My Fear of Flying Isn’t About Flying At All

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.

Daily Insults

On a tram recently, (it was peak hour) I stepped inside the door and I hear a voice ‘move out of the doorway ya geez a!’, I just ignored him. The tram was crowded, there was not really anywhere to go, but his anger continued ‘GET OUT OF THE WAY!’. I stepped back and bumped into a woman, who I apologised to and she was very understanding – but this seemed to make this guy angrier – ‘GET OUT OF THE WAY YA RETARD!’ He yells as he shoves past and sits down. It’s actually the third time in the last month or so that I’ve heard this same type of insult, a student on a tram called me a ‘retard’ when I bumped into his shoulder and apologised. I also hear it third hand, like girls on a bus pointing at you and stating ‘he looks retarded’. Yep ok, got it.

It just seems to be an that people have no tolerance of difference and the daily insults are, in many ways, quite tiring.

I have had 3 experiences recently where kids have asked about my appearance and mothers have had similar responses. Once on a train back from Ballarat, a woman exactly as to her kids ‘keep away from him, keep well away!’. Really? It isn’t a disease.

Getting off a no. 6 tram and a small child asks its mum about my eyes, she exclaims ‘there’s something wrong with him!’ And I have even had a mum and her child get off a tram when I sat near them.

And one more for this post, when I went to walk down a lane near home, a car turns into the lane and the woman driving the car sees the cane and exaclaims ‘OH GREAT!’ – yeah it’s such an inconvenience for you to … um … errr… oh wait it doesn’t affect you in any way right?

The unwanted daily insults are an indication that, in 2018 we haven’t really progressed much as a society really.

Grace, Dignity and Efficiency – The Three Goals for Mobility

An Orientation and Mobility instructor – a person who provides assistance to people who are blind or vision impaired to travel independently, once said to me that a person with a vision impairment has the right to travel with grace, dignity and efficiency.

My daily commute to work starts out like this but is usually interrupted along the way. A person yelling ‘OVER HERE’ when you walk towards the wrong barrier at the train station, someone grabbing you by your backpack to guide you – without initially speaking or communicating, a train driver explaining where a door is like he is giving instructions to a 4 year old child and my favourite – the constant belief that you will need to sit down on the train, bus or tram.

On the flip side, there’s the people that just ignore you completely, treating you like you are not actually there. A woman – rushing for a train, slams into my shoulder, but says nothing, keeps running, she crashes in to a woman further along her path, and apologies heartedly to her.

Yesterday on my way to work, I hopped on a bus parked in my bus’s bay – I had suspicion it wasn’t my bus – this was quickly confirmed when I enquired with the bus driver ‘Excuse me, is this the 902?’ to which he barks ‘NO!’ – clearly not in a chatty mood nor possessing any of the social graces that society may expect of him. But at least what he says is quick and to the point. Though I did miss my bus, which had pulled in to the bay before, and had departed by the time I’d hopped off the ‘NO!’ bus.

I remember last year on my walk to the train station, being confronted by a bike rider who felt the need to instruct me to ‘KEEP LEFT, KEEP LEFT’ so he could ride along the footpath.

Lectures on social étiquette are all too common in my expereience – like bus drivers who seem to feel the need to tell you, in a loud voice, to wait for passengers to exit the bus before you board.

And why people feel the need to physically grab you, to move you to that train door that you couldn’t possibly find on your own. I call it Compulsory Physical Assistance, because it’s like you have to accept it or people get angry or annoyed or confused. Its funny how also when you pull away, they grab you again, because clearly you don’t know what you’re doing. One morning at Camberwell station – it happened four times before this guy finally worked out that maybe I don’t need help.

So yes – one day I will complete an entire journey with grace, dignity and efficiency. One day.

A Guide To Being Conspicuous – Part 1: The Bus

It’s a warm day. The bus area at Glen Waverley seems quieter than usual. Well quieter in terms of pedestrian traffic. The ambient sounds of bus engines, a few crows and the distant sound of platform announcements from the station fill the air. A woman at my bus bay sits in the shelter by herself. She starts signing. First I can’t work out what it is but then realise it’s Silent Night. She’s kind of loud and slightly off key. She sees me and asks if I want to sit down. I politely decline. She springs to her feet as the bus pulls in. An external announcement says ‘this is the route 902 – service to Airport West’. As much as I complain about buses, I do have to say that an external announcement telling you which route it is is extremely helpful. Why trams and trains can’t employ this technology is a mystery to me.

We enter the bus. Silent Night Woman runs to the door and bounces onto the bus – exclaiming ‘yes I get the front seat!’ as she sits down looking very pleased with herself. I walk down the aisle and some dude sees my cane. He jumps out of his seat, without a word, moving quickly down to the back of the bus like a frightened sparrow. A woman exclaims ‘THERE’S A SEAT THERE!’ in a loud, slowed down voice, as the bus pulls out from the curb and commences the next leg of its journey.

An internal automated announcement informs us that ‘the next stop is The Glen Shopping Centre’ but seriously you’d need hearing aids with a decent amount of amplification to hear that.

Some bus drivers seem to not be able to speak at all, others seem to over-compensate barking things like ‘BE SEATED’ as you enter the bus – spoken in a tone of voice that a parent might use on a small child. I don’t actually need to seat down. Or have things spelt out to me loudly and slowly. It’s like people think vision impairment is a physical and intellectual disability. Like most people, if I stand, I hold onto something or lean against something.

I have also experienced people physically grabbing you, often without communication, pulling you towards that seat you apparently need. Or informing others that ‘he needs to sit down’. Like they have bad news to impart upon me.

Someone sent me a message about my Inappropriate Bus Behaviour post – as a fellow person with a vision impairment, he’d thought we – as a society – would have improved over the years. But that this is sadly not the case.

I’m going to finish with two more bus driver quotes. One was at the stop outside where I work. There are three different routes that go past here, so until a bus pulls up, you don’t always know if it’s yours. I saw a bus, flagged him down, then realised it wasn’t mine. I apologised and thanked him for stopping. He says ‘thanks for making me stop when I didn’t have to.’ – I pointed out that I have a vision impairment. Really, if I could see enough to read those bus numbers, I’d probably be driving to work.

The last one for this post was a bus I’d caught into the city – to meet colleagues from a previous job. As we approached my stop, I stood up and approached the door. I’d think fairly normal bus catching behaviour. The driver opens his window and exclaims ‘MATE, SIT DOWN, IF I SLAM ON THE BRAKES YOU’LL GO THROUGH THE WINDSCREEN!’ – well if you have to ‘slam on the brakes’ maybe you shouldn’t be driving a bus. I didn’t actually say that though, I just ignored him.

Vision impairment doesn’t affect common sense.

The Wide Barrier – The Ultimate Obstacle

‘Excuse me sir, the wide barrier is over here.’ – it’s a seemingly helpful comment that is soaked in ableism.

The Wide Barrier

There are some among us who have a ‘one glove fits all’ philosophy when it comes to disability. So if you use a white cane because you have poor eyesight, you have the same requirements as a person who is in a wheelchair, even if they can see perfectly. To use a millennial expression – ‘wait … what?’

So how do you find a wide open space if you have a vision impairment? You reach your arm out or put your cane out – nothing. Reach out a bit further or put your cane out even further. Still nothing. You move forward and eventually there’s a wall or a barrier or an object. Hopefully not the edge of a platform.

Why then do so many people assume you need to use the ‘disabled’ toilet – which actually isn’t a ‘disabled’ toilet, its specifically for someone in a wheelchair? What about the wide barrier at the train station? Again, helpful if you’re in a wheelchair, or have a pram. But really not that helpful if you use a cane.

Airports and planes are a series of blog posts all on their own. But I have had a number of experiences on budget airlines where they want you to sit in the ‘wheelchair row’. The extra leg room is nice without any of the perks of an upgrade to Business. I can sit anywhere on the plane though, so why here?

For some people who have vision impairments, they may like the wide barrier – maybe because they use a guide dog. But the assumption that you go there because you have the ‘one glove fits all’ disability – well that’s just ableism. We’re not all the same.