Leave the Blind Guy Alone
by David Milner
From the Editor: David Milner is a Federationist who lives in Austin, Texas. In the following article he tells an all too familiar story with an encouraging new twist. This is what he says:
On October 12, 1998, Buddy Brannan and I were going home after a visit to Buddy's workplace, where I had just finished applying for a job. Once we had gotten off the DART train, we made our way to the bus stop for the final leg of the trip to Buddy's apartment. Neither of us was expecting anything unusual.
We noticed that the bus we needed to take was already parked at its stop with the doors closed. We approached the bus, ready to get on. First the driver opened the doors, but when Buddy and his dog guide Karl attempted to board, the driver said no pets were allowed on the bus and closed the bus doors, hitting Karl in the process. When the bus driver saw that we weren't going away, he opened the doors again and Buddy and I climbed aboard.
As we sat down, the driver again said that Buddy couldn't bring Karl onto the bus, and Buddy informed the bus driver that he was wrong since Karl was a dog guide. At the same time I also told the driver that Karl was a dog guide, thinking that this worthy might for some reason be under the impression that Karl was a pet, even though Karl was in harness. I felt sure that, once the bus driver made the connection, Buddy would be left alone, and we would all be on our way.
Unfortunately, this individual did not seem to know about the rights of dog guide users in the United States. He got up from his driver's seat and again demanded that Buddy and Karl get off the bus, informing us that the bus would not move until Karl was gone. To this Buddy said, "Well, looks like we'll be here a while." I've ridden city busses in several cities for twenty years, and this was the first time I had ever seen a bus driver refuse service to a dog guide user. I was honestly stunned by this driver's lack of comprehension of state and federal law.
I was also beginning to worry a bit. The bus should already have left the train station, and our fellow passengers were beginning to get restless, wanting the bus to get moving. I knew about the times blind people have had to brave the abuse of travelers in crowded busses and aircraft while asserting their humanity and defending their rights. Would we be arrested, dragged from the bus like criminals? I didn't know. The one thing I was sure of, however, was that neither Buddy nor I was leaving the bus until it arrived at our stop.
Perhaps the driver sensed the mood of the crowd because he appealed to them, asking if they weren't afraid of Karl. He was surprised, I believe, to find that his assessment of his passengers was incorrect. Some of them laughed at the bus driver, and others made disdainful noises. Their reaction was best summed up by one passenger who said, "No! We ain't scared of him! That dog just looks like he wants to go to sleep!"
The driver told Buddy that, if he didn't leave the bus, the driver would have to get a transit policeman to remove him. I informed the driver that Karl was allowed to go anywhere Buddy went, according to federal law. Buddy said, "Go get the policeman, then." The bus driver was gone for about five minutes. During that time the comments from the crowd ran the gamut from "That driver can't do that" to "He should just get in that seat and drive this bus."
The Park Lane DART light rail station has no shortage of Dallas transit police officers, so it was puzzling to Buddy and me that it took so long for the bus driver to locate an officer. We speculated later that the driver had probably gone from one officer to another until he found one who would back his demand that Buddy and Karl leave the bus.
The bus driver returned with an officer in tow who wanted Buddy and Karl to get off the bus. Buddy said that he had the right to ride the bus with his dog guide. As I had done with the driver, I informed the transit officer that Buddy was within his rights under the law to take Karl with him on the bus.
By this time something like a siege had developed. The bus driver and transit officer were receiving light jeering from the other passengers, who were making comments such as "Leave the blind guy alone, and let's go!" and "He can ride this bus with that dog!" The mood was beginning to become unpleasant.
The transit officer consulted his supervisor by radio; and, not surprisingly, the supervisor confirmed that dog guides were indeed allowed on DART busses. The bus driver had heard the radio message, and the officer told him to proceed with his route. Then the transit officer turned on the bus passengers, warning them against interfering with transit personnel. The bus left the train station with Buddy, Karl, and me on board, and the rest of our trip home was without incident.
Buddy and I analyzed the incident at the train station once we had returned to his apartment. I observed that I was impressed with the way our fellow passengers had come to the defense of Buddy and his rights as a dog guide user.
Later that evening we were saddened to hear that Dr. Jernigan had just died. As I'm sure other blind people around the world did once they received the news, Buddy and I talked of the positive influence Dr. Jernigan had had on the overall condition of blind people. The very day of his death was indicative of his impact in several ways. Before Dr. Jernigan's participation in the National Federation of the Blind, gainful employment and heading one's own household were only a dream for most blind people. Most of us would not have thought of moving from city to city by ourselves or applying for and getting jobs in mainstream industries.
What struck me as most significant, however, was the way the man in the street has become more and more aware of the capabilities and rights of the blind. Much has been said about the world today, changed by the Federation, which in turn Dr. Jernigan cared for and strengthened through many years of struggle. In the end, however, for me the measure of his impact came down to the day of his death, when a crowd of people on a city bus defended the rights of a blind man. These weren't members of the NFB or advocates for the blind--simply ordinary people who knew the law and weren't about to see it ignored, even if it meant that they themselves were inconvenienced.
The most enduring social change is that which is recognized and championed by the people themselves. Dr. Jernigan's tireless work in nurturing the National Federation of the Blind has enabled the message of the humanity of blind people to be heard and understood by those who would otherwise have been unaware of it. Among everyday people ignorance and superstition concerning the blind are fading away. They are being replaced by a growing willingness to welcome us into society as equals. This basic social evolution is, in my view, Dr. Jernigan's most enduring legacy.