I love flying. Going to an airport, maybe a cheeky pre-flight drink at the right time of day, getting on a plane and venturing off to a far-away destination – it’s symbolic of an adventure. Take off, in-flight service (though we don’t get the meals we used to!) – it’s all part of an experience.
But, like most, there are things I don’t enjoy. Airport security, having to take off belts and watches and put keys your bag just to avoid the annoyance of the metal detectors going off, I don’t think anyone enjoys that. And being late to an airport for a flight is no fun either. I’ve never been paged, and never want to be either.
So low vision and the symbolic white cane seem to attract some odd behaviours from both ground and cabin staff. From those ‘Special Assistance’ tags they insist on putting on your checked bags, as if the bags somehow require ‘special treatment’ as they’re thrown onto the plane. To security staff who want to search your bag, demand to know if it’s your bag, but won’t let you touch it because that’s in breach of their processes.
I remember back to my first airport experience, the good old days when we queued at the check-in counters, had boarding passes printed out for us and marched off to security. I was dating a woman who had no vision. She stood behind me and we awaited our turn. They called but I didn’t think they meant us so paused for a second. This was too much for the woman behind us – she shoved her way past us, climbing over our bags and – without a word – continued on to her counter. I said to a Qantas staff member ‘wow, that was rude!’ and she just agreed with me, because … well it was.
At Perth recently, I was flying back to Melbourne. I was visiting a distant family member (who I don’t really know that well) and was travelling Business. Upon entering Security, this family member decided to accompany me through into the terminal area. The security staff wanted to look through my bag. I have no issue with this, I think it is good to always be sure of what people are taking on to planes. But I was a bit surprised when a woman grabbed my bag and demanded to know ‘IS THIS YOUR BAG!?’ – I naturally reached to look at it by touching it, she pulls it away and yells at me for daring to touch it. So I cannot identify that it’s my bag because how can I be sure? Once through security, she pulls everything out, lays it next to me, but says nothing. A further security check where a guy wants to ‘swab’ my bag (which again I am fine with, I know we have to do these things), but what I was not fine with was that the distant family member starts to help the security guy look through my bag – and did they let him? Yes, absolutely they just acted like that was ok.
On another flight back from Sydney to Melbourne, I was in a lounge and had asked for the ‘Meet and Assist’ service. I really only need it to find the gate, once you’re at the gate, generally you can figure out where to go from there. I had used the airline’s app to check myself in, as I always do these days, so had my e-boarding pass on my phone. The app also notifies you as to which gate your flight departs from. But upon the ‘meet and assist’ person arriving, she asks the lounge staff which fight I’m in and the gate number – I advised the flight number and gate from the app, she doesn’t want to believe me though ‘just check that will you’ she says to the lounge staff. They then ask if they should ‘print his boarding pass’, she agrees. I apparently have no say in this. She then takes the pass and walks me to the gate, scans the pass and goes to walk me to the aircraft. At this point, I decided to inform her that I am fine to make my own way to the plane and don’t need further assistance. She looked shocked.
There is a one-glove-fits-all attitude towards disability at the airport, all people get the same high level of assistance, no matter how un-empowering it is. The technology has now come to the point where some tasks are much easier to achieve independently now – even with indoor GPS, a task like finding your gate lounge should be much less of a challenger.
But no amount of technology can help with the oddness of airlines and their poor understanding of how you, as a person who uses a white cane, are not actually sub human.
On one flight from Melbourne to Sydney I was attending a work conference, a cabin crew staff member said to the sighted colleague I was travelling with ‘if you need anything at all, like anything at all, just call for me’ – gesturing at me and insulting that perhaps I am high needs and – well I am not sure what she thought I might need help with. I shudder to think what ‘special assistance’ she thought I might need, but I do remember saying to my colleague, who was at that time relatively new to working in the vision impairment field, ‘and what exactly do you think I might need!??’ – he just looked at me and said ‘wow, that is horrendous, just horrendous.’ On the rip back, the crew were much better behaved though a passenger did try to lift my backpack onto my back without saying a word.
There must be something about the Melbourne to Sydney leg, I refuse to fly with one Australian domestic airline now after a ground crew member asked my colleague ‘is he fit to fly?’ – exactly what part of the flying process do I need to be fit for? Do I flap my arms out the windows to keep the plane in the sky?
I could go on al day about airport and airline stories, I mean you could write a book but I’m not sure it’d make good reading! But I’ll leave you with one last Sydney to Melbourne story. Lunch was great, to be fair. I was in the airport lounge and had a butter chicken that honestly would rival a top restaurant, it really was nice. Upon making my way to the gate, which I knew the location of because I’ve become quite familiar with the QANTAS Domestic terminals in Melbourne and Sydney. The staff at the gate lounge looked surprised that I’d arrived without their ‘special assistance’. They printed out my boarding pass, but I can’t be trusted with those important documents. So they took custody of it until I get to the plane. Upon sitting down, they get me some water. Do they just put it not he table? No, that’d be too easy. ‘GIVE ME YOUR HAND, GIVE ME YOUR HAND…I’M PUTTING WATER HERE, JUST HERE, TO YOUR LEFT, JUST TO YOUR LEFT’. I sometimes wonder what the other passengers think when stuff like this happens. But it continues… When they bring me a meal, the offer me a limited selection of drinks. Weirdly, nearby passengers were offered beer, wine, water or soft drink. But me? Oh well blind people don’t drink alcohol apparently (clearly these people have never been to a blind cricket match!) I get offered just the soft drink or water. I asked about alcohol, again that shocked look (I’m quite used to it actually) ‘oh err yes we have beer and wine’. At the end of the flight, there was a bit of ‘I’ll get my bag’, ‘no I’ll get it’ type stuff, but eventually I got off my ‘Flying High’ type flight experience.
What saddens me most is that despite everyone wanting people who have disabilities to be out in the community, working, travelling, studying, so we’re all not such a ‘burden’ on society, but when you have these experiences so often, you wonder if really have come very far at all. You can pretty much guarantee that if you go to an airport, something weird will happen.
But again, as I said before, I still love flying and won’t be stopping any time soon.