Braille Monitor March 2008
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by Barbara Loos
From the Editor: Barbara Loos is a longtime leader of the National Federation of the Blind. Happily for us, she frequently commits her common-sense reflections to paper and shares them with Monitor readers. Here is one such essay:
As an AmeriCorps member working for the National Federation of the Blind of Nebraska, one of my assignments has been mentoring blind youth. On June 29, 2007, two mentees who had never before flown anywhere boarded a plane with my husband and me to attend the annual convention of the National Federation of the Blind in Atlanta. Though we had briefed them about some of the things that occasionally happen to blind people in air travel, there’s nothing like firsthand experience to bring a point home.
In the air all went well on all four legs of our journey. On the ground in Chicago, however, there was an incident that I believe made a lasting impression on both mentees, but especially on the one to whom it happened. There are multiple ways for blind folks to get from one gate to another in airports. I prefer walking either with an airline official or on my own, asking directions from time to time to verify my progress. On this occasion we had chosen to be accompanied by someone from the airline. Apparently one person felt overwhelmed by four blind people traveling together because she said over her radio in our hearing that she didn’t know how anyone expected her to “handle four of them at once.” We assured her that, if she walked in front of us and let us know whenever she turned, we would be fine.
As often happens, she ignored our suggestion. But since we had a plane to catch and not a lot of time in which to negotiate, we agreed to set out with two escorts. Before long one of the young people was lagging behind. One of our assistants dropped back and began coaxing her to ride in a wheelchair. I wanted to intercede, knowing how frustrating such experiences can be. But I concentrated instead on reminding myself that the whole purpose of this trip was to give my mentee real-life experience and opportunities to grow. I heard her protest a little and then yield. When we came to an elevator, the three of us were told there wasn’t room for us to board with the wheelchair. I began to question the wisdom of my decision not to intervene. Did she realize that I knew what was happening, or did she feel abandoned? Was she wishing she hadn’t come? What would she say to her mother?
When we were reunited at the gate, she was indignant. She told us that she had let the woman know that she wanted to walk, but she had been bodily turned and pressed to sit in the wheelchair. “It wasn’t the chair itself,” she said, noting that it’s perfectly respectable to use a wheelchair when actually necessary. It was the manhandling, the being disregarded, and treated as though she had no right to choose, that had bothered her. And when the elevator door had closed and we weren’t there, she had become concerned, saying, “I can’t hear my group,” and then asking, “Where is my group?” She received no response from her self-appointed caretaker.
She had known we wouldn’t abandon her and knew we would soon be back together, but she had felt embarrassed and humiliated. Could she have avoided the experience? What could she do to keep such a thing from happening again? Why had it happened only to her and not to us?
Her questions were urgent, probing, and familiar. Hugging her, I said that I was sorry things like that happen to any of us. I assured her that the National Federation of the Blind exists partly to give us strategies for developing the confidence within ourselves to change what it means to be blind in positive ways so that we can rid our society of the misconceptions about blindness that lead to such treatment. As I talked, my mind raced through incidents, big and small, from my thirty-three years of flying. I know very well both the shame of succumbing to intimidation tactics and the indignation of being written up as a non-cooperative passenger for refusing to do so. “Lack of experience,” I ultimately said in response to her questions, “made you vulnerable this time. If you use this incident as a stepping stone, you won’t be caught off guard as easily next time.”
After a week of deliberating about blindness issues, marching for independence, and sharing fellowship with one another, we boarded an airplane on July 7 for the last two legs of our journey. In Chicago we again found ourselves hurrying to make our connection. Again my mentee began to fall behind the group. Not wanting to cap our productive week with a repeat of our experience the week before, I turned and urged, “Step it up, please.” I listened with immense satisfaction to the confident tap-tap of her cane as she moved up beside and then in front of me.
She was obviously as determined as I to end our trip better than it had begun.
I believe the key to the difference can be summed up in a phrase I often hear
my husband say: “Attitude is everything.” And when it’s positive, as hers is,
even the sky need not be the limit.