Independent travelling as a blind person may be perceived differently. Some people think that it is impossible, some that it is admirable and some that it is fun. I am the third kind of person. Just imagine a group of blind adventurers with white canes in their hands, holding each other’s shoulders and looking for a way from the main station to the airport … But unfortunately, this isn’t today’s topic. I would rather like to share with you one less funny story that happened to us during one of those travels.
It’s Sunday evening and I, along with three other blind people, are returning from an educational weekend stay – ICC Weekend that took place in Belgium. Since it was an event where the participants had to travel by themselves, I, together with my old friends, decided to reintroduce the theory of blind travelling in practice.
Within Europe, and perhaps the world, every disabled person has the right to free airport assistance. You can either book it in advance via emailing your travel company or you can request it directly on the airport. After you arrive to the airport, you will be taken over by an assistant who will then lead you through check-in, airport checks and directly to the plane. The same happens in the final destination. But the assistant will not naturally go on board with you, so that is where the cabin crew should take care of the needed. And exactly there was our problem.
On our way from Belgium
Neither I nor my friends are new to flying. We have even travelled the route, Prague-Brussels and Brussels-Prague before with the same company (Brussels airlines, no low-cost company). Other participants of these international events fly independently worldwide as well. In our case, the procedure always looked like this: After the priority boarding, the flight attendants take us to places, give us a personal safety instructions and ask if everything is clear and whether we need anything else. In many cases, the behavior of the crew was exemplary. Since the plane is mostly empty at that time and one feels a bit like a VIP, there is often good mood and room for jokes present.
Such a mood was present also this time when finally boarding the plane after entertaining ride through the airport on a special assistance car. The airport assistance also brought us to our places on the plane, where stewardesses were already waiting.
The first sentence from the stewardess that we heard was whether we were all completely blind. Although I, together with one of my friends, are not completely blind (just legally :-)), for easier communication, we answered yes. We were expecting the appropriate briefing on inflatable vests and oxygen masks, which we have already known almost by heart. Nothing like this happened, and the stewardess went away without any reaction.
There was nothing strange at all to this point. Meanwhile, other passengers began to trample into the plane. After a few minutes, another stewardess came to us, asking nothing more than the same question as the one before – whether we were all blind. But this time she used a somewhat incredulous tone. Again, we answered yes. I explained her tone as a sign of admiration – my mistake :-). She went on saying that such a thing was not allowed and that in order to travel, we had to have a sighted guide for every two blind persons. As an exception she offered to try to ask nearby passengers whether they could take responsibility for us during the flight.
The good mood suddenly faded away and was replaced by fear and, in my case, anger. Isn’t that the same company and the same route that we traveled without any problems three days ago? Have they changed their transport conditions during the three days and devised new rules for the transport of the blind? Are they really going to tell us that they won’t take us home because we can’t see?
While we were asking such questions, the plane started to move. The stewardess then asked some passengers who were sitting behind us if they could “take care of us” . I didn’t hear the whole conversation because of the noise on board, but I know that the combination of Stewardesse ‘s English with a strong French accent and Czech tourists who did not understand the point at all was not very fruitful. At the end, they nodded and she disappeared without a word.
The plane was already on the runway at that time and seemed to be taking off at any moment. This was also indicated by the time of departure, so we assumed that everything was solved. But that was probably not entirely true. Instead of taking off, the plane stopped and began to take ten minutes, twenty minutes and finally thirty minutes delay. Uneasiness was present on the board. Not only in our heads was the idea that it might have something to do with us. The willing Czechs who sat behind us and still argued over who to take care about had also similar suspicions.
After endless minutes, the stewardess appeared again. I had no idea if we’d talked to her before. But there came the old familiar question: are you really all blind? By then I had run out of patience and said that I and my friend were not and that we could take care of those “blind people” in an emergency, whereupon I showed her to the escape exit. It was a row ahead of us, so I could see its lighting even with my visual impairment. This time the stewardess seemed more satisfied, and she left with the words that she would tell that to the captain. After about five minutes, we finally got into the air.
After this experience, numerous turbulences and landing on autopilot in total fog, we finally arrived in Prague just before midnight. Because of the delay, my friend missed the last train home. This is how a trip of four blind guys can end, when some people think that visually impaired people are not independent.
I am not writing this article to complain about anything, but to point out that because of ignorance, incompetence and lack of information, people with disabilities may find themselves in an insoluble situation. The worst of all is that we have not got any explanation yet, so we can only argue about some things. Was the delay that caused such a fuss on board really caused by the fact that the staff could not figure out what to do with four blind passengers? I keep wondering what would happen if we were all really completely blind and if we did not speak English fluently…