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Nfb Comments on Canadian Transportation Initiatives

In late 1995 we were asked to participate in consultations concerning barriers to communications faced by blind air travellers. Two representatives of the agency, which is now called the Canadian Transportation Agency, came to Kelowna and talked with NFB President Paul Gabias and Central Okanagan President Chantal Oakes. Before the meeting took place, President Gabias solicited comments from chapters and individual members across the country. He and Chantal spent several hours discussing our point of view with the transportation agency representative.

In December, 1996, the Canadian Transportation Agency published Communication Barriers: A Look at Barriers to Communication Facing Persons with Disabilities for Travel by Air: Interim Report, December 1996. It was a compilation of the views expressed to the agency by a wide variety of groups. In addition to dealing with blindness, the agency attempted to identify barriers for the deaf and the hard of hearing and for people with cognitive and learning disabilities. Not surprisingly, such a broad mandate led to a very extensive report.

The NFB:AE was asked for its written comments. The national board and chapter presidents met by conference telephone to review the draft comments. Changes were made and incorporated into the final document. It was unanimously agreed that the following comments represent the position of the NFB:AE on communication barriers to air travel for blind people.

Kelowna, British Columbia, February 17, 1997

Helene Nadeau Canadian Transportation Agency 25 Eddy, 15th Floor, Hull, Quebec K1A 0N9

Dear Ms. Nadeau: I am writing on behalf of the National Federation of the Blind: Advocates for Equality (NFB:AE). The NFB:AE is a membership organization composed of blind persons and interested sighted individuals. We have members throughout Canada and chapters in Toronto, Winnipeg, Kelowna, and Vancouver. The majority of our members and the entire Board of Directors are blind. So are the Presidents, Vice Presidents, and majority of Board members of each of our chapters. This response is our comments on Communication Barriers:

A Look at Barriers to Communication Facing Persons with Disabilities for Travel by Air; Interim Report December 1996. We recognize that your goal is to find barriers and identify solutions to them. However, many blind travellers do not find communication barriers to air travel, and this fact should be clearly noted in your report. We will attempt to comment on the recommendations in detail. The overall tone of the report also deserves mention.

In attempting to mention all of the suggestions raised by consumers, your report developed a "laundry list" of accommodations or modifications. It is not easy to tell which requests should receive the most attention. Was the request for tactile markings on terminal floors a whimsical off-hand comment by one individual, or was it a widely expressed priority need of many groups? It is not easy to tell from the report. It also seems that requests that modifications not be made were ignored. For example, there was no mention of a request that airlines refrain from noting a passenger's blindness in the computerized passenger record if the passenger did not request blindness-related assistance. Blind passengers should have the absolute right to choose whether or not their blindness should be noted in their record. Passengers should also have the right to decide whether or not they wish to pre-board. Individual pre-flight briefings should be available, but they should not be mandatory. It is appropriate for airline personnel to ask whether assistance is needed. They should understand clearly that in this context "no" means "no". We believe it is the responsibility of the individual to make his or her needs known. It is not possible to train every airline or airport employee to understand the range of needs blind passengers may have.

Even those who have spent years working with blind people are often surprised when they meet an individual with an atypical means of functioning. It is reasonable to expect that those who deal with the public maintain a courteous manner and a respectful demeanour towards those they serve. It is best to have airline personnel who say "I am available to help if you need me. Let me know when and how I can be of assistance". It is often very frustrating to deal with personnel who insist on treating blind people the way some sensitivity training course has said blind people want to be treated.

It makes sense for airlines to have a user-friendly help desk to solve problems for all passengers. This should not be a "special needs" desk. It is likely that discussions with randomly selected groups of air travellers without disabilities would raise some of the same issues. Practically everyone finds air travel frustrating and stressful. Blind people should not expect it to be easier for them than it is for the rest of the population. A help desk makes good business sense for the airlines. In fact, most airlines do provide assistance to any passenger requesting it. There are special desks in larger terminals. Personnel at ticket counters can call for assistance when there is no specialized help desk.

Although some participants you interviewed asked for itineraries in alternative formats, it is our belief that this information is readily Brailled or recorded. It takes less than two minutes to Braille a flight itinerary. If some passengers want itineraries in alternative formats an enterprising travel agency or airline could probably attract their business by offering that service. There are certainly a number of alternative methods for getting itinerary information.

Working with someone to have the itinerary read is an alternative technique which blind people use quite successfully and it should be respected as a viable option. Large bold-faced print with good contrast and symbols would be of benefit to all passengers. Plain language with limited use of codes would also be important to the public at large. The use of a 24-hour clock by airlines is confusing to everyone.

Many airlines in North America have recognized this fact and are using the twelve-hour clock with AM and PM. This is an issue which is really not specific to blind people. It makes sense to lower flight information monitors for all passengers. Larger print and improved contrast would also be helpful to most passengers. So would the use of plain language and the avoidance of unnecessary codes. Although tactile maps of all kinds are interesting, a tactile map of the airport would in no way eliminate the need to ask for directions or assistance. Tactile markings at intersections or on posts would be virtually useless, since finding them would be awkward and they would likely be ambiguous to interpret.

A blind traveller can not afford to be passive. Although airline staff wish to be helpful, they should not be expected to be responsible for anticipating the needs of blind travellers. If a blind person wants help finding the washroom, it is that person's responsibility to let someone know of the need and to keep asking until the required assistance is made available. If no one has provided boarding information by 20 minutes before the flight is scheduled to leave, the blind traveller should walk to the check-in desk at the gate and ask what is happening. Airline personnel have a great deal to do. Blind passengers are not wards of the airlines.

Assertiveness will prevent many problems and solve others. The suggestion that sound cues be made available at intersections and doorways was hard to understand. What would these sound cues be? It is already possible in most cases to hear intersecting corridors and exit doors. One useful sound cue is the announcement that travellers are near the end of a moving walkway. All passengers, whether sighted or blind, sometimes need to have their attention re- focused so that accidents are avoided. This is not a special modification for blind people, but blind travellers find it helpful in the same way that sighted travellers do.

The newer section of the Vancouver airport made a very simple, but effective, design choice. The architects chose non-glare floor tile. We do recommend that airport managers consider installing non-glare tile whenever they are replacing airport floor coverings. Many people, particularly seniors with failing vision, have not learned the alternative techniques of blindness and rely on their limited vision.

This very simple modification would make it easier for them.Many travellers would probably enjoy audio magazines on the audio channels of airplanes. We would classify this suggestion as "nice, but not necessary". However, many sighted people would probably make use of such channels. They could be a good marketing tool for the airlines, not simply an accommodation for the blind.

Many blind travellers have developed a good working relationship with travel agents. Whenever something needs to be read, the travel agent reads it as part of the provision of good service to the passenger. Some blind people also work with readers to get the information they need from brochures. Like most people, many blind travellers "skim" through much of the information they are given and discard it. This is not to say that the airlines should not produce brochures and other material in alternative formats. It is to point out that blind people have a variety of alternative techniques for getting needed information in addition to reading it in Braille, on cassettes, or on computer disks.

The suggestion of permitting short-term parking for taxis so that the drivers can help passengers get to the ticket counters is a good idea. Many passengers have more luggage than they can conveniently carry. In situations where carrying luggage is not an issue, blind passengers can generally find the ticket counter by asking other travellers or airline personnel once they are inside the airport.

Skycaps or airline personnel meeting passengers at curbside would be helpful for almost anyone. Canadian airports do not provide curbside baggage check-in. The climate makes it impractical during the winter, but it might be a good service for all passengers when weather permits. Again, this is an issue which affects the convenience and comfort of all travellers, not just blind people.

The suggestion that textured carpeting be laid from the front door of the airport to the help desk causes several problems. First, passengers might not know what the textured carpeting means or whether it has any meaning at all. Second, textured surfaces create problems for people with high-heeled shoes or wheeled luggage. People are more likely to trip over it.

A rope-cueing system is not necessarily a problem for blind travellers because it is easy to ask others in line whether or not it is the correct line. As a general philosophical position, anyone who has questions should simply ask them. It is also important to remember that airports are usually crowded with other passengers who are quite willing to answer a question--provided they know the answer themselves. Confusion in airport terminals is wide-spread. Confused blind people need not feel alone.

The report mentions several simple ways in which blind people can keep track of boarding passes and other necessary documents. A traveller can always carry a slate and stylus or a dark marker to make necessary notes. Airline personnel are almost always willing to facilitate the process. Airlines in Canada always mention the row numbers of emergency exits on the public address system during general passenger safety briefings. This is extremely helpful and the airlines should be commended for providing this essential information in such a clearly understandable form. This eliminates the need for a specialized emergency briefing for experienced blind travellers. Inexperienced travellers may still wish to have a specialized briefing. Blind travellers should be asked if they want one or not. Of course, anyone who wants additional information should be able to get it without difficulty.

Since washrooms on airplanes are unisex, there is no need for tactile markings on their doors. When a blind passenger receives a Braille safety card, that passenger reasonably assumes the card is an accurate Braille rendition of the information on the print card. Often this is not the case. Airlines should provide the same safety information on their Braille brochures as is provided on the print cards. Since many print safety cards contain diagrams rather than written descriptions, the Braille cards should state the ways in which they differ from the print cards.

A number of blind travellers make a point of comparing Braille and print safety cards. If the Braille lacks the information contained in the print document, these passengers' Braille "Warning! Vital life- saving information contained on the print safety card has been omitted from this Braille document." Perhaps the next passenger to receive the Braille safety card which has been marked in this way will be in a better position to insist on getting accurate information. Given the choice between inaccurate and incomplete Braille information and no Braille information at all, most blind passengers would rather have none. At least then they know they need to ask. Of course, this should not be the only choice. Accurate and complete Braille information can, and should, be made available.

It is unreasonable to ask that blind people be permitted to carry on baggage which sighted travellers must check. If bags are too big to comply with carry on regulations, it doesn't matter to whom they belong. There is help available to find bags on the luggage carousel. A blind traveller should be responsible for seeing that bags are clearly marked and should be able to give the colour and general description of each bag. Some blind passengers mark the handles or the luggage tags of their bag so that they can verify their identification.

We hope these comments are helpful in developing guidelines for the industry. Most blind people have developed alternative methods for doing without sight those things for which sight is ordinarily used. Those techniques work as well in airports as they do in shopping malls. (Incidentally, shopping malls are often more complex than airports, yet blind people find a way to manage without being custodiolized by mall management.) The most serious danger in air travel for blind people is that well-meaning personnel will custodialize blind travellers to such an extent that their opportunity to move freely will be restricted. Blind people have often been told by security gate personnel that they may not proceed independently along the terminal concourse. These individuals were not violating security rules in any way. The security personnel simply believed that blind individuals could not travel without an escort. Whatever is done to facilitate communication for blind travellers will be harmful if it also reinforces custodialism.

Very truly yours, Mary Ellen Gabias, Secretary National Federation of the Blind: Advocates for Equality