Let’s Take a Trip: Blind Experiences with Air Travel

By Roqayah Ajaj

During this time of year, before COVID-19, many people would be preparing for vacations, trips to visit family, etc. Air travel during the winter holidays is stressful for everyone, but blindness adds another layer of complexity to my travel experience. Even though there are policies that require assisting travelers with disabilities, these are not always carried out appropriately, leaving many travelers like myself feeling abandoned and confused.

I invite you in this post to get a glimpse of some moments that stick out for me when I think about my experiences traveling independently.

Stop 1: A Wheelchair is Not a One-Size-Fits-All Solution

I approach the customer service desk to ask for help getting to my gate. The agent offers me a wheelchair. I refuse, saying, “I am blind, and I can walk. I just need someone to guide me.” He replies, “You are blind?”…“Yes.”…“What does that mean?” I repeat, “I am blind.” He says, “You cannot see?”…“Yes.” He turns to his assistant and explains how to walk with me; it is obvious that they have no idea how to help someone who is blind. He tells the assistant, gesturing to my white cane, “Hold her cane.”

Image of sighted person grabbing the cane of someone who is blind in an attempt to guide them. This image comes from a video on this topic by Planes Trains and Canes, which you can watch here.

One day, upon arriving at the airport, I ask for an assistant to walk with me. Yet again, they offer a wheelchair, but I push back, explaining that I do not need one. The agent talks to his team (there are three of them). They are speaking a language that is not English nor Arabic, so I cannot understand them. They seem to be arguing and sound angry. Finally, they decide that all three of them will walk with me! One of the assistants takes my suitcase and walks right in front of my cane—my cane keeps hitting the suitcase. The other two are next to me, one to the right and one to the left. At this point, I am very uncomfortable. I end up asking two of them to go away, saying that I only needed one guide. The person who stays seems to be quite shy, so I try to lead us in a small conversation to follow his voice. But any time I ask about anything, he just says, “Wait.”

Stop 2: Listening is Key When Providing Assistance

After deplaning, an assistant assigned by the airport customer service desk helps me navigate through customs, get my luggage, and make my way to the exit. At first, she puts her arm around my waist, but I ask her to instead walk with me and guide me verbally. It seems that language might be an added barrier between us. I explain to her that she needs to walk side-by-side with me and continue talking so I can follow her voice. She understands “keep talking” to mean: “Straight, straight, straight, straight, straight, left, left, left, left, left.” I try to explain to her that she does not need to repeat instructions over and over—she just needs to make light conversation and give guidance when we need to change directions. She just laughs and says, “No one is looking at us—it’s fine.” I’m not sure how to respond to that. 😕

I am walking with an assistant who has been assigned to me. I notice that he is a little bit nervous walking with me—maybe it is his first time walking with someone who is blind and guiding them verbally. As usual, I ask him to maintain small talk, to walk side-by-side with me, and to give precise verbal directions without touching me. He walks a few meters ahead of me and uses vague language, like, “Come here,” and “Come there.” He doesn’t listen to my instructions, despite my clear communication. Every time I hear his voice, it comes from a different direction and far from me. I can’t focus on where to safely move my body. This confusion leads to him suggesting we use a wheelchair (?!).

Image of a busy airport. Navigation signs and souvenir shops are clearly visible, but the many people around are blurred as they move.
Stop 3: Do You Even Want to Assist Me?

The plane lands. I walk with the flight attendant to the exit door of the airplane. She talks briefly with the person who is responsible for assigning me an assistant, telling him clearly that I do not need a wheelchair but need a sight guide. They speak in English, which I can of course understand. Once he is finished talking to the flight attendant, he turns to me and says in Arabic, “Okay, come and sit in the wheelchair.” I pretend that I do not speak Arabic and repeat what the flight attendant said in English to let him know that I fully understood their conversation. He starts to become frustrated and tries to convince me that they do not have someone to walk with me. (It does not make sense to me that they have someone to push me in a wheelchair but no one to walk with me.) After discussion with him, he finally asks a woman to come guide me. I do not know who she is, but it is clear that being an assistant is not her job. She indicates in various ways that she does not want to be there: sighing, making personal calls on her phone, not giving me directions, and finally asking me, “Why are you traveling alone?” I explain to her that I am a student and don’t have people to travel with me whenever I need. She says, “Yeah, but you’re making people tired and causing trouble here.” I immediately tell her, “If you don’t want to help me, you don’t have to.” I ask her to contact her manager to send someone else, because I know that airports must provide appropriate services to help people with disabilities navigate. At this point, I am really upset, because this airport is not in Saudi Arabia, so I cannot ask a family member to come help me; I am alone. They send me another person, who guides me very well, but while he is guiding me verbally, other airport employees around us keep teasing him: “Oh yeah, you’re walking with a lady!” I stop booking flights that go through that airport.

This is not to say that all my airport experiences have been negative. Every time I’ve landed in Amsterdam, for example, my experience has been overwhelmingly positive. All employees that I’ve interacted with have good communication skills and have clearly received training on how to respectfully assist people who are blind. They always ask how they can meet my individual needs and give me choices about how to be assisted, offering their arms, verbal guidance, or a ride in the golf cart. The airport has separate waiting areas for people with disabilities, where we can easily ask for assistance for anything (e.g., eating at the cafeteria, browsing stores, getting coffee)—and they always get me back to my gate on time. It’s wonderful—if only I could use this airport every time I traveled! Most importantly, they indicate through their interactions with me that this is not them begrudgingly going above and beyond, but just them pleasantly doing their job.

Each individual with a disability has their own needs. Some have mobility impairments that require them to use wheelchairs, while others, like those who are blind, often need a sighted guide. And even those who are blind have different needs. Airport and airline managers must emphasize in both policy and practice the importance of welcoming travelers of different abilities and helping them to feel as safe traveling as everyone else does. It’s simple: hire people with good communication and listening skills and train them on common etiquette when working with people with disabilities and providing verbal guidance to a person who is blind. Employees, for their part, should simply listen and respond to the needs that people with disabilities explain, rather than placing judgment or jumping to their own conclusions.

Unfortunately, COVID-19 has changed many of our normal travel plans this year. It has also taught us many lessons. One, which is relevant to this topic, is: it is not necessary to touch someone in order to assist them. Instead, practice using specific verbal directions. To learn more, check out my short video over here.

The goal is to reach our destination: true inclusion.

Can you think of a time when have you articulated your needs, but others didn’t listen? Tell me about your most frustrating airport stories under “Leave a Reply” below. Please share this article with your friends who travel the most or with anyone you know who might benefit from reading this article.

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