Treat disabled passengers as competent adults

On International Day of Persons with Disabilities, a personal message from a frequent traveler who has had it up to here with El Al.

People in wheelchair 311 (photo credit: Melanie Lidman)
People in wheelchair 311
(photo credit: Melanie Lidman)
Today, Israel joins the rest of the international community in marking the International Day of Disabled Persons, first proclaimed in 1992. The day is intended to focus world attention on the right of people with disabilities to full and equal participation in society and on their quest for complete acceptance as “normal” human beings. Yet, almost two decades on, it appears that, in many quarters, the realization of this right remains but a dream, and the presumption of “normality” is still no more than a promise. Ben-Gurion International Airport and El Al Israel Airlines are just two cases in point.
I am a totally blind person with dual Israeli and American citizenships, and a retired US diplomat now living in Israel. I continue to travel extensively throughout the world.
Whenever I check in at the El Al desk at Ben- Gurion Airport, I request an escort to walk with me from the desk to my assigned departure gate. Invariably, the escort begins by asking me, often insistently, to hand over my passport and boarding card, as if I were an unaccompanied child. I decline. In addition, many such escorts believe it is too dangerous for a blind person to use the moving walkways, preferring to transport me to my departure gate on a motorized “buggy.”
Again, I resist.
And once in the gate area, the escorts always insist on “pre-boarding” me ahead of all other passengers, under the misconception that blind passengers take much more time than sighted passengers to make their way to the aircraft, stow their carry-on luggage and settle down in their assigned seats.
When I land at Ben-Gurion, the El Al staff typically demand that I disembark by way of the “ambulift,” a special mechanism for moving passengers in wheelchairs and other severely physically disabled travelers, rather than letting me join the general flow of passengers off the aircraft. I routinely reject this demand, pointing out that it is inappropriate and makes no sense for a blind person to be treated like a wheelchair user.
Even more incongruously, the El Al staff always claim they are only trying to help me; to which I respond that any “help” that assumes blind travelers to be incapable of walking alongside their fellow sighted passengers is reminiscent of the old adage that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
SUCH CONFRONTATIONS drastically reduce my enjoyment of air travel and, I am sure, leave airport and airline staff frustrated and puzzled as to how they should ideally behave toward people with disabilities. Therefore, let me suggest six dos and don’ts which will not only help airport and airline personnel make air travel more satisfying for disabled passengers, but will make all interactions between members of the public and people with disabilities more comfortable and friction-free.
1. Don’t assume that all disabled passengers have identical abilities or require the same accommodations. No two disabled individuals are alike, even if they have the same disability.
So, for example, don’t automatically offer a wheelchair to a blind traveler; rather, ask each disabled traveler what assistance, if any, he/she would like, and then act accordingly. In essence, that is all you need to know about helping people with disabilities. They know much better than you what their individual needs are, so respect their wishes and don’t attempt to impose your thinking on them.
2. Always let disabled travelers speak for themselves and control their own affairs. Don’t ask for (and certainly don’t grab) his/her passport or boarding pass to hand it over for inspection to the immigration officer, security guard or gate agent. Let disabled passengers interact with airport and airline representatives without your intervention. You are not responsible for them.
Similarly, always speak to disabled travelers directly rather than addressing any non-disabled companions who may be with them, as in “Would he like a window or an aisle seat?” In other words, never treat disabled travelers like unaccompanied children. You are simply their escort, not their nanny.
3. Always give disabled airline passengers the choice of joining the general flow of boarding and disembarking passengers or of being processed separately, as in the case of “preboarding” or making use of the “ambulift.”
Don’t insist that a disabled airline passenger remain seated upon landing, until all other passengers have disembarked. The disabled traveler may be a business executive hurrying to a meeting. Rather, ask the disabled passenger during the flight what assistance, if any, he/she will require upon landing; then, call ahead to the destination airport and ask for the desired assistance to be available upon the aircraft’s arrival at the gate. That way, the disabled passenger will be able to disembark together with all other passengers. In the same vein, don’t advise blind and other independently-mobile disabled passengers that, in case of an emergency evacuation, they should stay put until a flight attendant comes to help them off the aircraft. I always laugh at such instructions: Is my life less important and my evacuation less urgent than that of other passengers? In a genuine emergency, I would be rushing for the exits like everyone else.
4. Don’t show blind passengers automatically to an elevator, in the belief that they lack sufficient balance to step nimbly and safely on and off crowded escalators and moving walkways. Blind people make their way daily through Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Center, New York’s Times Square, London’s Oxford Street, so we are not likely to shy away from some crowded escalator or moving walkway at an airport. You will, of course, come across elderly blind people who may well feel unsteady when stepping on or off a moving walkway or escalator, but that is due entirely to their age and not to their blindness.
5. When escorting a blind traveler, ask whether he/she would like to hold your arm or would prefer you to hold theirs. This is largely a matter of personal preference on the part of each blind person. Some blind people believe that, by holding your arm and walking half a step behind, they are in a better position to follow your movements. However, that is not the commonly accepted view among blind airline passengers, who are often holding a white cane in one hand, rolling a carry-on suitcase with the other and have no third hand with which to hold your arm. In those situations, it makes eminently more sense for you to hold the blind traveler’s arm with a light grip above the elbow (never grab a blind person’s cane).
Besides, a growing number of blind people have come to believe that, by holding an escort’s arm and walking half a step behind, the blind person reinforces the public’s negative image of the blind as necessarily dependent on the sighted. One more tip on this subject: if the blind person does hold your arm, never ask him/her, “Am I walking too fast for you?” This is insulting. There is no reason why you should presume that blind people are unable to walk as fast as you, or faster than you, for that matter. Just walk at your normal pace.
6. Finally, be relaxed and matter-of-fact about escorting disabled passengers, and don’t make a “big production” of it all, as one airport staffer recently did with me. As he was escorting me through the crowded gate area, he called out to other passengers, “Stand aside, please! Coming through!” I asked him to keep quiet, but he would not. As we walked down the jet way, he cautioned me loudly: “Watch out! Watch out! We’re coming to a dip in the jet way floor!” And, as we made our way through the aircraft to my seat, he kept telling me: “Slowly! Slowly! Be careful! We’re nearly there! Here we are!”
The fact is that blind people who use their canes properly and pay attention to their surroundings don’t have to be cautioned about approaching steps, and have no difficulty walking briskly and smoothly up and down stairs and ramps, passing through revolving doors or stepping over ridges and cracks such as those found in jet ways.
After all, in 2001, a blind man climbed to the summit of Mount Everest. This does not mean, of course, that all blind people are capable of the same feat, but it does mean that blindness was not a limiting factor in that historic ascent. In fact, blindness in and of itself hardly ever places limits on ability.