Blind in the City (and Disabled in the Skies): Exploring Air Travel and Disability

As I mentioned in last week’s post, I’m a semi-frequent flyer, and have been since my college days. Strangers I meet in airports often seem shocked to see me navigating the airport independently with my white cane. In this post, I want to try to take some of the mystery out of that process. At the same time, though, air travel isn’t always smooth sailing for disabled people. In the United States, the Air Carrier Access Act protects our right to fly independently, and to receive needed accommodations during the trip. Still, though, misunderstandings and failures of implementation result in civil rights violations, equipment damages, and other problems for disabled air passengers. I will outline some of these ongoing problems and needed solutions at the end of this post.

Q: How do you navigate the airport without a travel companion?
A: Like any other travel task, air travel is more manageable when broken down into its component steps. For me, a typical flight experience involves checking in, locating and going through a security screening, locating my departure gate, boarding and deboarding the plane, (occasionally) collecting baggage, and finding ground transportation. For each of these steps, I utilize a variety of nonvisual landmarks. For example, security checkpoints make distinctive sounds; gates are usually numbered in consecutive order; and when boarding the plane, I can simply follow the person ahead of me in line. For other things, such as locating a specific baggage carousel or exit door, I ask passers-by to describe visual information such as that printed on signs. By asking for help only with one part of the process at a time, I can greatly reduce my dependence on others.

As I will explain later in this post, I prefer to keep a low profile in the airport so as to avoid being patronized or drawing unwanted attention to my disability. So, I typically check in for my flights using the airline websites and navigate directly to the security checkpoint. I rarely check bags, but when I do, I can recognize my suitcase by touch on the conveyor belt

Q: What kinds of accommodations do airlines provide?
A: Airline and airport employees offer a variety of accommodations to passengers with disabilities. When navigating the airport, passengers can request a walking escort to provide directional guidance or assist with luggage. Passengers needing mobility assistance may use a borrowed manual wheelchair with an employee serving as a pusher. Wheelchair users must typically check their chairs as luggage and use a borrowed aisle wheelchair to board and deboard the plane. Some passengers, such as those with intellectual or developmental disabilities, may request to have a family member or friend who is not flying with them accompany them through security to their gate.

Passengers with service dogs are permitted to bring their dogs with them on flights without having formal proof that the dog is a service animal, as long as they can explain what task the service animal performs. In addition, passengers with emotional support animals (to assist with mental health disabilities) can bring their emotional support animals if they are properly documented. Passengers using service animals, and other passengers with particular accommodation needs, may request to “preboard” the plane before the rest of the passengers board. This may be necessary to allow enough time to settle a service animal, secure equipment, avoid standing in a long line, or gain a preferred seat (such as a seat near the front for someone with a mobility disability).

Q: Why don’t you just use the employee escorts at the airport? Wouldn’t that be so much easier?
A: I have no philosophical objection to using accommodations that might help me have a better travel experience. There are occasional times when I do use airport escorts. However, I have learned that much of the time, the quality of service is lacking. For example, if employees are spread thin, I may end up waiting up to 30 minutes for an escort. In those cases, it is simply faster for me to navigate the airport on my own. I have also had escorts who guided me to the wrong place.

Another common problem is the lack of control we often have over what specific accommodations we get. Many of us who are blind, but who don’t have mobility disabilities, have found ourselves in situations where we requested a walking escort and instead were pressured to travel in a manual wheelchair with a pusher. In these cases, we are often expected to choose between an inappropriate accommodation (a wheelchair) or none at all. To complicate matters, wheelchairs are in limited supply. While we are being pressured to accept wheelchairs we do not need, other passengers with mobility disabilities may be waiting far too long for a wheelchair they do need.

I must emphasize that truly effective accommodation is different for each individual, and sometimes a person’s accommodation preferences differ from day to day. It is important for airlines to offer accommodations so that passengers with disabilities can fly. But, equally important is a system that allows disabled passengers to choose the accommodations that work for them. Unfortunately, in practice, airline and airport staff often act on assumptions about accommodation needs, instead of actively listening to their customers. For example, passengers with visible disabilities, like me, often find ourselves fighting off accommodations we don’t need. In contrast, passengers with invisible disabilities may find themselves fighting for the most basic accommodations.

I keep a low profile when I fly because I want to be in charge of my travel process and choose the assistance that works for me without having unnecessary or patronizing assistance foisted upon me. I recognize that this is a privilege I have. Many other passengers rely on some form of accommodation in order to fly. They, too, must have the freedom to choose the most effective accommodations.

Q: What other issues affect disabled air passengers today?
A: In some countries, passengers with disabilities aren’t allowed to fly without a nondisabled companion. In the United States, disabled people are permitted to fly independently, except in some rare circumstances involving multiple disabilities that prevent a person from assisting in their own emergency evacuation. Despite legislative progress in the United States, however, misunderstandings and failures of implementation can lead to serious problems. Here are a few recent examples:

  • D’arcee Neal, a disabled activist with cerebral palsy, needed an aisle wheelchair to exit a United Airlines flight. He waited for more than 30 minutes without receiving a wheelchair. In desperate need of the restroom (the airplane lavatory is not wheelchair-accessible), Mr. Neal crawled off the plane.

  • Recently, several wheelchair users have had their chairs accidentally broken by baggage handlers unfamiliar with the equipment.

  • Guide dog users, and other service animal users, have found themselves re-seated or even denied boarding based on a claim that there wasn’t appropriate space for their dogs.

  • Blind people who use white canes have had canes separated from them and stowed in a closet or placed in the overhead bin against their preferences. In fact, the law provides for a blind person to stow their cane on the ground between the window seat and window, where it is safely out of the way.

  • Clifton Miller, a blind grandfather, was denied boarding on a Frontier Airlines flight last year. The gate agent questioned whether Mr. Miller could properly care for his 18-month-old granddaughter on the flight. In fact, Mr. Miller had been a single father and had just spent several days alone with his young granddaughter.

  • On my 30th birthday, my husband and I boarded an American Airlines flight on our way to visit my family and friends for the weekend. Due to my blindness, I was ordered to sit in the window seat because, I was told, if I took an aisle or middle seat, I would be blocking the exit of other passengers in an emergency. (Ironically, due to my blindness, the window seat offers more value to my husband than it does to me). Eventually, the flight attendant apologized and admitted that he had confused an “exit seat” (non-window seat) with an “exit row seat” from which disabled passengers are categorically banned. (This ban is, itself, highly controversial in some disability circles). Unfortunately this apology only came after my (nondisabled) husband followed up, mainly because I was too shocked and shaken to do so at the time.

  • More generally, disabled passengers are often told that, in the event of an emergency, we should wait to be assisted by a flight crew member. The assumption that we will always need to wait for rescue is often the driving force behind instances of discrimination. It seems not to occur to all airline staff that in an emergency, disabled people will be using whatever resources are at our disposal to get ourselves to safety as quickly as possible.

In sum, air travel has become much more accessible in recent decades, at least in the United States. But we still have far to go. Much of the progress we need will depend on initiatives to educate airport and airline staff about the varied experience of disability and the most appropriate allocation of resources. By learning how we live our daily lives on the ground, perhaps air travel staff will be better prepared to provide us with an accessible, respectful travel experience.

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