Having returned this past Wednesday from 10 days away (including flying time) -- three and a half days in Knoxville, Tenn. and six and a half in Washington, D.C. -- I'm pretty tired of airports and everything associated with traveling. My trip to eastern Tennessee was at the invitation of Dr. Otis Stephens, who asked me to address his disability law class and a law school faculty forum regarding blindness-specific issues, the ADA, and ACB's role as an advocacy organization. My sojourn to Washington, of course, was to preside at the ACB midyear board of directors meeting, as well as to participate in the affiliate presidents' meeting and our legislative seminar. In 2009, I made a total of 16 trips on ACB-related business with (so far) at least 10 more excursions scheduled and/or completed during 2010. So, you will understand that I have definite opinions on the subject.
As I am far from expert in navigating airline web sites and don't always have the time or patience to engage an airline customer service representative, I will only comment that I'm nostalgic for the days when there were travel agents to whom you could give your proposed itinerary and know that he or she would get you the most direct flight at the lowest possible cost. Also, most airlines -- Southwest being an exception -- will charge a higher fare for booking over the phone than if you use their (perhaps accessible) web site. All you need to do is let the person taking the call know you are blind and you'll get the online fare. Yes, there are still a few excellent travel agents out there (welcome back, Dave Kronk), but such folks have become increasingly scarce given that hotels, airlines and cruise lines are paying miniscule commissions for the services of travel professionals.
Up until a few years ago I seldom requested meet-and-assist services when departing from or arriving at an airport, familiar or otherwise. I simply asked other travelers along the way for directions or assistance, if I needed it. As I've gotten older -- and perhaps less in need of proving to myself and others how independent I am -- I typically do request such service, although not until getting to the airport from which my trip is originating. I do this even when my wife Donna, who has some usable vision, is traveling with me. Finding a security checkpoint and the proper gate with assistance makes one less thing to worry about, unless the individual helping you doesn't speak English. More on that shortly.
As a matter of principle, I will do whatever it takes not to be transported in a wheelchair. I do so for two reasons: First, for me, and I want to stress that this is my personal opinion only, being transported in a wheelchair means helplessness or illness; probably a reaction to spending time in hospitals as a child having multiple eye surgeries. Second, and far more importantly, having worked in the ADA field with jurisdiction over Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), I know that frequently, the number of requests for wheelchairs far exceeds the available supply. This means that individuals who truly need a wheelchair are forced to wait long periods of time for assistance. Over the years, I received several complaints from folks who missed their flights as a result of having to wait for a wheelchair.
My alternative, particularly at large modern airports such as Denver, Dallas or Atlanta, is to use the increasingly ubiquitous electric carts. Lots of travelers do, and for whatever reason, I don't feel like an invalid when riding on one. I must caution about one problem which arose a few years ago when I attempted to board a cart in Phoenix with my guide dog Scotch. The carts, which have sideways seating (shoulder to the driver), do not have sufficient room for the dog. That experience was educational, but thankfully, not harmful to the dog.
Now let me take a short digression to explain a bit about meet-and-assist services. The first thing to know is that the primary function of those providing this service is to push wheelchairs for passengers with physical disabilities or medical conditions which limit or prevent walking any distance. This is why we are often asked if (or told) we need a wheelchair. That is the default setting, so to speak. Recall the prevailing societal notions about blindness and blind people.
Individuals performing this service are either employed by the airlines directly or work for companies under contract to the airlines. These are minimum wage jobs (non-unionized here in L.A.) which attract workers with limited or no education. These jobs are frequently taken by those with minimal English skills, thereby creating a significant communications barrier for blind and visually impaired people. Two or three years back I tried unsuccessfully to get the union which was suing the city to organize these workers to include English testing and basic English language training as a part of the proposed settlement. I argued that English is a BFOQ (bona fide occupational qualification) for the job. That was the last meeting to which I was invited.
Since 9/11, airline security has become a paramount concern. Again, Transportation Security Agency (TSA) personnel at security checkpoints are not well paid but, for the most part, have dealt with me and the dog pretty well. Only once or twice have I encountered a TSA employee who wouldn't listen when I tried explaining the most efficient method for getting me and my dog through the metal detector. In those rare instances, discretion is clearly the better part of valor. I absolutely hate to miss a flight and so far, have a spotless criminal record.
My in-flight experiences are neither better nor worse than sighted travelers. I have almost-fond memories of complementary meals and not having to use a credit card to pay for a drink. But then again, so does every other veteran flyer with or without sight. When I flew with the dog I was almost always asked if I wished to sit in bulkhead; I didn't then and still don't. That's a personal preference and one which the blind traveler has the right to assert under the Air Carriers Access Act (ACAA).
As I contemplate yet another flight (this time for a real vacation with Donna to celebrate our eighth wedding anniversary), I can't help remembering when getting on an airplane was fun, or at least no big deal. For us these days, flying can be an adventure, and not necessarily an enjoyable one. I wish everyone safe, stress-free travels as you make your way around this great country of ours.
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