Braille Monitor                                                    December 2008

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International Travel Still No Picnic for the Blind

Rami RabbyFrom the Editor: We in the United States have fought our share of airline wars, and unfortunate incidents continue to occur with distressing regularity at ticketing desks, with TSA screeners, in gate areas, and onboard aircraft. Employees avoid speaking to us directly if they can find anyone else to whom to address their questions. Cabin crew members take it into their heads to check our ability to fasten the seat belt or suggest moving us into or out of bulkhead seats. In short, when a blind passenger gets to his or her destination using a domestic air carrier without having experienced a frustrating or annoying incident, the event is worth celebrating.

It is useful, if dismaying, therefore to be reminded of how much different things can be, particularly in the developing world. On October 16, 2008, I was copied on an exchange of email messages that remind us just how far we must still travel before blind people can count on only the degree of frustration and inconvenience that surround other international airline passengers. The first message was written by Rami Rabby, who served for a time as secretary of the National Federation of the Blind. The response is from Larry Campbell, chief executive officer of the International Council for the Education of People with Visual Impairment. The letters are painfully self-explanatory. Here they are:

From: Avraham (Rami) Rabby, Tel-Aviv, Israel
To: President Hu Jin Tao, People's Republic of China

Dear Mr. President,

I am a blind person, retired from the diplomatic service of the U.S. Department of State and now living in Israel. On September 16, 2008, I traveled on an El-Al flight from Tel-Aviv to Hong Kong, where I joined a small group of sighted American friends, all of us associated to a greater or lesser degree with the Hadley School for the Blind, a highly renowned international correspondence school for the blind, which operates a branch, Hadley/China, in Fuzhou. Our threefold purpose was to participate in the twentieth anniversary celebration of Hadley/China, to visit a number of other schools and service agencies for the blind and disabled, and to spend some time sightseeing. I write to you because, on one occasion at the Hong Kong International Airport and on a second occasion at the Great Wall, I was subjected to profoundly demeaning and humiliating treatment by officials whose condescension toward the blind and low expectation of their abilities were more egregious than any I have encountered elsewhere on my extensive international travels.

On the first occasion my fellow travelers and I were scheduled to fly from Hong Kong to Fuzhou on Dragonair flight 660 at 8:50 a.m. on Sunday, September 21. After boarding the aircraft, three of us, who were all assigned to the same row, agreed that I would sit in the aisle seat. Imagine my astonishment when one of the flight attendants ordered me to move to the window seat because, she said, "blind people must sit by the window.” I asked why; she simply said that was the rule; so, in the absence of any rational explanation, I declined to move. This exchange proved to be just the beginning of an hour-long argument: I, on the one hand, repeatedly asked for a rational explanation of the blind-by-the-window regulation, while, on the other hand, all members of the crew, including the captain, as well as other airport officials, adamantly refused to provide me with an acceptable rationale. They did say the regulation was aimed at "the safety of passengers," apparently ignoring the fact that I too was a passenger with the same rights and safety needs as my sighted counterparts. I begged the captain to call his superiors and ask them for a rational explanation, but he repeatedly rejected my appeals and, instead, attempted in vain to embarrass me by telling me that I was preventing all my fellow passengers from reaching their destination, again ignoring the fact that I too was a passenger and that a senseless regulation was preventing me too from reaching my destination.

Finally, at approximately 9:50 a.m., the captain said he had no other option but to call the police, whereupon two officers of the Hong Kong Police boarded the aircraft, forcibly lifted me out of my seat, and removed me from the plane. Jim Fruchterman, a member of our group, documented the incident with his camera and added a narrative of his own to the photographs, before posting the story on his blog (, which I have attached for your review.

Once I was in the passenger lounge, I asked the Dragonair staff to contact the Israeli Consulate in Hong Kong (since I was traveling on my Israeli passport) and, failing that, to notify the Israel Embassy in Beijing of the incident. There was no answer at the consulate, and the Dragonair staff refused to call the embassy. The Dragonair staff did contact Omer Kurlender, El-Al's security manager at Hong Kong International Airport, who promptly came to see me. It is with his encouragement that I am writing this letter. However, more important, I also fell into conversation with Mr. Alaric Youd, an officer of the Hong Kong Police, who was the only person throughout this ordeal willing to say publicly what I had suspected all along, namely, that the reason Dragonair insists that blind passengers sit in window seats only is their fear that, in the case of an emergency evacuation during takeoff or landing, a blind passenger seated in an aisle seat would inevitably impede the rush of all sighted passengers toward the exits. If this is not the reason for Dragonair's blind-by-the-window regulation, please let me know what the real reason is. May I take this opportunity to thank Officer Youd for his moral support and to appeal to you and to the Hong Kong Police authorities that he not be punished for his candor and honesty.

Eventually the Dragonair staff told me they would schedule me on the next flight to Fuzhou, this time on China Eastern Airlines. I wondered if history was about to repeat itself, but, when I arrived at the China Eastern Airlines counter, the reservationist immediately asked “Would you like an aisle seat, a middle seat, or a window seat?” and added, "We have no regulation about where blind passengers should sit.”

On the second occasion, on September 28, we were visiting the Great Wall. Like most members of our group, I decided not to walk up the Great Wall but rather chose the more leisurely transportation option of an individualized cable seat, much akin to seats on ski lifts familiar to blind skiers or to seats on ferris wheels, much loved by blind visitors to fairgrounds throughout the world. However, upon arriving at the admission gate, again imagine my astonishment when the gate agent barred my entry, declaring, "No blind people allowed.” Alleging here too that the issue was one of safety, the officials in charge urged me to ride up the Great Wall on what they called "the special cable car for the blind,” which was located some distance away. Having no alternative, I decided to try the so-called special cable car for the blind, although I suspected this was nothing more than a ruse by the officials at the Great Wall to get rid of me; and indeed I was right. A sign at the embarkation point for the special cable car for the blind read, "free cable car for leg-disabled." Not only that, but the place was deserted, and the free cable car for leg-disabled was not in operation, presumably pressed into service only when advanced notice is given of the arrival of a disabled tourist.

Mr. President, within the past three months China has staged what are generally regarded as the most impressive Olympic and Paralympic Games ever. While the whole world was watching, you showed us the best China has to offer. However, the two experiences I have related to you lead me to wonder if China's Olympic and Paralympic face was only its public face, and, if behind that public face there lurks a hidden reality which, at least for the blind and disabled, tells a different story far less wholesome and far less welcoming.

The fact is that the executives at Dragonair have no empirical evidence, only false assumptions, that blind airline passengers in an emergency evacuation would not be able to find the exits as quickly and efficiently as their sighted counterparts. Surely any of the blind Paralympics competitors could have convinced those executives that their argument is deeply flawed. I myself would be happy to demonstrate to them how fast the average blind person can move when necessary. And what about emergency evacuations from an airline cabin plunged into darkness or filling with smoke? In that situation blind passengers would not only move faster than those around them but would be able to take charge and lead fellow passengers to safety. But underlying Dragonair's blind-by-the-window regulation is not only a false premise about the physical abilities of the blind but a far more disturbing implication, namely, that the lives of blind passengers are not as important as the lives of sighted passengers and that their need for survival is somehow not as urgent.

As for the exclusionary policy of the authorities at the Great Wall, it too reflects outdated notions about blindness and blind people that are utterly false and should be condemned by modern societies everywhere. Behind the advice given to me to use the free cable car for leg-disabled is the traditional thinking that blind persons not only have dysfunctional eyes but dysfunctional legs too. Again one must ask how this myth still survives in a country which has just concluded hosting the Paralympic Games? Moreover, the free cable car for leg-disabled reflects that pernicious tendency on the part of so many authorities always to opt for segregative solutions rather than inclusive and integrative solutions when seeking to accommodate the perceived needs of people with disabilities.

Mr. President: it is my understanding that China has recently ratified the International Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. May I suggest that, if you wish to comply with the spirit of that Convention, you immediately embark upon a national drive to eliminate prejudice, discrimination, low expectation, and paternalism toward people with disabilities from all public life in China and replace them with a belief in the abilities of people with disabilities and with policies that demand equality of opportunities for them in the mainstream of Chinese society. I know that you have the capacity to do this because, during my visit to the Shanghai World Financial Center, I detected notations in Braille on the elevator panels of that magnificent building. All you now need to do is to inculcate that same message of welcome, equal access, and complete social integration in such unenlightened companies as Dragonair, at such national monuments as the Great Wall, and everywhere else in your otherwise wonderful country.

Avraham (Rami) Rabby

Mr. Guy Kivetz, Spokesman, Political & Press Officer, Embassy of Israel, Beijing
Omer Kurlender, Security Manager, El Al - Hong Kong and Seoul
Gary Oba, Consul, Consulate General of the United States of America, Guangzhou
Larry Campbell, Chief Executive Officer, International Council for the Education of People With Visual Impairment
Editor, The Economist
Marc Maurer, President, National Federation of the Blind, USA
Jane Connors, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, United Nations, Geneva
Maryanne Diamond, President, World Blind Union
Ms. Maureen C. Y. Tam, Chief Executive, The Hong Kong Society for the Blind
Penny Hartin, Chief Executive Officer, World Blind Union
United Press International
Editor, Wall Street Journal Asia
Chan Yau Chong, President, Hong Kong Union of the Blind
Charles Young, President, Hadley School for the Blind
Barbara Pierce, Editor, the Braille Monitor, National Federation of the Blind, USA
Akiko Ito, Disabled Persons Unit, United Nations, New York
Associated Press
Dragonair (by fax)

Email from Larry Campbell

Rami: Thanks for copying me on this. We need more people to speak out when situations like this occur. You may be aware that a few years ago, when Air Asia refused to board one of the members of our regional advisory committee in Jakarta, I raised quite a stink that got the community of disabled persons in Malaysia (and elsewhere in the region) really activated and a protest rally in Kuala Lumpur (Air Asia's headquarters city), which resulted in a significant change in Air Asia policy and a public apology from the president of Air Asia for refusing to board blind passengers who are not accompanied by a sighted person. (They still have a quota on the number of unaccompanied blind passengers on a flight, which we later found out about.)

We were all feeling pretty good about the changes at Air Asia for a few months when we conducted a training program in Vietnam and another low-cost Asian carrier refused to board Sugio (another Indonesian) because he was traveling alone. A sighted passenger stepped forward offering to accompany Sugio and was told that was fine with the airlines, but he would have to sign legal documents taking complete and full responsibility in case anything happened. The man then backed off, and Sugio was not allowed to board and had to stay and wait for a Garuda Indonesian flight to take him home.

In both cases, like you, these two were totally humiliated by the treatment they received. I am afraid our protests in the second case got nowhere, and we are still out of pocket for the additional airfare, to say nothing of the way Sugio had to suffer through this ordeal. With low-cost carriers springing up by the day, I feel like someone trying to press down a bubble in an air mattress: you press it down in one place, and it pops up in another. The UN Convention should be a tool we can use more effectively, but this is really going to take a coordinated, consistent, and long-term effort.

As for the Great Wall story, that is a new one to me. Please do keep me posted on this matter, and thanks again for sharing it with me.
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