Berkeley Blog, Opinion

Flying while blind

Illustration of disabled people

I am not only an experienced traveler; I am an experienced blind person.

“But what about me?”

Those words were spoken by a man sitting next to me on an airplane. I was in the aisle seat and he was in the center. He was speaking to the flight attendant who was delivering the preflight safety briefing. Usually, I will get a private briefing during the preboarding process for people with disabilities. But this time, a flight attendant didn’t get to me until the plane was fully boarded.

In the language of the boarding announcement, I am “someone who needs a little extra time going down the Jetway.” This is not entirely true. I am blind, but I am a fast walker, particularly in the unobstructed space of jet-ways and airplanes where there are rarely obstacles or intersections to make a wrong turn. I can lift my own suitcase into the overhead bin. I am very tall, making the lift and twist easier, and I know how to pack light. Usually, all I need is help finding my seat, though I can often accomplish this simply by counting.

Sometimes the flight attendant will realize I am an experienced traveler and abbreviate the briefing. Yes, I know how to buckle my seatbelt and that the nearest exit might be behind me. Sometimes they have a Braille version of the safety information card. This makes for interesting reading, because in describing the position to take in case of a crash landing, there’s greater precision than in the image alone. Once in a while, they even let me handle the oxygen mask and life jacket, which allows me to retain a tactile memory of those objects that I hope will come back to me should the need arise.

While all this is going on I strive to reassure the attendant that I won’t be any extra work for her during the flight. I am not only an experienced traveler; I am an experienced blind person. I know how to find my way to the lavatory. In the unlikely event that food is served, I know how to feed myself.

Part of the standard safety briefing is to tell me that in case of emergency, I should stay where I am and wait for a member of the crew to come back and rescue me. It does not take much imagination to predict that in the chaos of some disaster, this is unlikely to happen. How is the flight attendant going to get to me if the aisle is clogged with my fellow passengers rushing toward the exit?

The man in the seat next to me, idly eavesdropping as she got to this part of her spiel, piped up, “But what about me?” His tone was aggrieved, perhaps a little anxious. He went on to point out that if I remained seated in the event of this hypothetical emergency, he would have to climb over me, and those few extra seconds might be the difference between life and death.

I had to think fast. The two of them were talking about and around me, and I was vanishing from the conversation. This is a familiar experience for many disabled people, and it can be risky to remain silent. It seemed urgent to reshape the image of myself as a barrier and burden, so I said, “If the lights go out, or there’s smoke and no visibility, I can lead the way.

I felt a bit guilty using this ploy, because I was ascribing value to myself that other passengers, particularly other disabled passengers, could not claim. I was thinking of a man who preboarded with me, now sitting a couple of rows ahead. He was in a wheelchair in the Jetway but walked onto the plane on his own. He explained to me somewhat sheepishly, that he was “just a little shaky on my pins.” I suspect he worried that I, a legitimate disabled person, would denounce him as an impostor.

Like many people I meet preboarding airplanes or waiting in what I think of as the disability holding pens, where we wait for assistants to move us around, he did not consider himself to be a person with a disability in his everyday life. I wanted to tell him that the problem was not his shaky pins; the problem was that airports are disabling spaces. The vast distances of long concourses can be daunting. Signage is often hard to decipher even for people with average vision. Announcements compete with each other in a garbled sonic mess.

When people avail themselves of disability services at airports, riding wheelchairs and golf carts and boarding before everyone else, we also find ourselves subject to policies about emergency protocols, such as the requirement to remain in our seats and wait for help.

Still thinking fast, I resisted the urge to list my academic and professional accomplishments as proof that I am a clear thinker, accustomed to directing others, good in a crisis. Fortunately, my fellow passenger only needed to consider for a second. “Yeah,” he said, “she can get around in the dark. She could lead me to safety.”

I couldn’t tell for sure, but I assessed that the man was young to middle-aged and physically fit. When I stood up to let him in the seat I observed that he was above average in height. He had flipped his suitcase into the overhead bin with ease. His broad shoulders extended beyond the width of his seat. I considered pointing out that in the hypothetical disaster, as I led him to the exit, we could also assist Mr. Shaky-on-my-pins. For all we knew, he might be a physician, or a former Boy Scout, ready to administer first aid. Who knew what valuable skills he might have in a disaster? Between the two of us, surely my seatmate and I could get him out as well.

The flight attendant was a bit flummoxed. My fellow passenger was displaying a kind of defiance in his solidarity with me. Perhaps this is why they usually conduct these briefings before the nondisabled people board. She decided not to argue with us, and that was the end of it.

As we taxied to take off, I became aware that my seatmate was gripping the armrest between us. I could feel the tension in his elbow pressing against my arm. I realized that I had misjudged him. His seeming physical fitness had distracted me from the possibility that he might be a fearful flyer. I wanted to say something reassuring, but I sensed that my presence and the disastrous scenario it had compelled him to imagine had triggered his anxiety. So I resorted to the tried-and-true small talk of travelers: Was this trip business or pleasure? Was he leaving home or on his way back? I am an experienced traveler; I know how people talk. Soon enough, he released his grip on the armrest, the wheels left the tarmac and we were on our way.

Crossposted from the New York Times