Braille Monitor                                                                  August-September 1985


Correspondence with the Airlines: Whim, Abuse, and Insanity

Blind persons who venture to travel on commercial airplanes these days are subjected to unbelievable harassment and abuse. Because the airlines insist on making special rules for the blind, flight attendants and other personnel have the incentive to exercise the natural human urge to custodialize and dominate. In this article we are reprinting correspondence which reveals the pattern.

A blind professor is required to move from his preassigned seat and is thus unable to converse with the sighted professor with whom he is traveling. The airline later apologizes and sends him $150. Blind people are required to sit in window seats and nonchalantly informed that this will insure that they will be the last off in case of emergency. Flight attendants attempt to take blind persons canes. They insist that a blind man demonstrate that he can open and close his seat belt fastener, subjecting him to public embarrassment and humiliation. When pressed, they lie about FAA regulations and act as if the matter were of no consequence. A flight attendant attempts to grab a small child away from its blind mother and then abuses the mother when she resists. Blind persons are forced to move from seats in the exit row, but on the same flight sighted passengers are allowed to sit in the exit row and are served liquor until they pass out and cannot even get off the plane. The airline says that it prefers that a strong, able-bodied man sit in the exit row. Then, it puts an eleven-year-old child (sighted, of course) in the seat.

And all of this (insane though it manifestly is) is done in the name of what? Safety. For every letter we have printed, there are at least a hundred more which could have been used. The samples are illustrative, not exhaustive.

There is a pathetic side note to the issue. A few blind people (notably those connected with the American Council of the Blind) say that we must not challenge airline policies, even if they are unreasonable and humiliating. If you are required to ride in a wheelchair, do it, these people say. Otherwise you may antagonize airline personnel or get them into trouble for breaking the rules. Besides, the writer of the letter says, I didn't know the people who would be seeing me degraded and humiliated, so I wore the badge they put on me. Yes, we are reprinting her letter, just as it appeared in the official voice of the American Council of the Blind, the Braille Forum. This, too, is part of the pattern of damage we have suffered from the airlines. They have cowed some of the blind into submission and so degraded them that they do not even expect to be treated with dignity and respect but only with toleration--at least, perhaps they will be tolerated if they are very humble, very grateful, and very appreciative.

The time for reckoning is long overdue, and it would seem that confrontation and explosion are inevitable. There may be further arrests, physical injury, and perhaps even violence. All of this might possibly still be avoided if the federal Department of Transportation would behave responsibly and put a stop to the intimidation and abuse. However, there seems little likelihood that this will happen.

In the long run the general public will hold the balance of power. When the average person comes to realize how the blind are being treated on the airplanes and how irrational it is, they will not tolerate it. Already there are beginning to be signs of what is to come. We reproduce a letter from a sighted woman who says that neither she nor her family will fly United again.

Here are the letters. For those who have perception to comprehend, they tell an unmistakable story:

Sacramento, California
July 19, 1982

People Express Airlines
Newark International Airport
Newark, New Jersey

To Whom It May Concern:

I am writing to you in regard to the services rendered by your airline. Exactly ten days ago, on July 9, 1982, I traveled on flight number 165 from Boston to Newark International Airport accompanied by my husband and two friends of ours.

The four of us are visually impaired and, therefore, requested assistance in boarding the aircraft. The personnel in the airport were very courteous and helpful. I am sorry to say that the appreciative sentiments ended here.

When we boarded the plane we were greeted by stewardesses Donna and Jane. I am not sure which girl took charge, although I feel that it was the head stewardess on this flight who did all of the announcing. In any event, we were told that each of us had to sit by a window behind one another because we were visually impaired. At first we weren't even given a reason until we questioned it. Supposedly it is an FAA regulation that visually impaired persons are to sit by a window when the airplane is full. I have sight and know that upon take-off that plane was not full. There was even a vacant seat beside my husband.

We were next rudely informed that in case of an emergency, we were to be the last passengers to deplane.

Even if these ridiculous rules exist, the presentation of them was totally obstinate and uncalled for. We were all made to feel very put down and less than human. It seems that we are not as good as your "normal passengers," although our money is treated in an equal fashion. As a paying passenger, I feel that I have the right to sit where I wish to sit. I see this entire incident as an act of discrimination.

My husband and I have flown on various airlines for the past ten years, including your own airline five days prior to this flight. On all of these occasions we were NEVER informed of these outrageous stipulations. I would believe that it could be attributed to the fact that the personnel on these other flights was intelligent enough to realize the stupidity of these rules, if they in fact exist, and were wise enough to avoid insulting a passenger.

I thought that you would be interested in hearing all of our feelings. I am able to read print and am, therefore, requesting that you send me a copy of the FAA's rules concerning the visually impaired. I would also hope that in the future certain personnel would be instructed to use more tact and realize that sometimes certain rules are not worth enforcing at a passenger's expense. After all, who would know or have the time to care about a seating arrangement at the time of an emergency when passengers would be evacuating from all directions, if they were fortunate to survive to do so.

I will be awaiting your response and hope that I, in addition to any other handicapped passenger, never experience such humility again.


Cynthia Dehmer

Newark, New Jersey
July 28, 1982

Dear Cynthia:

Thank you for informing us about your uncomfortable situation on July 9th from Boston to Newark. I am likewise amazed at the extent to which our in-flight team felt compelled to enforce our regulation regarding handicap passenger. I do wish you had gotten the in-flight teams full names so we could communicate directly with them so this type of problem would not continue.

We do have a quick boarding procedure and our in-flight teams are very busy. Perhaps they did not take the time to actually evaluate your vision potential. Regretfully, rules are stretched beyond proportion at time. These rules are especially extended at times when the in-flight teams are new.

We offer our apologies for your unpleasant trip. I can imagine your embarrassment. The rule regarding handicap seating applies to actually handicapped individuals--those being bodily impaired and need to be specially handled. We seat these individuals next to the window so they would not block the exit of able-bodied individuals. It is not a pleasant rule and would only pertain in unplanned emergency evacuations. Due to their unplanned nature the rule applies.

I do hope you see fit to give People Express another try.


Janice L. Green

Note the condescending tone and the illiteracy of the reply. This is exactly the way it was written.

Rochester, Minnesota
February 13, 1984

Mr. Robert L. Crandall
American Airlines
Dallas/Ft. Worth, Texas

Dear Mr. Crandall:

I was a passenger on American Airlines flight 252 from Minneapolis to Washington, D.C. with a stop in Chicago on January 29, 1984. The flight from Minneapolis to Chicago was extremely pleasant and I wish to compliment the crew.

However, in Chicago a crew change took place. There was about a forty-five minute layover but I did not deplane. Near the end of this time I was approached by two flight attendants, Judy Franckowiak and Jane Nelson. They informed me and my friend that there had been an error in seating and that we would have to move. My friend, Stewart Prost, sitting next to me in row 15, asked what kind of error had been made. We were given a vague answer that it had something to do with seat assignments. We requested more specific information as to the nature of the error and they said we were violating an FAA regulation.

Mr. Prost and I happen to be blind and this was apparently the cause of the problem. We were sitting in the row located directly in front of an emergency exit. This is what they claimed was a violation of federal regulations. We are quite familiar with FAA regulations as they pertain to blind persons and are aware of no such regulations. But they brought out a book which they claimed came from the FAA. The page was read to us, and although we did not like it, we moved to row 11.

We asked for a copy of the regulation with the idea that if the FAA did indeed have such a rule, we needed to work with them to change it. We were told that when we landed in Washington an agent would meet us and provide the documentation.

Toward the end of the flight Mr. Prost, who is able to read some print, asked to see the book from which they had read. We discovered that the book was not from the FAA but was the in-flight manual of American Airlines. They were reading from section 70-1 on page 3. We believe it was published in October of 1981. The passage reads as follows:

"Blind passengers may not be seated in a row forward of, adjacent to, or aft of a window exit or in rows with an overwing exit on wide-bodied aircraft."

I believe this is an accurate quote from the manual, but I cannot be sure since your ground personnel refused to give us a copy of the regulation. He alleged that it was illegal for him to reproduce it. Our only information came from what Mr. Prost saw in the book, and I copied it as he read it to me.

After we landed we learned of one final insult. In order that we might be seated in row 11, it was necessary to move two other passengers. They, of course, were sighted. The flight attendants apologized for inconveniencing them and offered to seat them in first-class to make up for the trouble. They were told that it was necessary to move some blind people. Why weren't we offered these seats? Is there a rule which prohibits blind people from sitting in first-class as well?

Please consider the following points:

1. The Minneapolis crew treated me with the same courtesy which they extended to all other passengers. They never mentioned any special rules.

2. The Chicago crew claimed to be doing their job and were not being intentionally discourteous. They were simply obeying orders (although they misinformed us as to the origin of the rules).

3. Your rule assumes a lack of competence on the part of blind persons.

There is no such data to prove that assumption. Blindness is not a factor in how well one handles an emergency. 4. If we are to be expected to follow your rules, as unreasonable as they are, it cannot be illegal for you to provide them to us in writing.

5. Although we should not have been asked to move, further insult was added when we were not offered the first-class seats.

I am a member of the National Federation of the Blind, and I have learned that the biggest problem I face is the lack of confidence that people have in me because of my blindness. With the proper training you, too, can learn to understand that blindness is not a handicap. If you are willing to update your regulations and educate your personnel about the capabilities of blind people, I urge you to contact our President, Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, by writing to the National Federation of the Blind, 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21230.

I know no harm was intended, but that does not excuse the ignorance displayed by the author of these rules. I am sure you will want to rectify this situation so that all blind people can fly with their peers on American Airlines in peace.


Jan Bailey

Minneapolis, Minnesota
February 5, 1985

Mr. Frank Lorenzo
Continental Airlines
Houston, Texas

Dear Mr. Lorenzo:

I am writing to express my shock and outrage at the treatment I received while on board Continental flight 121 from Houston to Phoenix, December 23, 1984.

As I was stowing my carry-on items under the seat in front of me just before take-off, a flight attendant, who identified herself as Evelyn, came up to talk about emergency evacuation. She explained in a very matter-of-fact voice that "of course, you will be the last one off the plane if there is an emergency." I did not respond to this statement. I simply thought to myself that no one was going to tell me that I could not leave an aircraft during an emergency situation until everyone else had evacuated. The flight attendant then proceeded to inform me that an exit window was located directly behind my row. She, however, wanted me to use the doors in an emergency. Thus, not only was I told when to get off the plane during an emergency, but I was also told which exit I was to use.

Why was I treated differently from other passengers? Because I am blind. No one else was instructed as to when or from where to deplane. Blind individuals have faced this type of discrimination previously on Continental and other airlines.

I felt insulted, humiliated, and degraded by this treatment. The assumptions underlying this treatment were that blind individuals cannot exit from an emergency situation as quickly and efficiently as sighted persons and that blind passengers are not as valuable as sighted passengers. These assumptions are false, however. The National Federation of the Blind, of which I am a member, has attempted to work with Continental Airlines and other air carriers to understand that blind persons can travel by airplane just as safely and efficiently as sighted persons.

I would like to know if it is Continental Airlines' policy to tell blind persons that they will be the last passengers off the aircraft in the event of an emergency. Also, I would like to know if it is the policy to tell blind persons to use an exit door rather than an exit window in an emergency. Do you have written policies regarding these matters? If so, please send me a copy of them. If your response is that it is not your policy, what action will you take towards the flight attendant? What action will be taken towards the flight attendant for the treatment I received? What steps will be taken to insure this kind of treatment is not repeated?


Mary Hartle

Sioux City, Iowa
April 9, 1985

Mr. Frank Borman
Eastern Airlines
Miami, Florida

Dear Mr. Borman:

This is a letter of complaint. My complaint is on behalf of two groups of people: Eastern's blind passengers and Eastern's flight attendants. First, let me tell you what happened and then I will state my complaint.

Recently I flew on Eastern Airlines for the first time. I flew round-trip from Kansas City, Missouri, to Knoxville, Tennessee, with a change both ways in Atlanta, Georgia. The outbound portion of my trip was uneventful except for a minor incident. On one of the two flights (I do not recall which one), a flight attendant offered to "put that" away for me. I thought she was offering to hoist my carry-on baggage into the overhead compartment and started to hand it to her and to thank her. She replied by saying that, no, that was not what she meant. She grasped my white cane, shaking it slightly to indicate that "that" referred to my long white cane. I told her that the white cane would stay with me and that she could put the carry-on baggage up if she would. She did so and the incident ended. Let me add at this point that such incidents used to be common, protracted, and, on the part of flight attendants, often angry. Since the Federal Aviation Administration issued a regulation specifically governing the stowage of white canes on airplanes at 14 C.F.R. 121.589(e) most such incidents are as rapid and uneventful as the one I just described. I would have thought nothing of the incident except for what happened later.

When I boarded Eastern's flight 381, scheduled to leave Knoxville at 5:32 p.m. on March 17, 1985, the flight attendant again asked if she could take my white cane. I gave the same answer and she replied by insisting that she had to take my white cane and stow it somewhere away from my seat. I stated that federal law gives me the right to keep my white cane by my seat and she left. Again, nothing more was said and the plane took off for Atlanta. Two times in one weekend trip is quite a high incidence of attempts to take a white cane in view of the FAA's regulation.

It was on Eastern's flight 226 scheduled to leave Atlanta at 7:17 p.m. on March 17, 1985, that the background for these first two incidents became clear to me. I had boarded, stowed my white cane by the fuselage as provided in the FAA regulation, and again declined to give my white cane to the flight attendant. Several minutes later, while boarding was still going on, a woman came to my seat and stated that she was "Gerri, the senior flight attendant." She heavily emphasized the word "senior" and her tone was designed to intimidate the passenger. Gerri stated that I must give her my white cane to stow in a place away from my seat. I replied that the FAA had issued a regulation on this subject and that my cane was stowed in accordance with the regulation. We blind people have had trouble with this point for years, and I have armed myself with the information necessary to assert my rights in such a situation.

I therefore told Gerri to look up the stowage of baggage section in the Eastern flight manual in the cockpit. She replied that she had already looked it up in her own flight manual which stated that the white cane had to be stowed away from my seat. I again asked her to look in the cockpit flight manual and to bring it back to my seat. I know that the sentence dealing with white canes of blind persons is at the very end of the carryon baggage section and usually overlooked by busy, annoyed flight attendants. This obviously irritated Gerri, who replied testily that she was a senior flight attendant and that she had just completed a retraining course which meant that she was very familiar with all applicable rules and regulations. Gerri stated that she knew that my white cane could not be stowed where it was because one of the questions on the test had concerned canes and the correct answer was that only collapsible canes could be stowed near a passenger seat. I replied that I didn't know anything about that, but that I knew my long, noncollapsible white cane could be stowed as it was by the fuselage according to federal law. Gerri then asked me why, if all other kinds of canes could not thus be stowed, would the FAA allow the blind to stow our white canes as mine was stowed. I replied that I did not know, but that the FAA had done precisely that. Gerri then told me, in a disgusted tone, that she was going to get the captain. I told her that there was no need to involve the captain, that the federal law said what I said it said and that she might as well just get the ground crew. She left.

Several minutes later Gerri came back and walked into the row immediately ahead of mine, where she started fiddling with the end of my white cane which extended part way into that row along the fuselage. I said, assuming it was Gerri up there, that the white cane was stowed according to the FAA regulations. Gerri replied, in a tone far more irritated than she had thus far used: "I know it is. I'm just trying to" do something with it, which I could not quite hear. After fiddling for a minute more, she left.

Now for the complaint on behalf of blind persons. Blind persons who choose to use white canes as a method of moving around need the information given to us by the white cane. With the cane, we can move safely wherever we choose to go. Without it, we do not have the information and therefore have less safety. We need our white canes to move safely and efficiently around the airplane during flight, to visit friends on the flight, to use the restroom, and, most importantly, to evacuate safely in case of an emergency.

This very issue was discussed between thousands of blind persons and thousands of flight attendants over a number of years during the period when the FAA had no rule or an ambiguous rule on the subject. We insisted. Flight attendants insisted. Tempers often flared on one or both sides. The firing point for a blind person was usually the flight attendant's condescending tone and insulting approach in assuring the blind passenger that the flight attendant "would take care of you in an emergency." But all that is behind us now, or it should be. I fly all over the country and am a frequent flier on other airlines. As I say, Eastern's treatment of me was extremely unusual. But, more than that, it was discriminatory and it was wrong under federal law. I do know my rights as a blind air passenger. Not every blind person does.

Gerri's approach to me was the common approach to blind passengers in the days before the FAA stepped in. First, she tried to pull rank. Then, she told me that she had consulted the book I referred her to, even though she had not, and that it didn't say what I know it says. Then, she argued with me that the rule was unfair. Then, she insisted that retraining made her much more of an expert on the subject than I am. Then, she tried to frighten me with bringing the captain. To all of this, I merely replied that federal law says what it says. But many blind people do not know exactly what federal law says, do not have the citation to the Code of Federal Regulations with them, have not read enough cockpit flight manuals to know that the FAA words are there, and can be intimidated and coerced like other people by the threat of authority and trouble and causing a fuss. Three of four Eastern crews with which I flew did not know the law and tried to make me give up a right of mine. How many blind people are intimidated, frightened, coerced into giving up their right by such a barrage? I don't know, but we can both guess that it is quite a number.

My second complaint is on behalf of the flight attendants. Gerri was simply doing what she understood to be her job. She was irritated at a passenger who did not simply comply with her original order. She grew more irritated the more I showed that I was familiar with airline practice and applicable regulations and was not going to be awed by her authority. But, in the end, she was simply and flagrantly embarrassed by her own reliance on the retraining course she had just completed. I am sure that Gerri is a good flight attendant, proud of her fine work record, and careful of the safety of passengers and of the company's safety record. But her reliance on Eastern was misplaced with regard to knowledge about blind passengers. She had quite simply and straightforwardly been misinformed on the subject, uttered harsh and intemperate words on the subject in her dealing with a blind passenger in reliance on this misinformation, and had to eat her words when she found that the passenger was right. The flight attendants have reason to complain about their training if they are told that the long, inflexible white canes of blind passengers cannot be stowed by the passenger's seat. According to Gerri, that is just what they are told.

So why am I writing? Where does all of this get us? Didn't I keep my white cane all the way as I insist that I have the right to do? Yes, but what about other blind passengers and what about the misinformed flight attendants? What shall we do about them?

The easiest solution to the whole situation is for Eastern to step into the growing line of major air carriers that are working closely with the National Federation of the Blind to train flight attendants correctly and to write procedures concerning the carriage of blind passengers that make sense and accord with reality. Under authority granted to the air carriers by the FAA, most airlines have (and I am sure Eastern has) a procedure for the carriage of blind passengers. Blind passengers are grouped under the broader category of "handicapped passengers" and subject to numerous restrictions and special requirements, which are labeled as the airline's method of facilitating the carriage of the handicapped, a task which the airline would not otherwise perform. I cannot speak to the carriage of any passengers other than the blind but do know this: Blind passengers need no special requirements, want no special treatment, often refuse it when offered, and are getting sick and tired of special, unnecessary treatment which segregates us from other passengers and is based on the premise that we cannot travel without assistance. We can and do, thousands of us every day. The growing trend among the major air carriers is to define blind passengers out of the category of handicapped passengers for purpose of air travel.

This is precisely what we want. We want to be treated as every other passenger is treated, no better and no worse.

Hand in hand with this redefinition of the blind passenger, a number of major air carriers are conducting training in cooperation with the National Federation of the Blind for flight attendants. We understand that the public perception of blind people is one of helplessness and incompetence. We have come together in the Federation to change that perception. In the context of air travel, the assumption that the blind are helpless leads flight attendants to do truly amazing things when all the blind passenger wants is to fly in peace. It is in our interest and in that of the flight attendants that their training include a clear, easy method of understanding that the blind passenger is just like any other passenger. Some of the major air carriers have invited Federation representatives to attend training classes to explain this to flight attendants. The message is most clear when conveyed by a blind person about blind persons to flight attendants who will be dealing with thousands of blind persons throughout their careers. More and more major carriers are filming such classes and regularly showing these films to all flight attendants. Proper training in the stowage of the white cane can easily be integrated into this training session.

So, you see, I have two complaints and they are deeply felt ones. I also have a solution, ready-made for you, if you wish to handle the problem easily and completely. Please let me know your thoughts on this problem and on the solution I have suggested. I hope my travel plans do not include Eastern again until the flight attendants learn at least that white canes can be stowed by a blind passenger's seat. I hope that I will be flying Eastern again soon.


Peggy Pinder, President
National Federation of the Bind of Iowa

Miami, Florida
June 24, 1985

Dear Ms. Pinder:

Mr. Borman was greatly concerned to learn of the difficulties you encountered when traveling with us on March 17. He has asked that I respond to your letter and extend our apologies for any inconvenience or disappointment that was caused.

We have reviewed our flight operations manual which specifically indicates that blind passengers utilizing a white cane may, in fact, stow it as you suggested. Apparently the two flight attendants involved in the situations you described were not familiar with this Eastern policy and we have, therefore, followed up correctively to prevent a recurrence of the types of happenings you described.

Thank you for writing. We can serve you in a completely satisfactory manner and look forward to an opportunity of providing it the next time you travel with us.


John Cline
Executive Staff

Observe the nature of Eastern's reply. Is the tone one of real concern, and do they really intend to take corrective action? Whatever their intent, incidents with Eastern continue. What would the media do (and, for that matter, what would the FAA and Eastern itself do) if the confrontation had involved discrimination not against a blind person but a woman or a black. Of course, it may be replied that we are not dealing with discrimination but safety. That is what used to be said about back seats on the bus and segregated toilets and water fountains for the blacks. Just a matter of safety. No discrimination at all just a matter of safety.

Lawrence, Kansas
May 15, 1985

Mr. Eugene Dieringer, Director
Consumer Relations
American Airlines
Dallas/Ft. Worth, Texas

Dear Mr. Dieringer:

On Monday, May 13, I had occasion to fly from Newark to Kansas City on American Airlines. My colleague, Professor Margaret Schadler, and I were returning from a professional trip aboard American flight 47 from Newark to Chicago, changing there to American flight 119 to Kansas City. I am a blind person and travel with a dog guide. Professor Schadler is a sighted person.

The actions of personnel aboard flight 47: 1) prevented me from maintaining a pre-assigned seat adjacent to that of Professor Schadler; 2) required me, after being comfortably seated and made to feel welcome, to abandon my pre assigned seat and move to a bulkhead seat for a patently false reason; 3) required another sighted passenger to abandon his seat in the bulkhead area so that I might be required to sit there; 4) required the other passenger to move to the seat with Professor Schadler, which I was required to relinquish; 5) compensated the stranger, whom Professor Schadler later described as a "less than sober cargo pilot who insisted on conversation" with two free drinks, courtesy of American Airlines, while making no similar gesture to me; and 6) required my dog guide to move from an ordinary seat (row fifteen, which is not an exit row) where floor space was generous due to the availability of storage area beneath the seat ahead and to move to the bulkhead area, where floor space is limited due to the absence of such storage area. The pretext for requiring us to move in the fashion just described was "for the dog's comfort." When I pointed out the more ample space and increased comfort which my dog enjoyed in our pre-assigned seat in row fifteen, the flight attendant shifted to another reason, which was that "we have our rules."

I am outraged at the discriminatory treatment which your personnel inflicted upon me during that flight. I was publicly humiliated by their actions. My colleague and I were prevented from visiting while traveling. My dog was knowingly required to occupy cramped space. I was forced to disturb another passenger's travel arrangements. That other passenger was in turn a nuisance to my colleague, and was compensated for the inconvenience caused to him by your incomprehensible rules.

I should also describe my treatment from Chicago to Kansas City. Professor Schadler and I rejoined each other after deplaning in Chicago, and boarded together on flight 119. We were greeted cordially by your flight attendants, shown to our seats (this time row ten, another ordinary row of seats), and were made to feel welcome. One flight attendant admired the dog, remarked at his excellent behavior and apparent comfort in traveling, and we were served the usual beverage choice just as other passengers were. Although I was terrified of another violation of my rights to enjoy public transportation, that did not occur. I felt irrationally grateful when the flight was over, grateful for the simple courtesy of being treated like anyone else. Professor Schadler noted that the only difference she could observe about the two flights was that on the second, where I was allowed to retain my pre-assigned seat, there were no other persons assigned to the bulkhead area.

I fail to understand why we who are blind, and have the same right to participate in public life as anyone else, have to live in fear of the kind of humiliating and discriminating treatment which your personnel sometimes inflict upon us. In my capacity as Director of Rehabilitation Psychology Training at the University of Kansas, I am today requesting all persons who may have occasion to travel by air, and who may need to do so in connection with business of our training activities, to avoid using American Airlines. I am requesting them to do so until some satisfactory explanation is provided, an apology is forthcoming from those responsible for my treatment, and some concrete corrective steps are taken to insure that such abuse does not befall me or others in future flights. Let me also say that two free drinks will not suffice.


Charles E. Hallenbeck, Ph.D.
Professor of Psychology
Director, Rehabilitation
Psychology Training Program
University of Kansas

Baltimore, Maryland
May 22, 1985

Mr. William Crosby
Vice President
Passenger Service
American Airlines
Dallas/Ft. Worth, Texas

Dear Mr. Crosby:

Blind passengers continue to be subjected to irrational harassment by American Airlines personnel. I do not expect you to change your policy, for it has long since been apparent that you either cannot or will not. A tremendous amount of evidence is being accumulated. I herewith submit to you an illustrative letter. I have hundreds more. Perhaps you would like to tell me that the humiliation to which Professor Hallenbeck was subjected was simply a matter of "safety."

Kenneth Jernigan, President
National Federation of the Blind

Southgate, Michigan
June 27, 1985

Mr. Robert L. Crandall
American Airlines
Dallas/Ft. Worth, Texas

Dear Mr. Crandall:

I am letting you know about the unfair treatment I received from American Airlines personnel on Tuesday, June 25, 1985. I got on board American flight 66 in Phoenix, Arizona, to Chicago to then change to another American flight to go on home to Detroit. I was assigned seat 16-F, which is an overwing emergency exit. After I had sat there for about fifteen minutes, an American passenger supervisor by the name of Arthur Schmitt came up to me and said that I had to move to another seat. I told him that I would not change my seat because that was the seat originally assigned to me. I said, "I know why you are making me move, simply because I am blind and no other reason and that it was ridiculous to make me move." I told him after talking for five minutes or so that I would write a strong letter to the President of American Airlines. He said that if I did not move out of my seat, the plane could not leave the ground.

Mr. Crandall, I did move, only so that I could get home and not make it hard for other passengers. As you know, some members of the National Federation of the Blind have done this, and it has not resolved the matter. We need to work this out in an adult manner. Please work with the National Federation of the Blind. We are very much as capable of getting out in an emergency as anyone else is.


Robert Rehahn

American replied to President Jernigan and also to Dr. Hallenbeck. They said they were sorry, that they were greatly concerned, and that they would try to see that it didn't happen again. They also sent Dr. Hallenbeck a travel voucher for $150, raising the price of the peace offering from a "couple of drinks" to a more substantial figure. All that need be said is this: If they had not had special rules concerning the blind, the whole thing would never have occurred in the first place. Moreover, regardless of their intention, the incidents with American still continue--and, of course, they are likely to keep on continuing as long as the special rules are in force. Human nature and the built-in incentives insure it.

Chicago, Illinois
May 2, 1985

Dear President Jernigan:

On my way to attend the scholarship committee meeting at our national headquarters in Baltimore via United Airlines, six people experienced the inconvenience of a forced change of seats because some children were sitting in an exit row. My seat mate commented that he had seen that occur often. I then told him what happened to my wife Peg and me after last November's national board meeting.

We arrived at BWI Airport to discover that our flight had been overbooked. We requested seating in the no smoking section. The only two seats remaining were single seats in the smoking section of coach. We were offered seats in first-class, which we gladly accepted. What happened to us there was most interesting in light of our discussion of the safety issue with regard to blind people sitting in an exit row, or anywhere else on an aircraft, for that matter.

Our flight was to last one hour and thirty-five minutes. Before we left the gate we were served a glass of champagne. Within minutes we were offered several cocktails; during lunch we could have had two glasses of wine each; after lunch, aperitifs were offered. In all, seven drinks were ours for the asking. I know of no medical, legal, or any other authority who will assert that alcohol in that quantity, in that short period of time, makes one's reaction time quicker, whether in an emergency situation or under ordinary circumstances.

Peg, who is an attorney, and I discussed the issues involved at some length. We both concluded that safety is not at issue here at all. If it were, the airlines would at least impose restrictions on the kind and quantity of alcoholic beverages served aboard a passenger airliner. If safety were really the issue, it is entirely conceivable that airlines would refrain from serving alcohol at all. It gave us both much food for thought.

After I had described this situation to my seat mate last week, he said it was the silliest thing he had ever heard and that in an emergency situation blindness would be no more an impediment than hysteria and there is no way to determine who will become hysterical during an emergency aboard an aircraft.

Very truly yours,

Stephen O. Benson, President
National Federation of the Blind of Illinois

Chicago, Illinois
July 8, 1985

Dear Dr. Jernigan:

On Sunday, July 7, 1985, my wife Peg and I boarded Delta flight 1266 at Louisville, Kentucky, bound for Chicago. We were assigned seats 18-D and E, exit row seats on the DC-9, which we took without question or challenge by the flight crew.

Peg sat in the window seat, I sat in the center seat. We stowed my long white cane between the seat and the cabin wall; it was visible.

As we waited for takeoff, I thoroughly examined the window exit and arrived at several conclusions: Blindness is not a barrier to opening and clearing the window; blind people would have no more difficulty than anybody else exiting the window; if safety is really at issue, nobody should be permitted to sit in exit rows; and exit row seats should be removed completely to maximize quick and easy egress.

It occurred to me that obese or old people might encounter problems getting through the relatively small opening. It also occurred to me that panic would be disastrous for passengers attempting to escape through a window exit.

My conclusions were based on sound logic, good sense, some knowledge of physics, and physical fitness. As far as I know, there is not now, nor has there ever been, a test of air passengers to determine likelihood of panic or poor judgment, and the question of physical ability to evacuate an aircraft was quashed in 1973. It is inconceivable to me that any air carrier could or would develop a physical fitness test that could apply equally to all air passengers or that would be accepted as fair or reasonable by the flying public. Such a test would simply drive the air carriers out of business.

As far as I know, there is no airline regulation or policy with regard to a passenger's girth or age. There appears to be no restriction of seat assignment for these passengers. Only blindness is at issue.

I haven't touched upon alcohol, but it is clear to me that a passenger whose perception and judgment were fuzzied by alcohol would have a devil of a time getting through those window exits quickly and efficiently. It is interesting to note that passengers seated in exit rows can fill themselves to capacity with alcohol. That seems to fly in the face of concerns for safety.

Dr. Jernigan, I am certain that the crew of Delta flight 1266 knew that I was blind and that row 18 was a window exit row. Their failure to inquire about or challenge our seating, as far as I am concerned, was a matter of lax performance or was a clear demonstration that the condition of one's visual perception was and is irrelevant to passenger safety.

Flight 1266 proceeded to O'Hare Field without incident, and as we left the plane none of the crew made any acknowledgement of our having been seated incorrectly or in violation of policy or regulation.

Very truly yours,

Stephen O. Benson, President
National Federation of the Blind of Illinois

Omaha, Nebraska
June 20, 1985

Consumer Affairs
Department Republic Airlines
Minneapolis, Minnesota

Ladies and Gentlemen:

I am writing on behalf of my family, which includes myself, my husband, and our four-year-old daughter, regarding an incident, or several, which occurred on Republic's flight number 847 from Minneapolis to Omaha, departure time, approximately 5:40 p.m. Tuesday evening, June 18, 1985.

We were assigned to row one and proceeded to board following the announcement for those in the first three rows. As we boarded, one of the flight attendants curtly said to us, not in these exact words, "You should have been on already. You should have been pre boarded." What she was referring to was our blindness--both my husband and I are totally blind. We explained to her that preboarding is not a requirement but a request; that the ultimate choice is ours. She was not pleased but left us alone. We expected the rest of the flight to go smoothly. It did, until we were to deplane.

As we were coming up the aisle minding our own business, a flight attendant, very possibly the same one who had spoken to us so rudely earlier, grabbed our daughter's hand and stated that she was taking her. When we stated that we were taking her, she became angry and emphatically shouted that it was her responsibility to take her; that it was in her job description. My husband immediately informed her that the only time she is required to take children off the plane is if they are unaccompanied by an adult. I informed her that this child was accompanied by two adults--two competent adults who happened to be her parents. She did finally relinquish our child's hand but proceeded to shout about how she treated everyone with respect. How she could say this in honesty and treat us so disrespectfully is beyond me--or is it? I know from her actions that she had no malicious intent, however, the damage was done nevertheless. I also realize that her knowledge about the capabilities of trained blind people is minimal or we would not have received such treatment.

All kinds of frightening thoughts go through the mind of a mother whose child is being ripped away for no reason, possible kidnapping being only one of them. Although I was quite sure that nothing of that sort was occurring at this particular time, I believe that for us to be allowed to take our own children off the plane certainly lessens the possibility for such occurrences. However, the main reason for us to be allowed to take our own children off is, of course, that there is no reason why we cannot competently do so.

And now for my suggestions: I would suggest that when situations come up regarding the treatment of blind people, that it be considered that blind people most likely know more about their needs or lack thereof than a flight attendant. It's okay to ask us if we might need some special assistance, but never to force it upon us. Further, I am asking for some kind of remedy to this situation, whether it be financially, and/or to work directly with the National Federation of the Blind on matters concerning blind passengers.

We the blind have been battling with various airline companies regarding stowage of white canes, dog guides, and where we can sit, all of which are unreasonable issues. But in this case, we're not talking about inanimate objects, we're talking about a flesh-and-blood child--our child. I think this is cruel and unreasonable and arbitrary action on the part of the flight attendant and I want her to be properly re-educated and whatever that may imply.

Thank you for your time and concern. We have traveled Republic several times with very few problems and are really disappointed and outraged at this event. We hope you will correct the indignity.


Mrs. Lauren L. Ecker

P.S. The NFB is over fifty thousand members strong. What affects two blind people and their child in Nebraska affects all of the Federation and their families and friends.

Elyria, Ohio
June 22, 1985

Customer Relations
Midway Airlines
Chicago, Illinois

Dear Sirs:

I am writing to complain about treatment I received in a recent flight on your airline. Actually, there were problems on two flights. I traveled with my wife on Thursday, June 13, 1985, on Midway flight 337 from Cleveland to Chicago, and returned on Midway flight 330 on Saturday, June 15.

Just prior to takeoff from Cleveland, the stewardess, Anne Ellidge, on flight 337 approached me in my seat, 11-B (my wife was in 11-A) which are exit seats. She advised me that she "had to show me how to use the oxygen mask and tell me where the exit doors are located." She did this and then proceeded to ask me if my seat belt was fastened, which it was. I told her it was but she didn't seem to believe me at first despite my showing it to her. She then proceeded to ask me to show her how to open and close the seat belt. She advised me that it is company rules that she do this. I assume because I happen to be blind. I advised her that I had flown thousands of miles and needed no practice or test to be able to do my seat belt. The plane was nearly full, and I am sure others wondered what all this was about.

I asked Ms. Ellidge to show me the rules in question but she denied my request, indicating she didn't have enough time due to the length of the flight.

On the return flight, flight 33 0, Saturday, June 15, we were again assigned seats in 11-A and B. After we were well settled in the gate an agent came to us and indicated that he "had made the worst mistake in the airline industry" by putting us in the exit row. He asked us to move to first-class, which we did under protest.

I might add there was no lesson on the the simple use of the seat belt or the oxygen mask. One of the stewardesses, who I presume was helping in the boarding process, ran over to us as we were going up the steps to the plane and said she had to show us where the exit doors are. I told her I was familiar with them and needed no demonstration. She then backed off.

I think the matter of asking me to demonstrate how I open and close the seat belt is the most humiliating and demeaning thing I have ever had inflicted on me by any airline personnel. And I have flown with most of them, including four overseas flights and several cross-country flights. I fail to see any connection with blindness and being able to open and close a seat belt. I can hear about the location of exit doors just as well as others on the plane do. Miss Ellidge seemed to feel that I needed a private lesson. This is ridiculous. I also find it interesting that she was not able to produce the regs. Are there really such regs?

As for the incident in Chicago on the 15th, I fail to understand why we were seated in the same seats coming out but denied being able to sit in the exit row coming back. I would like to. have a good chance to evacuate if necessary. The gate agent couldn't seem to understand why we were making "such a big issue of this." I suppose he doesn't.

Blind people are trying to be a part of society and feel we should have free and unrestricted access to public transportation. Further, I think about what a potential employer of a qualified blind person watching among the other passengers would think about hiring a person who couldn't open and close a seat belt or who had to be specially instructed in such a simple task. They would probably think twice before hiring someone who needed special help.

It appears to me that your employees are poorly trained in regard to dealing with disabled persons. They can't even carry out what are allegedly set rules.

Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, President of the National Federation of the Blind, 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, Maryland 212 30, is leading the blind to the place in society we feel we deserve and will have. He can provide more information on blindness, the Federation, and how your personnel can learn to better deal with disabled passengers.

I again want to indicate my disgust for the treatment by the crews in question. I might add my wife is fully sighted and was insulted at the treatment both on general principles and because the behavior implied she is incapable of evacuating through an exit door and assisting me in any way I might need. She was also very uncomfortable in your first-class seats, which are too high for her short legs and too close together.


Philip R. Copeland

Portland, Oregon
July 15, 1985

Dear National Federation of the Blind:

I was a passenger on the United flight leaving Louisville, Kentucky, bound for Chicago, Illinois, on July 7th. I witnessed the arrest of several blind people for sitting in the emergency exit seats. I was sincerely saddened by the harsh, unfair, and degrading treatment of these people and their canine companions.

I'll be more than happy to be a witness or sign any papers on behalf of these people if they're in need of a witness.

I've also written United and informed them of my feelings concerning their treatment of people and their overbooking procedure. I nor any member of my family will ever fly United again. I truly wish my donation could be larger, but please know my support is from the heart.

Rosemond Conner

Iowa Park, Texas
July 19, 1985

Dear Mr. Jernigan:

On the return trip from the national convention in Louisville, we had an amusing experience. I had taken my eleven-year-old grandson, Jason, to the convention with me. He thoroughly enjoyed it and was appalled at some of the information he received. He listened intently most of the time. One of the things he picked up on was about the airlines.

When we got our boarding passes, I requested a window seat for him. There was no problem, and I was cheerfully taken care of. On boarding the plane and locating our seats, Jason began to examine our surroundings. He said, "Mamma, I bet you can't guess what row we're sitting in.

Knowing how interested he had been in the discussions, I thought I had a clue. I responded by saying, "Let me try. The exit row?"

During those discussions someone stated that an airline employee had said that they always tried to seat a strong, able-bodied man in the seat by the exit.

Now, Jason is sighted and is a healthy young man. But as I said, he is only eleven. He is about four feet and six inches tall, and weighs about sixty-five pounds. We were confident that one or both of us could have opened the exit, but it rather contradicted the statement of a "strong, able-bodied man."

Jason and I had a little smile out of it, but he saw a minor piece of evidence of what we had talked about.


Lola Pace

The following letter appeared in the September, 1984, issue of the Braille Forum, the official publication of the American Council of the Blind. It underscores again the fact that, contrary to what is repeatedly said, we are not all working for the same thing. Therefore: No, we can't get together and join forces. Some blind persons not only still live with slave mentality but have been so conditioned by society that they cannot comprehend any other way of life. Observe both the substance and the tone of the letter which follows. It symbolizes a whole pattern of existence--a system which is dying and an era which is coming to an end. We do not wish to be arrogant, but neither do we wish to crawl on our bellies and apologize for being alive. There is the middle ground of self-respect, understanding, normal give and take, and human dignity:

Dear Editor:

I'm upset by the article in the July Braille Forum reporting on testimony before a Congressional committee about the treatment of blind and visually handicapped travelers by the airlines. It and many private comments I hear at conventions, etc. have the overtone of: "Those stupid sighted people act outrageously!"

Being totally blind, a rehabilitation teacher for over 30 years, and an active participant in many sighted organizations, I understand these irritations and frustrations only too well. However, I believe that criticism and venting of anger is a deterrent in achieving our goals of independence and acceptance as equals. I believe that education and being understanding and "like others" is the more productive course.

We have to recognize and accept the realistic fact that blind and visually impaired persons constitute a small portion of the population. If they also are nonwhite, women, or burdened by mental or additional physical limitations, then we are even a smaller minority. Many sighted persons go throughout life without ever speaking to one of us. Fortunately the media is doing a lot to change public opinion, but even then the reaction often is: "Well, he's one in a million." I have had sighted friends with whom I have worked in organizations for many years suddenly pop out with: "But how do you know which color of shoes you are wearing?" or "How can you cook without burning yourself?"

Sight seems so absolutely essential to most people that it is very difficult to accept the possibility of functioning satisfactorily without it. Many blind persons fail to recognize this "lurking disbelief" even in their closest associates. As a result, a blind person is so annoyed by a question like, "How do you find your mouth to eat?" that he may give a flip answer that will "put down" the questioner and make him uneasy about associating with visually handicapped people.

Sure, it seems stupid when a would-be guide who is facing you directs his voice toward your right and says, "Go to the left..." Remember, you have probably experienced such situations many times, but it may be the first time for that sighted person. We have to learn to obey the direction of the voice rather than the words.

I believe that almost everyone wants to assist a visually handicapped person, primarily because they cannot imagine anything worse happening to someone. With my philosophy, I find it much easier to be patient, tolerant, and appreciative of good intentions. If we can't exhibit these qualities, people trying to be helpful will avoid us.

Further, no two blind persons are alike or want the same type of assistance. How can the stranger know? I know totally blind persons who are very capable in some areas but need an extra amount of assistance in other areas. I know legally blind persons who do need help in strange places or in poor lighting. If our actions indicate we have a visual limitation, or if a stewardess calls ahead for "assistance," how can the provider know just how much to offer? I think we need to educate people to ask how they can be helpful, but we should not humiliate them if they make assumptions based on no experience or on prior experience.

Also, we need to recognize that policies are set up to make it easier and more efficient for airport staff. Why make a scene just because we don't like their policies? If the airline has arranged for an electric cart, or even a wheelchair, it doesn't hurt us to go along. After the Philadelphia convention, I made a short trip to Virginia.The airline asked me to wear a large button reading, "Assistive Services. " I didn't particularly like the "publicity," but I didn't know any of those who might read it. And why ask them to break rules when, in all other respects, they were most courteous and helpful? If I refused to obey rules and some accident happened, then the staff member is to blame.

Ms. Hartman was indignant that some multihandicapped* person would be asked to sit on a blanket for fear he could not control his bladder. Experience probably caused that ruling. I know individuals who have been careless and have had accidents with themselves and with their dog guides. Our personal behavior is the only way to offset fears of this kind.

I have taken a lot of words to make a plea that we blind and visually handicapped people try to understand those who want to help us and to seek ways of quietly demonstrating our abilities and expressing our needs. There is no one rule or method that meets all our needs. Let's encourage public transit companies to understand that we are all different and not to assume we should be treated alike.

Perhaps the American Council of the Blind could set up some national recognition for the most considerate public transit company.

Juliet Esterly
Walnut Creek, California

* The comment that it is "multihandicapped" persons who have been required (not "asked") to sit on a blanket while flying illustrates the kind of thinking which some of the blind have been bamboozled into accepting. We know of two blind persons who have been required to sit on blankets while flying. Both refused--and neither was multihandicapped. Both received monetary cash damage payments from the airline. Each was subjected to abuse and public humiliation for refusing to sit on the blanket--and it was all done in the name of what? Safety. There comes a time when even the most anciently honorable misconception must crumble. The blind of today were not born yesterday, and the day of reckoning is surely at hand.