Braille Monitor                         February 2021

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Evaluating and Removing Barriers to Blind People Flying with our Guide Dogs

by Raul A. Gallegos

Raul A. Gallegos speaks at the podiumFrom the Editor: Raul is a dynamic leader who has taken on the responsibility of presiding over and guiding the National Association of Guide Dog Users. He recently contracted COVID-19, so the work he has done and shares in this article must be considered in the context of what the virus does to energy, concentration, and the way one feels when not resting. Here is what he says:

I had hoped to write an article prior to this one to introduce myself and to share the goals of the National Association of Guide Dog Users since I was elected as your NAGDU president during our first virtual national convention in 2020. However, life has a way of throwing unexpected challenges that cause delays. I am still hoping to share another article with you specifically about NAGDU updates, but that will be in a later Braille Monitor issue.
As you may have seen in social media, local news, or email lists, the Department of Transportation (DOT) has released a new ruling for the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) that went into effect on January 11, 2021. If you are a person who flies with a guide dog, there are some important things you should know about this new ruling. If you know of anyone who has been flying with a pet and has passed it off as either a service animal or an emotional support animal, they will be affected as well.

Before I share my thoughts and the position of the National Association of Guide Dog Users, I’d like to share an excerpt from the DOT page where the announcement about the new ruling came out on December 2, 2020.

“The U.S. Department of Transportation today announced that it is revising its Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) regulation on the transportation of service animals by air to ensure a safe and accessible air transportation system. The Department received more than 15,000 comments on the notice of proposed rulemaking. The final rule announced today addresses concerns raised by individuals with disabilities, airlines, flight attendants, airports, other aviation transportation stakeholders, and other members of the public, regarding service animals on aircraft.”

The final rule:

  1. Defines a service animal as a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability;
  2. No longer considers an emotional support animal to be a service animal;
  3. Requires airlines to treat psychiatric service animals the same as other service animals;
  4. Allows airlines to require forms developed by DOT attesting to a service animal’s health, behavior, and training, and if taking a long flight attesting that the service animal can either not relieve itself, or can relieve itself in a sanitary manner;
  5. Allows airlines to require individuals traveling with a service animal to provide the DOT service animal form(s) up to 48 hours in advance of the date of travel if the passenger’s reservation was made prior to that time;
  6. Prohibits airlines from requiring passengers with a disability who are traveling with a service animal to physically check-in at the airport instead of using the online check-in process;
  7. Allows airlines to require a person with a disability seeking to travel with a service animal to provide the DOT service animal form(s) at the passenger’s departure gate on the date of travel;
  8. Allows airlines to limit the number of service animals traveling with a single passenger with a disability to two service animals;
  9. Allows airlines to require a service animal to fit within its handler’s foot space on the aircraft;
  10. Allows airlines to require that service animals be harnessed, leashed, or tethered at all times in the airport and on the aircraft;
  11. Continues to allow airlines to refuse transportation to service animals that exhibit aggressive behavior and that pose a direct threat to the health or safety of others; and
  12. Continues to prohibit airlines from refusing to transport a service animal solely based on breed.

Since the ruling is over forty pages long, I cannot cover it all here, but I can invite you to read it for yourself. The ruling and the full text from the above excerpt can be found from this link: https://www.transportation.gov/briefing-room/us-department-transportation-announces-final-rule-traveling-air-service-animals.

Now here are my thoughts as well as the thoughts of the National Association of Guide Dog Users and several members. Regarding the bullet points of the new ruling, NAGDU feels that items 1, 2, 3, 6, 10, 11, and 12 are generally positive. Unfortunately, items 4, 5, 7, 8, and 9 are a bit worrisome.

First, let me address the positive areas. Items 1, 2, and 12 basically define what a service animal is with no breed restrictions. In short, it is a dog regardless of its breed. This means no more emotional support cats, birds, and snakes. It also means that airlines cannot impose restrictions regarding the dog’s breed or assumed breed. Item 11 states that if the dog is under control, it will be allowed. Item 6 makes it so a traveler can use the online check-in process and will not be forced to arrive early to check-in.

Second are the areas that we don’t feel are as favorable. Items 4, 5, and 7 are the ones that stand out the most. They are of concern because many members feel that we should not have to fill out a form to fly with our guide dogs. Additionally, there is no guarantee that the form will be accessible despite the ruling. Many blind people traveling with guide dogs have experienced situations in which the airlines make up rules such as having to sit in a bulkhead row or that two blind people cannot sit together if one or both are traveling with a guide dog. If a form is required, this can add another level of complexity to traveling, plus many people feel that the form is not necessary because the information requested won’t really prove anything. For example, the traveler must attest that the dog will not relieve itself while traveling, and if it does, it will do it in a sanitary fashion.

In late December of 2020, the DOT gave us a copy of the proposed form for review. After many people tested it using different types of technologies, we determined that the form did not meet the accessibility guidelines necessary to allow a blind person to fill out this form independently. We have had conversations with the DOT about this and provided them with detailed feedback and have been assured that they will update the form by January 11, 2021, to be accessible. In addition, we had discussions to see if they could simply have the airlines not require the form to begin with. However, because the new ruling is final, neither the form nor the form’s language can be changed. One thing that we can take as a positive regarding this issue is that, while the airlines may require this form to be filled out, it does not mean they will do so every time. This means that we will have to continue educating the airlines. One possible solution is asking them to consider not requiring this form to be filled out if it is readily apparent that the person traveling is blind and has a guide dog. Another possible solution is to contact the press for situations in which the airlines are not complying with the new ruling or if the form is not accessible.

During our discussions with the DOT, we found out that this form will need to be renewed in 2023. This will give us an opportunity to collect our experiences when flying in case the form is required. We can then use this information to have this form updated and if we are lucky, not ever be required for blind people.

Item 9 is regarding the foot space. This one is of concern for several reasons. First, nobody other than you and your guide dog can determine how and where you will fit in certain foot space. Many times the flight attendants will see a tall person with a ninety-pound dog and automatically assume that there is no way that the person will fit in a regular row seat. At other times the blind person may want to sit in a different kind of seat because of other concerns not necessarily related to the guide dog. Therefore, it is our opinion that if you are meeting the FAA safety rules of making sure that your feet, your luggage, your dog, and anything else you are traveling with are not in the plane’s aisle, then the ruling about the foot space should not be an issue. Again, this will come down to continuing to educate the airlines.

In closing let me say that while the ruling is not 100 percent the way many of us would like it, I still believe that this new ruling has taken more steps forward than backward, especially regarding the issue of counterfeit guide dogs and emotional support animals. I feel that we need to continue to be vigilant when it comes to traveling with our guide dogs. We need to be aware of our rights and responsibilities, and we need to know that we can ask for a complaints resolution officer (CRO) in case an issue comes up while we are in the plane, and it doesn’t seem like it will get resolved immediately.

Since it looks like the DOT form is here to stay, I propose the following. We should collect as much data as possible when traveling with our guide dogs under this new ruling. The irony has not escaped me that I am suggesting filling out a form regarding the experiences of filling out a form when traveling. The form I am proposing will be similar to what the Uber and Lyft ride share form uses. If we do this, it is possible we can collect data as a way of monitoring the airlines' compliance with the new ruling.

Please reach out to me if you have comments or questions. Also, if you would like to schedule time to speak with me about this or about anything else NFB and guide dog user related, please send me a text or give me a call. However, if you want a guaranteed appointment, follow this link, and book a thirty-minute slot that works for you: https://app.greminders.com/c/rgatechsolutions/r30.

Thanks all and stay safe.

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