Future Reflections Sept./ Oct./ Nov.1984, Vol. 3 No. 4

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by Joyce Scanlan, President, National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota

Reprinted from the Spring 1984 issue of The Blindside.

I hope you enjoy flying. If you're a nervous flyer, as I am, you worry about heights, schedules, luggage, turbulence. And, if you're blind, you have added cause for concern. The skies are rarely friendly.

From takeoff to touchdown, misconceptions about blindness follow us. Skycaps whisk us through the airport in wheelchairs and motorcars. Arms grab us at the security station, inspecting us with hand-scanning devices. At the gate, the airline agent selects our seat for us -- usually a bulkhead seat for the sake of our dog guide, even if we don't have a dog guide. We must preboard the aircraft with children and the elderly because we need "extra time." If we happen to sit in an exit-row seat, we won't be there for long. According to airline personnel, we can't move fast enough in an emergency. And if we're the last to deplane, it's usually not because we enjoyed the flight so much. Rather, well-meaning but misinformed cabin attendants have more time to "help" us if we wait for other passengers to leave.

There are other ridiculous rules -- the four-to-a plane limit for blind people, for example, and a rule ordering blind people to surrender our canes during takeoff and landing. Fortunately, many of these regulations have been changed, reflecting a more enlightened attitude toward blind travelers' capabilities.

But new problems are taking their place. Last January, twelve Minnesota Federationists flew from Minneapolis to Washington, D.C. The American Airlines flight from Minneapolis to Chicago was pleasant; the cabin crew was concerned for the comfort of all passengers, and Federationists looked forward to the remainder of the trip.

But the crew changed in Chicago, and so did our hopes for an enjoyable trip. An attendant ordered Jan Bailey and Steward Prost, who are blind, to move to other seats. "Some sort of computer error," the attendant said, but later admitted that Jan and Stewart were being moved because -- according to American Airlines regulations -- they were too close to the exit row. We asked for copies of the alleged regulations, but were refused.

What followed was confusing and insulting. Jan and Stewart were moved to other coach-class seats. The passengers already occupying those seats were given first-class seats to "make up for the inconvenience." It seems to us that the attendant could have eliminated that inconvenience by moving Jan and Stewart into first class to begin with. Or could it be that American Airlines doesn't believe blind persons are first class citizens? The NFB will work to change rules that restrict seating for blind flyers, for if we do not, as one blind person put it, "there may come a time when we'll have to fly standing up."

NFB President Dr. Kenneth Jernigan once said, "We in the Federation may lose battles, but we never lose the war, because the war is not over until we win." The war with the airlines will continue until blind people are included among the ranks of first-class citizens.

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