How I Felt
There are many misconceptions about blindness and blind people with which I’ve been successfully coping for over three decades. I’m often told, “We’re going to <fill in the blank> for your own good.” When flying the things with which the blank can be filled in range from “Move you to the bulkhead row” to “Put you in this roped off area on the lower level.” The “roped off area” is particularly demeaning as the message is, “You’re a liability so we can’t let you walk around by yourself.”
The methods I’ve used for dealing with misguided and mistaken treatment ranges from using humor to forcefully stating and insisting on my rights.
In this particular situation the crew clearly did not know the provisions of the Air Carrier Access Act. I was frustrated and in pain, the crew was lying about the provisions of the law, and placing obstacles before every honest attempt I made to work with them and get my needs met. The combination of frustration, physical pain, and hearing lie after lie from the crew was almost overwhelming.
When the gate agent refused my request to be reseated it seemed I was completely out of options.
It’s difficult to overstate the helplessness I felt as I directed my dog back down the jet way to reboard the flight.
When I finally gave up and harnessed my dog for the last time in preparation for leaving the plane I was shocked at the tears which came to my eyes. I do not cry easily and felt humiliated that I had allowed the crew to push me so far. What went through my mind was exactly this: “They’re throwing me off the plane where I’m going to be utterly alone with no help, stranded without my dog’s food and other supplies, alone in a strange airport in a strange city.”
Many people have stated they never would have left the plane. My honest fear is that, if I didn’t leave, they would throw me in jail next. As I stood before that entire plane full of people I’ve never felt so humiliated and traumatized.
The Ultimate Irony
Since I’ve never had any trouble during the hundreds of flights I’ve taken with my dogs I’ve clearly been doing something right. I now know that, at the first sign of trouble, I should ask for a complaints resolution official, a CRO. The language of the Air Carrier Access Act is clear when it states an airline “must” provide such an official to any passenger who complains.
So far I’ve had conversations with two customer service representatives from American Airlines. The first one told me the airlines had investigated my complaint and determined no member of the crew had acted improperly. I then had to take fourty-five minutes to relive the entire incident to convince him that a real problem existed and I was not backing down from my complaint. This conversation took place one week after the incident and being forced to relive the entire experience retraumatized me, bringing all the humiliation and terror right back to the surface.
The second customer service representative with whom I spoke stated that the gate agent, the supervisor who took me off the plane to tell me the crew had decided to kick me off, and the CRO were all one in the same. The feelings of incredulity provoked by this conversation cannot be overstated. Does this seem like a conflict of interest?
The Root of the Problem
When the supervisor started talking about emotional support animals I was shocked. My dog’s harness has “The Seeing Eye” stamped in the leather on both the backstrap and the handle of the harness. The same thing is stamped on the leash and engraved in a plate on my dog’s collar. I’ve never, in almost thirty-four years, had anyone assume I was lying about being blind. For the most part I put up with the hassles of flying simply because I enjoy adventure, new places, and new experiences. I’ve never told an airline ahead of time that I’m blind and that I’ll be traveling with a dog because the law states I don’t have to.
When I travel for my job there must be something in my profile informing whichever carrier I’m using that I’m blind. While I don’t mind having some kind of flag on my profile stating I’m blind it actually causes some problems. I’m offered way more help than I actually need and sometimes have difficulty convincing airline personnel that, if they just leave me alone, I really will be able to walk and talk and make it to my next gate without them shoving me in a wheelchair.
The crew of Flight 327 simply had to glance down to see “The Seeing Eye” stamped on the backstrap of the harness. Apparently this was a simple act they did not appear prepared to do. I’m left at a loss to explain why the whole encounter escalated to the point where the crew thought it was a good idea to kick a blind woman and her guide dog off the plane.
The crux of the matter is this: Because airlines have decided to try to make money by charging for every little service they can passengers are retaliating by trying to “pull one over” on the airlines.
If your dog is not a legitimate service dog don’t take it on an airplane!
My Vision Rehabilitation Experience
After my life with blindness began I was lucky. Almost immediately I was connected with two excellent vision rehabilitation professionals. Jeff Elliott was my orientation and mobility instructor and Vera McClain was my rehabilitation teacher, now called a vision rehabilitation therapist. These two individuals taught me not only the skills I needed to live with blindness but, as well, how to carry and present myself with grace.
According to the American Foundation for the Blind blindness is feared second only to cancer. This fear, on the part of the general public, translates into a fear of people who are blind. And this fear of people who are blind leads to no end of misunderstandings, assumptions, and wrong-headed treatment.
My husband of almost thirty-two years and I met in graduate school at Western Michigan University where we were both pursuing a master’s in vision rehabilitation. Over the years we’ve been together Jim has reinforced everything I learned from Jeff and Vera all those years ago. He reminds me to stand straight and tall, square my shoulders, and either follow my dog or use my cane the way I was taught.
And so, American Airlines, if this is how you treat a paying customer because they “don’t look blind,” shame on you. I am a frequent traveler, if not by my own choice then by the rules of travel for the government agency for which I work, and you have humiliated and traumatized me to such an extent I’ve considered never flying with you again. But, hear this well, American Airlines. I will not be cowed by your arrogant lying personnel. I will fly with whatever carrier I choose and, if that’s you, so be it.
The Laws They Broke
From the Air Carrier Access Act:
As a carrier, you must not require a passenger with a disability to provide advance notice of the fact that he or she is traveling on a flight.
(c) If you do not provide advance seat assignments to passengers, you must allow passengers specified in §382.81 to board the aircraft before other passengers, including other “preboarded” passengers, so that the passengers needing seating accommodations can select seats that best meet their needs.
(b) You must permit the service animal to accompany the passenger with a disability at any seat in which
the passenger sits, unless the animal obstructs an aisle or other area that must remain unobstructed to facilitate an emergency evacuation.
(c) If a service animal cannot be accommodated at the seat location of the passenger with a disability who is using the animal, you must offer the passenger the opportunity to move with the animal to another seat location, if present on the aircraft, where the animal can be accommodated.
(b) As a U.S. carrier, you must make a CRO [Complaints Resolution Official] available at each airport you serve during all times you are operating at that airport. As a foreign carrier, you must make a CRO available at each airport serving flights you operate that begin or end at a U.S. airport. You may make the CRO available in person at the airport or via telephone, at no cost to the passenger.
- c) You must make passengers with a disability aware of the availability of a CRO and how to contact the CRO in the following circumstances:
In any situation in which any person complains or raises a concern with your personnel about discrimination, accommodations, or services with respect to passengers with a disability, and your personnel do not immediately resolve the issue to the customer’s satisfaction or provide a requested accommodation, your personnel must immediately inform the passenger of the right to contact a CRO and then contact a CRO on the passenger’s behalf or provide the passenger a means to do so (e.g., a phone, a phone card plus the location and/or phone number of the CRO available at the airport). Your personnel must provide this information to the passenger in a format he or she can use.
The bullying of blind children is well documented. The bullying of a capable competent adult who has been blind over three decades is truly remarkable and reprehensible.
The landscape of air travel for those of us who are blind has morphed into a landscape I no longer recognize. I don’t know when complaints resolution officials entered the scene but I find it remarkable that such an official exists. Perhaps it’s my age or the fact that I was raised in polite Southern culture but I find it appalling that American Airlines has such poorly trained, rude, Arrogant, and ignorant personnel.
American claims it has apologized to me. Two customer service representatives apologizing to me privately isn’t good enough. I will be pursuing my complaints with both American Airlines and the Department of Transportation.
I will be pursuing these complaints for every other blind traveler because no one should ever be treated the way American Airlines treated me on March 1. I’m resilient and I will persevere.
The author in a San Diego hotel room