Adventures In Sighted/Blind Air Travel

Photo of a long white cane with enlarged tip

In a few days, I’ll be departing for Poland to work with the VEGA Foundation and teach/lecture at The Maria Grzegorzewska Academy of Special Education in Warsaw. I’ve been traveling there since 1995, and have made many close friends throughout the years.

Whenever I visit Poland, I always bring along a rigid (meaning non-folding and non-collapsible) carbon fiber cane from the National Federation of the Blind for my good friend Wojtek, who prefers this particular cane because it provides excellent feedback. Although I’m not blind, the experiences I’ve had when transporting this cane have given me some insight into the myriad difficulties that air travel – and the public – can present for blind and visually impaired people. Here’s a recent example.

The Unseen Hand of the Unseen Transporter

Last year, I was waiting to depart from the international terminal at Newark Airport, and I was actually early. As I stood in the waiting area, wearing my ever-present (very dark) sunglasses and holding my rigid white cane, I was seized from behind by an unseen person (or persons) and lifted/carried along until I reached a seating area.

Truthfully, it was so normal for me to be wearing sunglasses and carrying a white cane in the airport that it didn’t register right away that this person likely thought I was blind and needed “help,” however he or she defined “help.”

Me: What are you doing? What are you doing? Take your hands off me, please!

Unseen Transporter (UT): (muttering) I’m helping you get to a seat.

Me: But I don’t want to sit down. Please, stop pushing me!

UT (applying downward pressure on my shoulders, still muttering): Here. Sit here.

Me: What is wrong with you? Leave me alone!

Me (to myself): OMG! They think I’m blind. That’s what’s going on.

Me (aloud): Umm, I can see, you know. I’m not blind.

(Confusion ensues. Much pushing and grappling and removing of sunglasses)

UT (muttering): Just trying to help.

(Unseen Transporter disappears into the crowd)

Lessons Learned, I Hope

I know this is a small example, but it is my example – and the definitive experience that finally helped me understand what many blind travelers must surely endure every day. To learn more, you can read On Being Considered “Inspirational”, On Meeting a Sighted Person, and Before You Fly: The Transportation Security Administration and People with Visual Impairments.

Personal independence is a precious commodity. Let’s all try to “do the right thing,” shall we?