Personal Stories of a Blind Air Traveller.

a.       New York Kennedy Airport: when confronted by a burly assistant who started to boss me around intending to put me in an extremely uncomfortable metal (formerly perhaps “electric”) chair for the next two hours without permission to move, I politely but firmly declined his services and started to move with the crowd along the airport corridors. The smells helped me find a restaurant where I ordered a nice meal and drink. The staff gave me accurate directions of how to get to my gate; my conversation on this topic was overheard by some other guests who shared the same flight and offered to walk with me.

b.      Frankfurt: a nice Columbian girl (an intern) picked me up on the plane and brought me very civilly up to the Sheraton reception, which is, strictly speaking, outside the internal passages of the airport. She seemed not to have known any regulation, just used her common sense.

c.       Prague: a wheelchair is being offered but not forced on one. I am rather hesitant as to the language skills of persons who are in charge of assisting one.

d.      Paris, story one: it was a direct flight to and from Paris. In both cases, I was accompanied without any difficulty, no wheelchair offered, just routine.

e.      Paris, story two: I had to change planes, knowing in advance that the change included the move from one terminal to another. I was travelling with my teenage sighted daughter. In order to facilitate her orientation within the unfamiliar and rather confusing setting, I (stupid me) ordered assistance. Some kind of a delivery van arrived to the door of the plane, a special contraption was erected to get us down from the floor of the cabin to the floor of the van. Then the vehicle started to trundle around the airport delivering odds and ends; it continued in its frantic chores until my other plane left. My polite, angry and desperate appeals were to no avail; the van crew pretended (or may not have pretended) not to understand a word in English. In the end, we fled during one of the van’s stops in some service area of the airport; the crew started to shout but we didn’t heed and ran away. Then, we found a counter where a kind staff member understood our problem and rebooked us onto a later plane (fortunately the same day). By the way: it was a journey from the 9th EBU General Assembly in Geneva and the above described van contained, apart from the two Czechs, delegations from post_Soviet Asian republics who, to my knowledge, may be riding around Parisian airports to this very day.

f.        Neither have I ever been expelled from air travel while flying on my own nor have I been advised about such a provision by any relevant person.

g.       Czech Airlines/Smart Wings: on my last trip with this highly reputed carrier, I was ordered to change places with another passenger and to be seated in a window seat. The explanation was very interesting: “if a blind person sits in the midseat or next to the aisle, he/she presents an obstacle when the plane needs to be evacuated.”. In other words: “let blind people sit at the windows – they are not worth evacuating!” I bluntly refused to obey the order and was left alone.

h.      My most peculiar story: somewhere at the beginning of the millennium, I was traveling on a late evening SAS flight from Copenhagen to Oslo. On the Copenhagen tarmac, I was almost drowsing in my next-to-the-aisle seat in the rearest row when an air-hostess gently tapped my shoulder and woke me up. She invited me to accompany her to the main door of the plane located on the left-hand side of the plane body and showed me how to open and close it. Then we crossed the cabin to the other side where she told me to demonstrate my newly-acquired skill; to her satisfaction, I was able to open and close the main door without difficulty. When we were walking back to my next-to-the-aisle seat in the last row, I asked her why she was teaching me all that. Her answer was both surprising and fairly sensible: “Should anything happen with the lighting, you will be the only one who knows safely the way out.”

2)      General Observations:

a.       On the whole, the blind should have reasonable requirements and refrain from demanding accessible entertainment systems. One can quite easily have (and most often has) once own personal entertainment system (Braille display, digital player, accessible book reader, etc.).

b.      The passenger service at airports is usually being outsourced; and the outside companies employ people with, well, limited mental capacities. As a result, a blind person cannot expect to be treated as a VIP celebrity. We are (whether we like it or not) handled as objects (parcels, boxes), NOT as subjects (human beings).

c.       At times, a wheelchair may not represent such a bad solution. First, the assistant can move very fast without solving his never-resolved enigma: “how come that a blind person can walk when he can’t see?”. Second: people may not simply wish to touch you and/or to be touched, or they may be prohibited by some internal regulations of their employer to have physical contact with other people; in such circumstances, a wheelchair is a feasible solution.

3)      Conclusion: I’m not sure whether my observations have more value than that of mere illustration. To fight for the rights of blind passengers is also a philosophical issue. What do we want? Equal rights with the sighted or preferential treatment? If “equal rights”, a decision-maker can state “you want equal rights with the sighted, eh? Very well, as the sighted are more or less ignored and left to their own ends with no physical contact, etc., you will eat from the same dish.” If we want preferential treatment, we should say so because it makes logic: everybody knows that the blind are disadvantaged, and so to equal the terms just a bit, we may require at least some advantages such as proper assistance at airports and aircraft.

By Rudolf Volejnik, Vice-president, Czech Blind Union.