Commentary: Accessible Air Travel for People with Disabilities

Navigating airports and flights can be daunting and hectic for everyone. Now imagine doing this as a blind or disabled passenger. The reality is that as people with disabilities, we often have to take additional factors into consideration. Service dog users will need to find out if and where the animal relief areas are located, while people with mobility impairments might need to request a wheelchair to get on and off the plane. The busy holiday season is just around the corner, and this is an especially good time to consider and respect the rights of travelers with disabilities.

When it comes to boarding or flying in a plane, blind and visually impaired passengers might have additional questions or concerns. Most sighted people can immediately point out the important locations such as bathrooms, emergency exits and so on. Not being able to see means that blind or visually impaired passengers won’t always be able to appreciate these details, unless we ask or someone points them out to us.

For three years, Alaska Airlines has held “mock” flights to help orient blind and visually impaired passengers to the different locations and features commonly found in airplanes. Staff and volunteers verbally describe and guide passengers through the cabin and cockpit. They also walk individuals through the different knobs and buttons above airplane seats.

I have certainly had my share of experiences as a blind traveler. For a reason still mysterious to me, flight attendants often assume my blindness affects my legs. They sometimes ask if I need a wheelchair, and I’m not the only one who gets this question according to fellow blind travelers. When I’m flying with someone else, they will direct the question to them. We’ve learned to simply smile and thank them politely. If I’m by myself, the staff sometimes immediately assumes I need a wheelchair. One time, the person who was going to escort me actually had a wheelchair when he met me at the TSA area and told me to sit down in it. I politely but assertively told him I could walk perfectly fine. After that he got the message, although I imagine he wasn’t too happy about rolling along an empty wheelchair while guiding me!

The Air Carrier Access Act prohibits discrimination from U.S. and foreign airlines traveling to, from or within the United States on the basis of physical or mental disability. To help enforce this policy, flight attendants and other personnel are trained on the rights of disabled passengers and how to provide assistance to this population. The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that each year around 21 million travelers have a disability. In 2014, there were 27,556 discrimination complaints against domestic and foreign airlines. Of course, this is without taking into account any minor incidents, like the all too common wheelchair scenario I and countless other blind travelers have experienced!

Training like that held by Alaska Airlines should be done more frequently and by other air carriers. Not only does it benefit blind and visually impaired passengers, but it also helps airport and airline personnel become more aware about our specific needs. The training should also be tailored to those with physical, emotional or intellectual disabilities. After all, the assistance I might request is not necessarily the same as that of a wheelchair user.

Disability awareness orientation and training will become more important in the near future. Each day more and more baby boomers are becoming senior citizens, and the reality is that they might eventually acquire a disability. Naturally, this will lead to an increase of disabled air travelers, and it will become crucial for airlines to accommodate their needs. By providing this training, passengers will be more at ease and satisfied with the travel experience, and staff will comply with the law.

I have never met flight personnel that intentionally discriminate, and I strongly believe that education can go a long way in making them more aware about our desires and needs. In the end, we all want and expect the same thing: to be treated like everyone else. The busy holiday season is just around the corner, and this is an especially good time to consider and respect the rights of travelers with disabilities.

sandy speaking

Sandy Murillo works at The Chicago Lighthouse, an organization serving the blind and visually impaired. She is the author of Sandy’s View, a bi-weekly Lighthouse blog about blindness and low vision. The blog covers topics of interest to those living with blindness and vision impairments. Being a blind journalist and blogger herself, Sandy shares her unique perspective about ways to live and cope with vision loss.

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