Braille Monitor                                                                  August-September 1985


The Man Who Wasn't There

An Address Delivered
by Peggy Pinder
At the Convention of the National Federation of the Blind

Louisville, Kentucky, July 3, 1985

The National Federation of the Blind has worked for forty-five years to bring about a basic change in the condition of blind people in this country. In essence, we in the Federation believe that attitudes toward blindness--and not blindness itself--are the cause of the problems of the blind. We intend to change these attitudes in ourselves and in our society. We in the Federation are changing what it means to be blind.

Public attitudes about blindness run deep and are related to man 's ancient fear of the dark and of man's fear of the unusual or different. There is a widespread belief that lack of sight means lack of ability, competence, knowledge of the world around us. This belief, often unspoken and even unconscious, leads to denial of opportunity and to exclusion, the kind of treatment known as discrimination against the blind. The same belief leads to unnecessary special treatment, the segregation of the blind from the mainstream of society on the theory that we cannot handle the world as it is without special help due to our blindness. Misconceptions about blindness are as common in the airline industry as they are everywhere else in society.

The airline industry in the 1970's adopted policies to "facilitate the carriage of the handicapped." These included, among other pernicious provisions, the requirements that blind passengers give up their white canes and that the blind passengers, like baggage, be moved about from place to place by airline personnel. After arrests and demonstrations and lawsuits galore by the Federation, the Federal Aviation Administration finally ruled that blind passengers can keep our white canes. We are still being handled like baggage, though recent discussions between the Federation and several major air carriers have suggested that the airlines might be willing to leave blind passengers out of the category of "the handicapped" for purposes of air travel.

This would do nicely. Blind passengers who need assistance, directions, or advice can ask for it like any other passengers. We do not need, and we do not want, the airlines to assume that, when a blind passenger enters the terminal, the company becomes responsible for us from start to finish. Leave us alone, treat us like the other passengers, and if we want something, we'll speak up and ask for it. Of course, we do not mind being offered assistance and directions. Some of us, like other passengers, appreciate directions or assistance. But when we decline the offer of assistance, knowing that we can get where we are going on our own, we expect to be taken at our word and left alone.

Progress is being made by the Federation in the changing of attitudes, in the airline industry as progress is Being made everywhere in society. The Federation way makes sense, brings change, and fosters independence. Not so with the American Council of the Blind, a group of blind people who left the Federation in the early 1960's and who have been searching about for a coherent approach ever since.

The Council has recently wandered into the airline issue as it eventually wanders into most issues of interest to the blind of this country. But the Council always has the same problem:

The Federation is there first and represents change and progress. So what is left for the Council? In the airline area, the Council comes out, as it always does, in a sort of wishy-washy way, for more of exactly what we already have.

In March, 1985, the Council copyrighted its new Handbook for Airline Passenger Service Personnel, "How to Serve Blind and Visually Impaired Passengers." This fifteen-page document the product of six months of effort) comes complete with typographical errors, bad grammar, incorrect usage, and twenty-two topical sections. The handbook begins as follows: " ... the thousands of members of the American Council of the Blind feel that the nation's air carriers provide generally good service to blind travelers..." (page i).

So the Council says the airlines are now doing a fine job. The Council goes on to prove this point through fifteen dreary pages by embodying in its handbook all the misconceptions about blindness we have become accustomed to finding in the uneducated public. This brings to mind that old nursery rhyme:

Yesterday, upon the stair,

I met a man who wasn't there.

I met him there again today.

Gee, I wish he'd go away.

The Council's handbook describes a mythical blind person in its advice to the airlines. Let me give you an overview of the blind person as imagined by the Council:

"Use the passenger's name so that he will know you are talking to him. Another useful way to let the blind person know you are addressing him is to tap him on the hand or arm." (page 2)

"When you leave the blind passenger, tell him that, too, so that he is not left talking to empty air." (page 2)

In other words, we the blind are not in touch with what's going on around us and must be tapped and signaled before we can catch on.

"Once the blind person has cleared the security checkpoint, collect his hand luggage from the conveyor belt, confirm the number and description of articles, and proceed to the gate area." (page 8)

In other words, carry the blind person's luggage for him. In all, there are five references to performing this service for the blind person (pages 5, 5, 7, 8, and 13).

"It is helpful to tell the blind person the taxi company name and car number to minimize the possibility of the blind person being taken advantage of by the driver." (page 14)

In other words, the blind, as a class, are gullible.

"Don't forget the blind passenger. If you must leave the blind passenger in the terminal for any reason, do everything possible so as not to forget him." (page 2)

"And be sensitive to how frustrating it can be to miss a flight because the agent got busy doing other things and forgot the blind traveler." (page 3)

In other words, the blind are unconscious of the passage of time, unaware of when their flights are leaving, unable to get to the gate by themselves when necessary, and prone to spouts of anger when not treated in the manner to which they are accustomed. Throughout the handbook there are a total of five references to airline employees forgetting the blind who are pictured as simply sitting there indefinitely. This is quite a picture of the mythical blind person. But there is much, much more.

The Council starts the text of the handbook by spreading a great deal of confusion about the meaning of the word "blind." "Since blind people have varying degrees of vision and different ways of using what vision, if any, they have, it is important to ask what type of assistance is needed. " (page 2) The Council is speaking here to that age-old belief that the more sight you have, the better off you are. As the Council says of partially sighted persons: "None of them can see well enough to drive a car, but some can move about without assistance..." (page 1) I can't see at all, and I move about without assistance all the time. By these passages the Council states to airlines that competence is related to degree of vision, clearly implying that no vision means no competence. The Council recommends something called the "modified sighted guide technique," in which partially sighted persons will "follow you, using their limited vision." (page 4) This is "navigating on their own without a sighted guide." I must say, I fail to detect the difference from the point of view of an airline employee allocating time, between accompanying a blind person who is holding your arm and accompanying a blind person who is not holding your arm. And I fail to see how the blind person not holding your arm is "navigating" on his own. If the blind person wishes and requests assistance, then the passenger and the airline employee can work out the details between them. There is no need to act as though a little sight makes you somehow superior to someone with no sight.

No need, that is, unless the partially sighted members of the Council believe and want the airlines to believe that they are more competent than the totally blind.

Let us turn next to what might be called special treatment. "Escort the blind person to the ticket counter line and let the person wait his turn in line." (As the next sentence makes clear, the escort is expected to wait with the blind person.) "If you are on a tight schedule, perhaps you will need to escort the blind person to the front of the line..." (page 5)

Here is another example of the same thinking: "Blind persons should always be given the opportunity to preboard... Many experienced blind travelers welcome the opportunity to preboard and to get the first choice of overhead and under seat storage space." (page 8) In other words, the blind (according to the Council) actually like to go to the front of the line and will take every chance they can get to do so.

Now try this: "Certain airlines have special waiting areas for disabled travelers. The airline may find the use of such areas as an efficient way to move disabled passengers through the terminal. However, be sensitive to the feelings and desires of the disabled passenger. Some passengers find this treatment demeaning..." (pages 6-7) In other words, the Council says that if a blind person asks for assistance, then the airline should provide that assistance in the manner most convenient to the airline, though the airline should recognize that there are some kooks who can't understand this.

"Just as is the case with preboarding, some blind passengers will choose to deplane with the regular passengers, instead of waiting until the last passenger has deplaned. These people are confident they can gather their belongings and walk off the plane just as fast as the other passengers." (page 13) Notice the tone: "These people are confident." Once again, the Council is alerting the airlines to the presence of kooks. Despite the obvious baselessness of their confidence and despite the fact that there are airline personnel waiting around to do the lifting and carrying for the blind, these kooks insist on behaving like the other passengers.

What about the consequences of all this special treatment? What about exit rows? The Federation, of course, is working to establish the principle that the blind should be seated throughout the plane, including in exit row seats. Here is the Council: "It is the policy of some airlines to move blind passengers, as well as certain other passengers, who have been inadvertently assigned to seats in overwing exit rows. If the passenger is to be moved, do so discretely, yet be thorough in explaining the reasons necessary for this move." (page 6) In other words, the Council agrees that the blind should not sit in exit rows and merely suggests that the blind person's incompetence be detailed to him before he is moved.

Next, let us examine the Council's version of how blind people get around airports. In the entire fifteen pages, there is no mention of the fact that many blind people decline any assistance that is offered. In the real world some of us accept assistance; some of us decline it. In the Council 's distorted world everyone accepts. Or, more precisely, the question is never raised. As the handbook says: "Offer your arm to the blind person. You may ask whether he prefers to walk on the left or the right side." (page 4) In other words, the only question is starboard or port and the question whether you will sail together or sail separately never arises. Here are some tips from the Council on how to treat this mythical blind person: "Give the passenger a place to wait, such as in a chair or next to the ticket counter. Don't abandon him in he middle of the corridor..." (page 2) "When guiding a blind person to a seat, put his hand on the back or arm of the chair so that he will know where it is and which way it is facing." (page 4)

This sounds more and more like that age-old protector of the blind, the American Foundation for the Blind, which is mentioned prominently at the beginning of the handbook. For example:

"When you are guiding the blind passenger, tell him what will happen next, step by step." (page 2) "As you escort the blind passenger to the gate, you will pass through the security clearance point. Tell the person that you are approaching this area and describe what will happen." (page 7) "When escorting a blind passenger to the aircraft ... explain what will happen next." (pages 8 and 9) "It is very important, however, to alert the blind person that stairways, escalators, moving sidewalks, and other interruptions in the normal walking path are coming up." (page 4)

This offensive tone of the Council advises airline employees to treat blind passengers like slow-witted visitors from outer space instead of like adult Americans who have flown before or know perfectly well what is coming next. We can also see that the authors of the handbook are very unfamiliar with the competent use of a white cane or dog guide, either of which will alert the blind user to "interruptions in the normal walking path" very well. Apparently the authors of this handbook do not use their canes or dogs when accompanied by a sighted guide. I do, and most blind people I know do so, too.

Speaking of dog guides, here are a few of the Council's references to this travel tool: "If available, it is helpful to many dog users to provide a vacant seat next to him so that dog and owner will have more floor space." This suggestion is made in two separate places in the handbook (pages 6 and 10). Every air passenger traveling alone hopes to be seated next to a vacant seat, and the airlines tend to fill planes with this in mind. But we, the blind, know all too well how misconceptions about the blind get started. This remark by the Council about vacant seats next to dog guide users may very well blossom in some airline employee's mind into a requirement that a dog user must be seated by a vacant seat. If this happens, then dog users will be denied passage on partially full planes just as they have been excluded from partially full planes where there are no bulkhead seats on the mistaken notion that dog users must be seated in bulkhead seats. Many of you dog users will be surprised to learn that "Many dog guide users will choose to preboard the aircraft so that they have ample time to get their dogs and themselves comfortable before the rest of the passengers come on board." (page 10)

And what of white canes? "Many experienced travelers use collapsible canes on their trips so that they may be stored easily in pocket, purse, or seat pocket..." (page 3) In a special section on "Canes on Planes," the Council praises the storage of folding, telescoping, or collapsible canes as "simple," implying that any blind person traveling with a rigid cane is just asking for trouble. The Council then takes the very simple point that canes can be stored in a number of ways by the blind passenger's seat and garbles up this point into twenty-eight lines of nearly unintelligible prose, emphasizing most sternly that cane storage applies only during takeoff and landing and that the blind person should "participate in the process of deciding where the cane should be stowed." (page 10) The simple fact that rigid canes can be stowed by the seat of a blind passenger comes through, but in such a shredded and tattered fashion that the point is mostly lost.

And the crowning advice about canes: "A cane with metal parts will set off the magnetometer so it should be handed to a security employee..." (page 7) Of course, most rigid canes do not set off the metal detector. But, if the Council has its way, those of us who choose to use those bothersome long rigid canes will be punished at every security checkpoint by employees insisting that the cane will set off the magnetometer and must, therefore, be surrendered.

Here are several comments from the food section: "There may be some types of food which are more difficult for a blind person to manage than others: meat which needs cutting or chicken with bones are avoided by some blind people." (page 12) " ... describe what is on the meal tray and where it is located. Use a clock face for easy orientation... Offer to open plastic wrapped silverware, salt and pepper packages, and salad dressing containers." (page 12) I have never heard of one blind person, let alone thousands of us, dying of starvation due to an inability to find our food or incapacity to eat it.

The Council's ultimate pitch to become great friends with the airlines comes in three separate places where the Council recommends that, while the airline employee has a captive audience, a commercial for the airline should be given:

"If there is a long period of time before the blind passenger's flight, offer options of where to wait... Describe other features of the airline as you travel from Point A to Point B." (page 6) "Once inside the plane, introduce the blind passenger to the flight attendant... Then escort him to his assigned seat, briefly describing the layout of the plane along the way." (page 9) "Once you have provided all the assistance the blind passenger desires, thank him for flying your airline and wish him a good day." (page 14)

The problem with the Council's approach, its desperate effort to impress and befriend the airlines, is that the Council's approach simply won't serve the airlines. The Council has given to the airlines in this handbook all the advice that a custodial agency for the blind would have given, reinforcing every negative stereotype about the blind who are portrayed in the handbook as gullible, weak and lazy, hard to communicate with, out of touch with our surroundings, unable to tell time and meet schedules, easy to forget and prone to feel abandoned, not capable of getting around by ourselves if we choose, unable to eat common foods or open simple packages like salt or silverware, and subject to outbursts of incomprehensible anger.

This portrait of the blind is a lie and a slander. But, beyond this, its use by the airlines will simply not serve them. If they approach every blind person, thinking that the Council has accurately described us, then the troubles of the past ten years will seem like calm waters compared to the hurricane they will get from us over this.

As more and more blind people travel and as more airlines use Federation training films and the Federation approach to blindness, air travel has become calmer and more pleasant for the blind and the airlines both. We are changing what it means to be a blind air passenger, by the way we individually change attitudes as we fly and by our organizational work with airline corporations. The Council is simply out of it, putting forth an outdated, insulting portrait of blind people that no airline would dare to adopt. They know better or, if they don't, we'll teach them.

In fact, the airlines shouldn't have any trouble figuring out that the Council is irrelevant. Listen to how the Council addresses readers of the handbook: "Since the manual is subdivided by category of service, we urge airline personnel to pay close attention to the manual sections that pertain to services for which they are specifically responsible." (page i) The Council apparently thinks that airline employees are almost as helpless as the blind.

And two final examples of the way the Council portrays the blind: "On the way to the baggage claim area, the traveler may wish to use the restroom or the telephone. Escort the person to these facilities in a professional manner. It is not necessary to accompany the blind into the restroom unless this type of assistance is specifically requested." (page 13) I'd be pleased if anyone can tell me how to approach a phone in a professional manner. And just what types of services does the Council imply that the blind will be specifically requesting in the bathroom?

And finally, a quotation from the section concerning dogs: "Open seat selection should be offered the dog guides just as offered to regular passengers." (page 10) That is what it says: "offered the dog guides." The Council has gone so far in diminishing the blind person that it simply takes the last step and eliminates him altogether, recommending that the airline employee deal directly with the dog.

With all of this twaddle, this waste of time, this harmful recasting and redistribution of all the old, negative stereotypes about blindness before me, I couldn't resist rewriting that old nursery rhyme just a little:

The ACB with great fanfare,

Put out a book based on thin air.

About the blind who need such special care.

The blind know who we are, you see.

We've learned that through the NFB.

The Council lives in yesterday.

My gosh, I wish they'd go away.