Seeing the Light

Don’t be shy. Ask blind people if and how they like to be escorted. (Prospect)

Airports are learning how best to treat their blind passengers, by Carroll McCormick.

Don’t be shy. Ask blind people if and how they like to be escorted. (Prospect)

In the bad old days blind passengers probably expected to be forced into wheelchairs and ‘parked’ in assist rooms to wait for (or be forgotten and miss) their flights.  More recently, airport staff are opening their eyes to sensible, informed ways to serve the visually-impaired.
Early this summer John Scott, president of the Detroit chapter of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) and Larry Posant, a member of NFB’s Western Wayne chapter in Dearborn, Michigan, visited the Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport.  They gave airport, airline and other personnel a ‘heads up’ on the dos and don’ts of providing service to the blind.
The catalyst for the invitation was the NFB’s National Annual Convention in Detroit in July, attended by 3,000 NFB members, many of whom would be passing through the airport.
The airport is skilled at welcoming large groups but, says Scott Wintner, public affairs specialist with the Wayne County Airport Authority: “Receiving large groups of visually-impaired people was a new challenge.  It opened our minds to new ways of seeing things.”
John Scott comments: “We gave them an understanding of the deal with blind people.  Some [blind passengers] are warm and friendly, some are ornery.  Don’t just come up and grab someone.  Ask if they need assistance.  Some will call in advance and request assistance.  Some are very independent.  The issue is how to deal with the blind,” Scott explained.
“We were reminded that blind people are blind, not idiots,” Wintner says.  Blunt as this statement is, it cuts through the fog of political correctness to reveal simple truths that blind people have no hang-ups about expressing.
For example: “Society doesn’t want to be rude.  For us, blindness is an old story.  I get just about as emotional about having to put colour in my hair.  Blindness is a fact of my life.  I don’t find it particularly difficult or upsetting,” says Mary-Ellen Gabias, Vice-President, Canadian Federation of the Blind.

An intense light and sound show at the Detroit airport proved to be disconcerting to the visually-impaired. (Detroit airport)

The odd treatment blind people have endured at the hands of airport staff at countless airports includes having wheelchairs thrust at them when they come off the aircraft.  “Wheelchairs at airports were the biggest problem for me.  We are disabled, not crippled,” added Scott.  A tactic he sometimes uses when someone trots up with a wheelchair is to put his briefcase on it, thank the staff and march on.
Another sore point is treating the blind as though they are not there: airport staff are less patronising in speech than they were in the past, but to this day, if a blind person is with a sighted person, people will ask the sighted person what “he” (the blind person) wants, according to Scott.
Prospect Airport Services has a small army of employees who handle cabin service for Delta and Northwest Airlines, ramp service for US Air, and wheelchair and passenger service at Detroit’s North Terminal and McNamara Terminal.  “We use established policies with the airlines and work closely with them.  The procedures we have with visually-impaired people were already well-established,” says Tim Fisher, Prospect’s General Manager at the North Terminal before his recent transfer to San Francisco Airport.
Still, Prospect staff left the NFB meeting with some new insights.  For example, Fisher says: “We told the dispatchers that when we got a call from an airline, they should ask if it was a visually-impaired person so we would not show up with a wheelchair.  To a certain extent this was the key sticking point the NFB had.  Being told this helped us give them proper service.
“A lot of being prepared for the convention came down to having trainers and supervisors on the airport, making sure the employees were briefed (we have daily briefings): ‘here’s what’s going on, expectations of high demands’.  We had a month’s notice, so we had a lot of time to make sure our staff knew what was going on and that they were comfortable.”
Wintner expects other pointers will result in improved service to visually-impaired passengers.  “It illuminated for us that there are wayfinding issues, issues that were low-priority for us, but that for some of our customers could be major; for example, not many auditory announcements for things that are posted, low-contrast or too-small signs.”
The airport has three relief areas for service animals [also correctly called seeing-eye dogs, guide dogs and leader dogs] outside the landside.  However, Wintner admits: “The NFB conference illuminated the need to have a relief area on the airside.  For customers who transfer in the McNamara Terminal, right now someone from the airlines has to escort the person through security, outside, then back through security.  We have a lot of long-distance flights and this is a long time for pets not to use the ‘washroom’.”
Shuttle bus operators are trained to help disabled passengers. (Victoria Airport Authority)

“If only airports [and maybe the International Air Transport Association – the heavy muscle behind paperless ticketing] could address the fact that the blind cannot operate the Common Use Self Serve kiosks,” Gabias added.  “It would be really good if the people who make these terminals made them so they could speak, so I could plug in my head phones or push a code to make it a talking terminal. They should make kiosks like that so we can use them.”
Both Scott and Gabias seemed pleasantly surprised that the author contacted them for their opinions.  Too often, they explained, policies and training in how to serve the blind are developed and executed by the sighted.  “The most important thing that airports or airlines [do wrong] is to sit down and have meetings on special needs, but not with blind people.  Don’t you think you should have blind people at the meeting to give advice?” Scott asks. “I think that [consulting the blind] would be very prudent.  The best source of information on blind people is blind people.”
It was an NFB member who pointed out that the intense light and sound show in the tunnel that links Concourse A and Concourse B/C at Detroit’s McNamara Terminal is unnerving to blind people, who navigate by sound; those visually-impaired people with some sight do not necessarily appreciate such an unexpectedly intense light show.  The airport reduced the display’s intensity for the NFB conference attendees.
The author contacted one well-known airline and a big airport that have training sessions where the sighted practise walking with other sighted people wearing blindfolds.  Yet only a blind person knows how this really works and that there are various ways to do it.  If airport staff are not sure what to do, they can simply ask, Gabias says.  “The big thing is that if you are offering assistance, don’t be shy to ask for what you need as the person offering assistance.  It is no big deal with us.  We’d be happy to put someone at ease.”
Worth remembering is that blind people have different degrees of comfort moving around on their own,” Gabias adds.  “Airport personnel seem to feel that any blind person walking alone is someone in need of assistance.  Some take this so seriously that they interfere with a blind person’s desire not to be assisted.  Some staff freak out.  They often think they have to do more than they need to.  If I say ‘no thanks’ I want to be left be.”
Representatives of Canada’s Victoria International Airport have good stories to tell about how it serves disabled people.  On page 10 of a staff booklet on how to provide assistance to persons with disabilities and seniors, there is a section on visual impairment.  James Bogusz, Manager, Marketing Communications, and Technology, kindly agreed that I could ask Scott and Gabias to rate it.
It provides two instructions:
(1) Inform the person that you wish to speak to them by lightly tapping them on the nearest shoulder.
(2) Face the person, speak in a normal tone of voice, at your usual speed, and ask them if they require assistance.
Hearing the first instruction Gabias laughs: “If somebody did that to me before they spoke to me, I would regard that as a little bit weird.  If somebody spoke to me first and I didn’t clue in, and then they tapped me on the shoulder, that would be ok.”  As for the second, she says: “That’s nice. I like that.”
Scott does not ‘buy’ the tap line.  “If you think you need to get their attention, why not just ask?  I believe that 95% of the folk would not be offended by a tap on the shoulder, but some will.  I think address first, then tap.”  His reaction to the second line is a bit more complex.  “[The instruction] is a bit presumptuous, but because it is a service entity, and you are there to serve people, it is good to enquire.  Some blind people are annoyed by it, but that is because they have issues.”
Good service is simple, but the challenge deeply rooted.  “If a person at an airport is willing to meet me as a human being, we can work out our difficulties,” Gabias says.  Scott, when asked in what ways the sighted underestimate the blind, exposes those roots: “Generally, in every way possible.  And what is worse, blind people underestimate their own capabilities too.  We have the attitude of the sighted world.”