Boston, I suddenly wondered how I was going to find the luggage carousel once I had left the plane. I thought to myself, there are a lot of people on this plane. I’ll just ask someone with a sweet-sounding voice if he or she was going to baggage claim. That’s what I did. Together we walked to baggage claim, where I ran into John McMahan, a college classmate whose plane had arrived just ahead of mine. Radiating quiet confidence, I didn’t want him to guess how much I was exploding with triumph inside. I wanted to jump up and down for joy and give him a huge bear hug and a high-five. I was ever so proud of myself! I had done it. But I wasn’t brave enough to share my accomplishment with John, who is also blind.
In orientation and mobility we often talk about traveling with confidence. This trip taught me that traveling from home to the store really is no different from traveling by plane, providing that you have confidence in your independent travel skills. The structured discovery method of orientation and mobility allows individuals to develop such confidence. What one learns in the mall when using the discovery method can be transplanted to the airport terminal. For example, when you hear the footsteps of several people walking in the same direction at the mall, you can conclude that the exit is in that direction. Following the sound of footsteps in the airport concourse can often lead to baggage claim or get you near enough to hear it. When you have confidence in your mobility skills, orientation information will flow in when you are traveling over new terrain.
I am writing this on yet another plane as I head home from the Washington Seminar. This is now the eleventh plane I’ve been on since that first ride to Boston, and I have discovered that, if you appear to be a confident traveler, people will treat you like one. If you appear to be an inexperienced traveler, more assistance will be offered. Today I found my gate and entered the plane when my row was called. I counted the rows to number eight and sat down in seat B. The crew member didn’t make a point of introducing me to the overhead buttons. In fact, I wasn’t visited until drinks were served. That was when she saw my BrailleNote and must have concluded that I was blind because she carefully described where she had placed my soda on the tray and then gently patted my hand.
We all face fears from time to time, and even those who have received training in orientation and mobility or have years of experience traveling may encounter new opportunities to learn. Just today, as I left the Holiday Inn Capitol, I embraced the challenge of taking the Metro so I could experience and discover a new mode of transportation. But I’ll leave the description of that experience for another article because I feel the plane starting to descend. The cabin crew member just stopped by to see if I needed any assistance in Des Moines. “No,” I proudly told her, “I’m home.”
We are all fortunate to have the National Federation of the Blind to pave the way and allow us to learn from one another so that we can fly both literally and figuratively. I can hardly wait to soar through the sunny blue sky to the national convention in Dallas. Can you?
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