Air Travel And The Blind The Struggle For Equality

by Kenneth Jernigan

Copyright © 1995, 2010
National Federation of the Blind

          When we met for our convention last year in Phoenix, the problems which blind persons are having with the airlines were a major topic of discussion. During the past twelve months the discrimination and abuse have grown worse. Today the situation is such that no blind person anywhere in the country can board a plane without fear of harassment, public humiliation, and possibly arrest and bodily injury.

          The incidents involve almost every aspect of air travel insistence that blind passengers pre-board, insistence that we post-board, demands that we demonstrate our capacity to fasten or unfasten a seat belt, requirements that we sit (or not sit) in various sections of the plane, and even attempts to take our small children from us when we are boarding or leaving the aircraft. But the item which has unquestionably created the most heat and publicity centers around exit row seating. It is not that blind passengers have asked to be assigned to these seats but that airline personnel have repeatedly put us there and then insisted (with great public commotion) that we move. In these confrontations the word safety is always trotted out and made the excuse for every unreasonable and illegal act which anybody cares to perpetrate.

          In May of 1987 Joseph Sontag and Nancy Kruger were arrested on a Simmons Airlines plane. Members of the Simmons flight crew insisted that Sontag and Kruger give up their canes instead of being allowed to keep them at their seats as permitted by federal regulations, and when Sontag and Kruger refused, the police were called. We filed a complaint with the federal Department of Transportation, and although almost a year has passed, nothing has been done about it and there is no indication that anything will be done about it.

          In October of 1987 Bill Meeker (a blind employee of the U. S. Department of Labor's Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs) was traveling on official business. He experienced what has almost come to be the standard airline treatment. He boarded a Midwest Express airplane for Milwaukee and took his assigned seat. He learned that it was an exit row, and almost immediately thereafter he was confronted and ordered to move, being told that he was violating a federal regulation. When he said that he knew the law, that no such regulation existed, and that he would not move under such circumstances, he was arrested. As is typical in these cases, the charges were later dropped.

          Last November Robert Greenberg was refused transportation by American Airlines. He was assigned a seat (an assignment he had not requested) near an emergency exit and was then publicly and abusively ordered to move. When he refused, the flight was canceled and the passengers were told to leave the plane. Everybody but Greenberg was then reboarded. Not only was he not permitted to reboard, but he was also told that he could never ride another American Airlines plane again at any time in the future. He was also denied a refund on his ticket. Once more, we filed a complaint with the federal Department of Transportation and again nothing has happened.

          In January of this year Congressman James A. Traficant introduced H.R. 3883, the Air Travel Rights for Blind Individuals Act. There are now 110 cosponsors of that bill, which is pending in the House of Representatives. In February Senator Ernest F. Hollings introduced the same bill, S. 2098. That bill now has twenty-four senate cosponsors. These bills by Senator Hollings and Congressman Traficant prohibit any special seating restrictions for blind air passengers.

          Shortly before last year's convention we got a ruling from the Maryland Attorney General that it was unlawful for airlines to apply special seating restrictions to the blind. The effectiveness of that ruling was proved when Sharon Gold, who was flying from Baltimore to California, showed it to the American Airlines crew who were trying to make her move from her assigned seat before takeoff. She did not move, and she was not arrested or taken off the plane. As you will remember, we brought copies of the Maryland ruling to last year's convention and asked all of you to move quickly and firmly to set up meetings with every state attorney general in the nation, and with the manager of every airport. At that time I said to you: Show them the Maryland ruling, and remind them that their state has a white cane law, which has the same provisions that the Maryland law has. Get a ruling from your attorney general. Get an agreement from your airport manager. Once you get the ruling, make many copies of it, and see that every blind person who flies has one in his or her pocket.

          Today the attorneys general of ten states have made such rulings, and since Chicago is a central transfer point for air travel, the ruling by Illinois Attorney General Neil Hartigan has special significance. Attorney General Hartigan is here today, and not only the blind but all others who believe in the rule of law instead of whim and special privilege owe him a debt of gratitude.

          If we were really dealing with a question of safety, no one (blind or sighted) would object, but we are not. Consider, for instance, the opinion of an airline pilot. In an affidavit made in 1985, he says in part:

          I, Jared Haas, being first duly sworn, depose and state: I have been a pilot for many years. I currently fly 727 aircraft, and I have been employed to do so since June of 1974.

          I am familiar with a number of blind people, and I am generally familiar with the capacities of the blind. In an emergency situation there are circumstances in which it would be helpful to have an able-bodied blind person seated in an emergency exit row with a sighted person. In those cases in which there is smoke in the cabin, an able-bodied blind person, being used to handling situations without sight, would be able to assist with more facility in the evacuation. An able-bodied blind person would not hinder an emergency evacuation.

          That is what a pilot says, and he is not just talking theory. I am aware of at least one case where it was put to the test. Everybody in this organization knows who the late Lawrence (Muzzy) Marcelino was. In the early 1980s he was flying home from Baltimore to California, and when the plane got ready to land in San Francisco, there was a problem. The landing gear wouldn't come down. The plane landed on foam, and the lights went out. An emergency evacuation occurred. It was night, and there was near panic. It was Muzzy who got to the exit and helped the sighted passengers find it.

          So far as I have been able to determine, there is not a case on record in which a blind person has been involved in the blocking of an exit or the slowing of traffic in an airline emergency, and as I have just told you, I know of at least one instance (the one involving Muzzy) in which blindness was a positive asset. Yet, the airlines keep prattling to us about safety while, at the same time, knowingly doing things which diminish safety. I refer to the serving of liquor to passengers in exit rows and the practice of permitting excess carry-on luggage to be stowed with passengers at their seats. For that matter, serving liquor at all on a plane in flight probably reduces the safety margins, and so does smoking. I am not saying that these things should be eliminated but only that the treatment of the blind should be seen in perspective.

          When I was participating in the regulatory negotiation process last summer to persuade the Department of Transportation to come up with rules to prevent discrimination against the blind in air travel, I personally heard officials of the Flight Standards Administration of the Federal Aviation Administration repeatedly say that they felt there was no safety question involved in blind persons' sitting in exit rows on planes. They said that if they had felt there was a safety question, they would long since have made appropriate regulations. The Flight Standards Administration is that branch of FAA which is responsible for determining questions of safety in air travel. Only when FAA attorneys began to apply pressure did the nature of the comments by Flight Standards officials change. Rather than oppose the airlines, the FAA apparently finds it easier to duck behind the safety issue.

          The problem with the arguments being advanced by the FAA and the airlines is that those arguments are based on the false premise that sighted persons (excluding the elderly, the frail, the pregnant, and children) are uniformly capable and alert. The blind person (with whatever limitations and strengths he or she may possess) is compared with the ideal sighted person a person who in most cases does not exist. Last fall when Senator Dole promised to help deal with the airline problem, he said that it would not occur to anybody to suggest that he should not be allowed to sit in an exit row. Yet (because of his physical handicap), he would not, he said, be able to open the exit.

          Several years ago when we were taking both sighted and blind people to the Baltimore airport to make a test evacuation of a World Airways plane, we had to eliminate from consideration many of the sighted that we might have chosen. One had back problems; another had foot problems; and still another had difficulties with heart and blood pressure. In the real world of everyday commercial air travel none of these people would have been excluded from the exit row. Why, then, should the blind be held to a different standard from the sighted?

          The truth is that if you consider the scarcity of accidents in proportion to the number of miles which are flown and the relatively small number of blind people who are likely to be on a given flight at a given time, the potential risk would almost be zero even if all of the claims by the airlines about the unsafeness of the blind were true. The serving of liquor to passengers, the permitting of smoking, the carry-on luggage, the undetected emotional and physical problems of the average passenger, and a hundred other things are much more real as problems than the minimal risk potentially posed by the blind plus the fact, as I have already said, that in certain circumstances the blind would have an advantage in helping themselves and others. Nevertheless, the airlines persist in their phony game of It is all a matter of safety, and the FAA bows to the pressure and seeks to take the easy way out.

          In truth and in fact we are not dealing with a safety issue at all but a matter of civil rights, and we simply will not be bullied and intimidated into submission. We will speak to the public and the Congress until we get results. And make no mistake about it we will be heard, and we will be heeded.

          Two incidents this spring graphically illustrate the unreasonableness of the treatment which we are receiving from the airlines. On a Midway Airlines flight from Baltimore to Des Moines Peggy Pinder (the Second Vice President of the National Federation of the Blind and the President of the National Federation of the Blind of Iowa) was arrested for refusing to move to a seat near an emergency exit; and only a few days later Jim Gashel (our Director of Governmental Affairs) was arrested and removed from a United Airlines flight for almost the exact opposite reason. He was sitting in his assigned seat (one he had not requested) in an exit row and refused to move. In Peggy's case the facts are thoroughly documented and particularly vicious and ugly, not to mention ironic.

          She was going home to Iowa from Washington after a day of testifying before the Republican National Committee on ways of increasing participation of blind persons in the mainstream of American life and of eliminating discrimination against the blind. When she arrived at the airport, she was ordered to pre-board the plane. She declined but was told that she would either pre-board or not be permitted to travel. She submitted and did as she was ordered. The plane had open seating, so she went to the back and took a seat in the smoking section. She said she did not need a special briefing, but when she was publicly and abusively ordered to take one, she did it. Then, when she refused to change her seat (which was not in an exit row), she was arrested and bodily carried from the plane in a particularly offensive manner. In her own words:

          The officer lifted me from my seat and physically moved me into the aisle. At this point I stood up and waited for the officer's next action. The officer positioned himself behind me and lifted me from the floor. He accomplished this by reaching his arms around me from behind and placing his hands on my breasts. From this position he lifted me from the floor and carried me off the plane, at one point saying, Jesus Christ.

          While asserting my legal rights on board the airplane, I maintained a posture of calmness. I found the personal confrontation emotionally upsetting. I was also upset by being physically carried from the plane and having my breasts grasped. I did nothing to provoke this physical abuse and violation of my person; yet, the officer took control over my body.

          The fact that Peggy Pinder was arrested for not moving to another seat is confirmed by statements made by Midway officials in the New York Times. The Times article, dated April 3, 1988, says in part:

          A Midway Airlines spokeswoman, Sandra Allen, said it is the airline's policy to seat all handicapped people in the first row of the plane near where they can be easily evacuated. According to both the spokeswoman and Miss Pinder, after she refused to switch seats the airport police were called to remove her from the plane.

          Not only the New York Times but also radio, television, and other newspapers throughout the land discussed the matter. Overwhelmingly the editorial comment was favorable to our cause. Apparently Midway thought it had better change its story. Maybe where Peggy was sitting had nothing to do with it. Maybe she had violated a federal regulation in some other way. Maybe she had refused to listen to a briefing about safety features of the airplane. Never mind that sighted passengers are not required to look at the demonstrations which flight attendants give and that Peggy can hear what the flight attendants say during those demonstrations as well as anybody else.

          Under date of April 15, 1988, David Armstrong (Midway's Secretary and Vice President for Legal Affairs) wrote a letter to Matthew Scocozza, Assistant Secretary for Policy and International Affairs of the federal Department of Transportation. He began by very chummily scratching out Dear Mr. Scocozza and replacing it with Dear Mat. The story Mr. Armstrong told was one of virtue, long-suffering patience, and saintly behavior by Midway personnel. Peggy Pinder was not ordered to pre-board but politely asked to do so. She unreasonably declined and then was permitted to board with the regular passengers. In Mr. Armstrong's words: Ms. Pinder boarded the aircraft with the first passengers on the regular boarding queue.

          Mr. Armstrong went on to portray Miss Pinder as unreasonable, petulant, and immature. In his words: Ms. Pinder indicated that she did not wish to be briefed because she `had flown several times.' Mr. Armstrong went on to say that flight attendants continued (at least four more times) to try to get Miss Pinder to consent to be briefed but that she persisted in her refusal thus violating the federal law, endangering every passenger on the plane, and compelling the pilot to call the police.

          This matter of a briefing is made to sound like a divine mystery instead of the routine speech and demonstration which it is. Passengers rarely pay attention to it. They do not stop their conversations or put aside their magazines, newspapers, books, earphones, or calculators especially after their first few flights; and nobody tries to force them or put them under arrest for their inattention.

          But let us put this to one side and deal with the more basic question of the contradictory statements. Who is telling the truth Mr. Armstrong, or Miss Pinder? If Midway's statements to the press at the time of the occurrence are not sufficient, perhaps the police report will suffice. In his official statement the arresting officer said: I along with Officer M. Young responded to the dispute. We approached the suspect with flight attendant Freitag. Flight attendant Freitag again asked the suspect to listen to the handicap briefing. The suspect at this time listened to the briefing. The flight attendant then asked the suspect to move to the appropriate seat which is in accordance with Midway policy. The suspect refused. Officer Young and myself asked the suspect to move to the other seat. The suspect refused. Officer Young then assisted the suspect off the plane per order of the captain.

          Peggy Pinder was, if you can believe it, arrested on charges of criminal trespass ; but as is typical in these cases, the charges were dropped. Why? Out of kindness? Don't you believe it. Midway was wrong and they know they were wrong. Sooner or later there had to be a court case to put a stop to this kind of vicious abuse, and this seems about as good a one as any. We hereby serve notice on Midway Airlines that they should ready their defenses and prepare to justify their behavior before a jury. They have tried to forestall the problem by filing a lengthy petition asking the federal Department of Transportation to rule that what they did was in accordance with Department rules and that (take note, Attorney General Hartigan) the states are preempted in the matter by the federal government.

          As to the Department of Transportation, it has now indicated that it will (at long last) make the rules which the Air Carrier Access Act of 1986 required it to issue over a year ago. The proposed rules are a classic example of federal double talk and deceit. They say very piously and forthrightly that air carriers may not discriminate against any blind person in seating arrangements except in instances where the Federal Aviation Administration requires it for safety, but they will establish a list of required functions. With a straight face the chief counsel of the Federal Aviation Administration recently told me that no blind person could be excluded from an exit row seat but that if a person could not see, he or she might be excluded from such a seat. It is all a matter of function, he said, not blindness. And these are the people who are writing the rules and protecting the public.

          As we consider what to do about our problems with the airlines, I want to remind you of some of the things which have been said about liberty and freedom. They that give up essential liberty, said Benjamin Franklin, to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety. Freedom, said Max Stirner, cannot be granted. It must be taken.

          We hear, and we understand. We know what we must do, and we have counted the cost. Is freedom meant only for the sighted, or is it meant for us, too? Is it all right (even praiseworthy) for sighted Americans to resist coercion and fight for their rights but not all right for the blind? Can blind people hope to be free Americans? We gave our answer to that question almost fifty years ago. We formed the National Federation of the Blind and it is still here, stronger and more active today than ever before in its history.

          The battle lines are now drawn on the issue of freedom in air travel for the blind, and we could not withdraw from the fight even if we would. We will either win or lose. We did not seek this fight, but we have no intention of running from it and we certainly have no intention of being beaten into the ground. We have taken our case to the Congress, and we will also take it to the public and the courts and we intend to prevail. We want no strife or confrontation, but we will do what we have to do. We are simply no longer willing to be second-class citizens.

          Less than a year after this convention appearance Jernigan struck the same theme in testimony before the Subcommittee on Aviation of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. He was appearing in his role as Executive Director of the National Federation of the Blind and as the long-time leader of the organized blind of America. His testimony was a summation of years of experience with the airlines and a distillation of decades of experience with discrimination and prejudice. It is reprinted here as an appropriate commentary on the drama unfortunately still unfinished of the organized blind in the unfriendly skies.

          Testimony: March 14, 1989

          Mr. Chairman, I am Kenneth Jernigan, Executive Director of the National Federation of the Blind. This hearing concerns the Air Travel Rights for Blind Individuals Act (S. 341), introduced by Senator Hollings and others last month. We are pleased, Mr. Chairman, that you and Senator McCain are original co-sponsors of the bill. The Air Travel Rights for Blind Individuals Act is necessary legislation. The blind, who have come here this morning from throughout the United States, can tell you from personal experience that this is so.

          Today the situation is such that no blind person in this country can board a plane without fear of harassment, public humiliation, and possibly arrest and bodily injury. I have been riding on airplanes for more than thirty-five years, and I can say from firsthand knowledge that it was not always like this. Prior to the 1970s blind people almost never experienced problems in air travel. We bought our tickets, went to the airport, boarded the plane, traveled to our destination, got off, and went about our business just like everybody else. If one of us wanted help in boarding a plane or making a connection, the assistance was requested and given without a thought.

          Then, things began to change. Ironically the problem was caused by the 1973 amendments to the federal Rehabilitation Act and the growing emphasis on affirmative action and prohibition of discrimination against the handicapped. One would have thought these things would have been positive steps, but they were not at least, not for the blind. Airline personnel and federal regulators didn't become knowledgeable overnight or lose their prejudices just because somebody told them to engage in affirmative action and nondiscrimination. Mostly with respect to air travel the blind didn't need any affirmative action. We were doing just fine as it was. But the airlines and the federal regulators wouldn't have it that way.

          They began by lumping all of what they perceived to be the handicapped together wheelchair users, the blind, the deaf, the quadriplegic, the cerebral palsied, and everybody else including, very often, small children. Next they catalogued what they believed to be the problems, needs, and characteristics of these groups and then assumed that each item on the list applied to every member of every group they had included. The resulting mythical composite was a monstrosity, totally helpless, totally in need of custody, and totally nonexistent except in the minds of airline officials and federal regulators.

          When we objected and insisted on our right to the same freedom of travel that other Americans enjoy, the airline officials and federal regulators reacted with anger and resentment. Since nobody wants to admit to prejudice and ignorance, they said their treatment of us was based on safety. After all, who can fight safety!

          In 1986 Congress passed a law specifically prohibiting discrimination on the basis of handicap in air travel, and even that law has now been twisted into the exact opposite of what Congress intended. Today we are faced with a proposed regulation by the Federal Aviation Administration in response to the 1986 law, and it is not by accident that the regulation was published just prior to this hearing. Of course, the regulation is made in the name of safety, but it is not a question of safety at all but of human rights and the freedom to travel. More specifically the regulation prohibits blind persons from sitting in exit rows on airplanes, but much more than exit row seating is involved. If the Air Travel Rights for Blind Individuals Act is adopted, a signal will be sent to the airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration. If the legislation is not passed and the FAA rule is allowed to stand, a signal will also be sent that the blind are fair game for any kind of treatment the airlines and the FAA wish to give us, as long as it is done in the name of safety.

          If the abuse we are taking from the airlines had anything to do with safety, we wouldn't object, but it doesn't. The truth is that we are being made victims of a misdirected and misapplied federal policy that has irrationally gone wild. Let me give you examples and show you what I mean.

          In early February of this year the blind were in Washington to talk to Congress about (among other things) the unreasonable treatment we are receiving from the airlines. Going home from that meeting Verla Kirsch, a blind woman from Iowa, was assaulted and publicly humiliated by Midway Airlines flight personnel. Even though Mrs. Kirsch's white cane was on the floor in the approved FAA manner, the flight attendant (over her protest) took it from her, returning it after takeoff. On the descent into Chicago two Midway flight attendants sneaked up on Mrs. Kirsch, hunkered down, grabbed and lifted her legs, (yes, I literally mean that) and in her words, yanked the cane from under my feet, bending the cane and nearly breaking it.

          On the trip from Chicago to Des Moines (still on Midway) Mrs. Kirsch found that the word had gone ahead of her, but this time she was prepared and refused to be caught off guard. After publicly harassing her, flight personnel found in their own manual that Mrs. Kirsch was in the right and that blind persons (according to Midway's own policies) may keep their canes at their seats. But the damage was done. Imagine the spectacle, the embarrassment, and the public humiliation! This (and not just exit row seating) is what is really at stake with the proposed FAA rule, this hearing, and the passage of the Air Travel Rights for Blind Individuals Act.

          Is it safe for blind persons to sit in exit rows? Are there, in fact, times when it would be a plus? Here is the sworn statement of a pilot:

          I, Jared Haas, being first duly sworn, depose and state: I have been a pilot for many years. I currently fly 727 aircraft, and I have been employed to do so since June of 1974.

          I am familiar with a number of blind people, and I am generally familiar with the capacities of the blind. In an emergency situation there are circumstances in which it would be helpful to have an able-bodied blind person seated in an emergency exit row with a sighted person. In those cases in which there is smoke in the cabin, an able-bodied blind person, being used to handling situations without sight, would be able to assist with more facility in the evacuation. An able-bodied blind person would not hinder an emergency evacuation.

          That is what a pilot says, and he is not just talking theory. I am aware of at least one case in which it was put to the test. In the early 1980s Lawrence Marcelino, a member of the board of directors of the National Federation of the Blind, was flying home from Baltimore to California; and when the plane got ready to land in San Francisco, there was a problem. The landing gear wouldn't come down. The plane landed on foam, and the lights went out. An emergency evacuation occurred. It was night, and there was near panic. It was Marcelino who got to the exit and helped the sighted passengers find it.

          So far as I have been able to determine, there is not a case on record in which a blind person has been involved in the blocking of an exit or the slowing of traffic in an emergency, and as I have just told you, I know of at least one instance (the one involving Marcelino) in which blindness was a positive asset. Yet, the FAA and the airlines keep prattling to us about safety.

          What evidence do they have? I have carefully studied the FAA's proposed rule, and they rely heavily on tests made in 1973 by the Civil Aeromedical Institute (CAMI). The FAA's own words discredit the CAMI tests.

          In their report CAMI said that blind passengers caused a slight slowing of the evacuation of an airplane. However, for the critical portion of the tests they did not use real blind persons but sighted persons who pretended to be blind. These sighted pretenders would have no experience in the techniques used by the blind, nor would they have the background to know how to function with skill and speed under blindfold. The real blind persons were not allowed to open the emergency exits or to go down the evacuation slides. It was a matter of safety, done for their own protection. They were allowed to walk from their seats to the emergency exits.

          Moreover, the selection of the people who were to be tested is interesting. The sighted (the so-called nonhandicapped) were FAA employees or people recruited through the University of Oklahoma's Office of Research Administration. The blind (not the simulated but the real) were recruited from the Oklahoma League for the Blind, which operates a sheltered workshop. FAA employees are likely to be familiar with aircraft and probably are frequent flyers. In short, the sighted who participated in the test were selected for maximum success.

          Federal statistics tell us that a large percentage of sheltered workshop employees are multiply handicapped. In addition, their low wages and limited opportunities make it unlikely that they are regular air travelers. In short, the blind participants (even when they were real and not simulated) were selected for poor performance. I am not suggesting that all of this was consciously done. Nevertheless, it was done. It is not very difficult to see what the results would have been if blind frequent air travelers had been tested against sighted sheltered workshop employees or, for that matter, against the FAA personnel who were actually used.

          But we do not have to speculate about the competence of blind persons to perform in emergency evacuations of airplanes. On April 3, 1985, members of the National Federation of the Blind took part in the evacuation of an airplane at the Baltimore airport. The airplane was real, and the blind persons were real. They were not simulated, and they did not simply walk from their seats to the exits but went all of the way opening the emergency exit, deploying the evacuation slide, and jumping out. I know, for I was there. I jumped out of that airplane twice.

          The test made by the National Federation of the Blind was much more realistic than the one performed by CAMI. We wanted approximately equal numbers of blind and sighted persons so that we could see whether there was any difference in their speed and efficiency. Our first problem was to find competent sighted participants. One person had back problems; another had a bad heart; another had foot problems; and so it went. But in the real world of everyday flying every one of these people would have qualified for exit row seating, without a question or a thought.

          We videotaped that test evacuation, and I have the tape here with me today to submit as part of the record. If you run it once through at normal speed, you will see passengers seated in a plane, then moving to the exit, and going down the slide. Mostly you will not be able to tell the difference between the sighted and the blind. They move with equal ease.

          When you run the tape slowly (stopping at critical points to study it), what it tells you is damning to the FAA's case. The airline personnel said we should move quickly in a double line, but a flight attendant was standing at the exit partially blocking it. I know, for I had to go around her. In a real emergency I would not have been slowed as I was in the test. I would have simply picked her up, placed her gently but firmly on the slide, and followed her.

          Standing beside the flight attendant, you will see a male airline employee. He slows the flow of traffic by peeking around the flight attendant to look down the slide to see whether the blind are making it. The flight attendant also takes time out to peek, further blocking the exit.

          You will observe that one of the passengers has a dog guide. He was moving quickly to go down the evacuation slide but was slowed by the male flight attendant, who insisted on trying to tell him how to do it. The female flight attendant kept reaching her arm back into the flow of traffic, presumably trying to help but in reality impeding the evacuation. In one instance it can be seen that she locks elbows with a female evacuee and then grabs at her, causing the passenger to lose balance. Nevertheless, the descent was made safely. As I have already said, in the real world the airline personnel would probably not have had the opportunity to slow the evacuation. In any case the tape speaks for itself.

          Last week I had occasion to fly from Denver to Washington, and what happened to me is illustrative of the problem we are facing. Although on many other trips I have been harassed and threatened, nothing like that happened on this one. Everybody was friendly and good-tempered, and I am sure the flight attendants were not even aware that their actions were noteworthy. But you be the judge. Put yourself in my place.

          I was traveling with my sighted wife. Shortly after we took our seats, a flight attendant came and very pleasantly and politely said that she must give me a special briefing. She asked me to feel the oxygen mask and then said that she would like me to fasten and unfasten my seat belt for her. Sighted persons are neither required to look at nor listen to briefings, and certainly they are not asked publicly to demonstrate that they are capable of fastening and unfastening a seat belt. Nevertheless, I complied with good temper and without protest.

          But, you may say, what's the big deal? Such treatment doesn't really mean that you are being treated like a child, or thought of as one. Perhaps but a few minutes later a second flight attendant (again, a most pleasant individual) came to my seat and said to my wife: Has he had his special briefing yet?

          I smiled and replied: Yes, he has had his briefing.

          The flight attendant gave a small embarrassed laugh, and the rest of the flight proceeded without incident but what I have just told you has far more significance than superficial appearance would indicate. It translates into a general public feeling that the blind are incompetent and unable to compete. Put to one side the damage it does to the self-image of the blind who are still in doubt of their own worth or, for that matter, what it would do to any of us, whether blind or sighted especially, if the occurrence is not isolated but part of an everyday pattern.

          This simple incident which seems so innocent and unimportant is the very essence of our problem. It translates into unemployment, lack of acceptance, low self-esteem, and second-class citizenship. Is it all right (even praiseworthy) for other Americans to insist on their rights but not all right for the blind to do it? Are human dignity and freedom meant for everybody else in this country but not for the blind? Is the American dream exclusively the property of the sighted or is it meant for the blind, too? I believe it is meant for all of us, and I think Congress and the public think so, too. I believe that as you learn the facts, you will not permit the airlines and the FAA to continue what they are doing to the blind.

          Yes, we are talking about safety, but not the kind contemplated by the FAA in its discriminatory rule. That is why we are asking for your help. That is why we are asking you to pass (and pass quickly) the Air Travel Rights for Blind Individuals Act.

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