Reading the headlines of late has awakened a nightmare for me. You would think that six years would have brought a change for the good especially when laws have been enacted and advocacy with organizations have brought improved regulations in many areas of the country and world. While much in the headlines is disturbing, I am referring to stories that many of you have probably not seen or paid much attention to at all. I am talking about the rights and dignity of disabled persons being trampled, especially by the airlines. I have my own airport horror story that I will share with you now because I want you to see that I understand first hand the fear and humiliation these incidents inflict, all because so many people just don’t understand that disabled people are people, too.
I flew to Helen Keller National Center in August 2007 for that specialized training I desperately needed to give me a sense of control and independence again. It was horrible for me because I see almost nothing, hear nothing except what I can guess from the body language and noise. I had not been out of my comfort zone in the four years since losing so much vision so rapidly. I left not only my comfort zone, but entered seemingly into my own “Twilight Zone.” Though nervous about leaving my home, school job, husband, and family, I felt secure until I ran into the Atlanta International Airport’s Security Checks. The security personnel first separated me from my husband. I kept trying to say, “I can’t understand you. I can’t see, and I can’t hear.” They were snatching me and pulling me. One officer yanked my guide dog’s leash from my hand. I tried to hold on to it, but he pulled harder. I could just barely see my guide dog Joey’s familiar, fuzzy form turning, trying to come back towards me. I quickly lost sight of Joey. Within seconds, I had been separated from my husband and guide dog, my sources of comfort and security.
Someone grabbed my right arm and practically dragged me across to an area that I was beginning to fear could be a pit or a madman. My mind, of course, was feeding the fear. That creeping, icy fear rose in my chest like an avalanche. I have very bad asthma, and by the time they snatched my dog away and dragged me while I was trying to cry for them to bring him back, my lungs shut down like a vise. I couldn’t even talk after that. Needless to say, I had tears streaming down my face. When my husband came up after they finished searching him, the airport personnel had almost come to the conclusion that they had tried enough to get me to “cooperate” to no avail and were threatening to put me on the floor. My dear husband helped me do as they wished. I was searched, Joey was returned, and we were all let go, without a word, to return to our belongings that had been left unprotected on the conveyor belt amongst hundreds of others’ things. This was seemingly normal routine to the officers. It was not their job to find a way to help me understand. This was the most horrific experience I have ever had. It was over as quickly as it had begun and, for the officers, business went on as if I had never crossed their path. Of course, business was not usual for me as I struggled to quell my fears and regain my breathing, and my husband struggled to cope with his feelings of anger and helplessness against the absolute authority of the security officers.
You may wonder how it was the airlines’ fault in regards to my treatment. All of the advocacy agencies for the disabled have worked tirelessly for over a decade helping the airline industry understand the needs and rights of the disabled under the American Disabilities Act. Disabled persons are also given methods for easing communication issues or explaining their medical needs. I hadn’t learned many of these, yet, but it was a part of written policy not to separate me from my husband who could communicate or my guide dog. These rules were revised and improved in 2010 at the urging and cooperation of ADA advocates and disabled persons.
Despite these rules and subsequent improvements to regulations regarding treatment and training, the cases continue and lately seem to be in the news almost weekly. That could just be better reporting. I know in the 1990’s my father traveled to Atlanta on a flight in a special wheel chair. Despite calling prior and getting instructions and notifying the airline that he would be a quadraplegic in a specialized chair, my father was left stranded in a darkened, empty terminal for hours because the airlines had totally taken his chair apart, not just disconnected at the battery as we had been told. We had the tool to reconnect the battery, but not what we needed or even the knowledge to reassemble his chair. Our pleas for help of any remaining airport personnel in that terminal fell on deaf ears. We didn’t know how to file a complaint and certainly didn’t think to call a newspaper then. Now, I would do both and write a blog post. Times have changed. We can make people aware, but we don’t seem to be seeing enough change despite the efforts.
In the news lately, there have been articles on a deafblind priest who has always flown alone suddenly denied that right. A friend of mine was left feeling humiliated on an Air Canada flight despite years of traveling alone with that very airline. Another wheelchair-bound man was forced to crawl from an airplane and across the tarmac to his wheelchair, not once but twice, despite assurances by the airline after the first time that it would not happen again.
Air travel should not be a horror story. A little understanding and sensitivity is all that is needed to alleviate fear and maintain dignity. You may not understand how a disabled person can do many things, but you need to withhold judgement when you lack knowledge and understanding. Guidelines have been set up because the disabled can do and go. Rules are in place, but what is needed now is a change of heart and attitude.
Where will that change start? I hope it is with you.