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Adventures of a Blind Business Traveler

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: The following article is re-printed from Catholic Digest, August, 2000

The door of the plane closed. "Welcome aboard Southwest Airlines Flight 155 with service to Dallas Love Field."

"Oh no!" I jumped up out of my seat. "I'm going to Houston!"

"Well, sir, if that's where you want to go," the flight attendant said, "you're on the wrong plane."

The well-meaning passenger service agent, so eager to be of assistance, Had put me on the wrong plane. With the help of the flight attendant, I scrambled off the Dallas flight and hurried to the correct aircraft .

I love to travel -- by car, by train, or by air. In most cases, I Travel alone. Because I am blind, this often means relying on others for information and assistance. It also means careful planning, patience, and a good sense of humor are crucial.

Even with 20 years of experience in business travel, things don't always go smoothly. On one trip, with just eight minutes to departure, I was racing through the terminal, my hand on the skycap's elbow. Rushing through security, I got to the gate with just three minutes to spare. After catching my breath and checking in, I turned to pick up my carry-on bag. Turning quickly to the gate agent, I asked, "Do you see where the skycap left my bag?"

"He wasn't carrying one when he brought you to the gate," she replied.

"It must be back at the security checkpoint," I said. "I've got to get it. Hold the plane!"

While she protested, I began making my way back up the long hallway. Another passenger, overhearing the situation, offered to assist me. I readily agreed, taking her elbow. "Let's run," I implored .

Seeing us coming, a security officer came to meet us, my bag in hand. "I wondered if you would be coming back for this," he chided. Offering a hasty thank-you, we turned and raced back to the gate -- just in time to board the plane before the doors closed.

Usually, I prefer to arrive early and preboard. I'll pick a window seat if I want to sleep, an aisle seat if I want coffee. My technique for receiving a cup of coffee or glass of juice is to open one hand palm up and have the second hand open at a right angle to the other. As soon as I feel the cup or glass touch my palm, I close my other hand around it.

One interesting thing I've noticed about flight attendants is that male attendants will touch my shoulder when addressing me, while female attendants generally touch my hand. I haven't quite figured out the implications of all this, but I don't mind.

Striking up a conversation with your seat partner can prove quite interesting and sometimes very helpful. Once, on a flight to Amarillo, I made the acquaintance of a gentleman who not only helped me off the plane but drove me to my hotel.

But you can encounter some rather strange folks, too. At the airport in Houston while waiting for a flight, a woman actually tried to pick me up. She offered to be my companion on future trips. She said she was looking for a mature and intelligent companion. It didn't matter to her that I was married. Her name was Charlotte, and when the flight attendant brought our glasses of Sprite, she proposed a singing toast, "Getting to Know You." As the plane landed and she struggled to get her bag from the overhead compartment, I slipped quickly ahead and left the plane.

I always try to pick hotels with an airport shuttle and on- site restaurant. It's more convenient than having to leave the hotel and find a restaurant, especially for breakfast .

For security reasons, many hotels now use plastic key cards. These are a problem for blind people, because they feel the same front and back, top and bottom. I instruct the desk clerk to place a small piece of tape on the bottom front edge so that I can easily tell which end to insert into the door slot.

After registering, I always ask the bellhop to provide me with a quick orientation of the lobby, directions on where the restaurant, pool, hot tub, and gift shop are located. When we get to the room, I ask for his or her help in learning to use the TV and thermostat.

I make a point of carrying $1 bills so I can tip skycaps and bellhops readily.

Some hotels make it easy for a guy like me to get around. Others are a challenge to memory and navigation skills. To get to my room at North Little Rock's Holiday Inn, I took careful mental notes while being escorted through the lobby and past the dining area, then weaving among tables and chairs, past a bubbling fountain, up two short flights of stone steps (the second resting 10 degrees to the left of the first), then down a long hallway, out through a glass door, along a sidewalk and around a corner. There, at last, we found my room, the second door on the left.

If getting to the lobby from a particular hotel room's location is especially difficult or complicated, I now simply call the desk and request assistance. Once, letting my desire for total independence get the better of me, I got lost. It was 6:30 a.m., not a soul around, and I couldn't find the right hallway to the lobby. Finally, in desperation and embarrassment, I knocked on a guest-room door. A gentleman answered. I asked him to Please tell me the way to the lobby.

"It's right behind you," he said, more than a little annoyed, and slammed the door. So much for bold independence.

The Americans with Disabilities Act notwithstanding, many hotel rooms Are still not labeled in braille or raised numerals. I have used a variety Of tricks to label my room, such as placing a rubber band on the doorknob. But it's not always effective: I tried this at a hotel in Washington, D.C., Only to return later and discover that some diligent housekeeping employee Had removed my rubber band.

In Kansas City, I kidded the bellhop because the braille room number Had been affixed to the door upside down. Later that evening, I returned to The hotel, took the elevator up to my floor, and promptly forgot my room number. Embarrassed, I walked along the corridor trying to remember the number. Suddenly I came across one which was upside down. Voila! Their mistake was my salvation.

A visually impaired traveler must be positive, assertive and resourceful. If I am to direct a sighted person, my boss or another colleague, for instance, to drive with me to a meeting site, I try always to have precise visual directions. When getting advance information about the meeting location, I'll ask about landmarks, the color of the building, and other visual cues.

Since I'm the passenger on these trips, I've found that my sighted Companion will usually open my door for me to get in first. As a courtesy, I try In turn to unlock their door before they get around to the other side. This can be quite a challenge, however, since, in case you haven't noticed, there are no standard door locks in cars today. If I can't locate the lock quickly, I'll lean over and open the door with the inside handle -- although door handles are rarely in exactly the same place or of the same shape, either. On one occasion, after trying unsuccessfully to do this for my boss, he opened his door for himself. Finding me stretched out across the seat, he slyly observed, "Lying down on the job, huh, Larry?"

Nevertheless, whether my trips have been long ones or short ones, for me they continue to be adventurous. I have no intention of sitting at home, away from the action, anytime soon.