Photo: Akemaster/Shutterstock

Reflections From a Blind Traveler

by Belo Cipriani May 9, 2013

A warm rush of elation washed over me as I arrived at LaGuardia. I’d been away from New York for a while, and I was looking forward to reconnecting with this most stimulating of cities. An airport employee soon greeted me and inquired about my book tour as he led me to a cab. The vehicle pulled up and I was escorted to the door, when suddenly a man shouted in broken English, “No dogs allowed!”

He was, of course, referring to my guide dog, Madge. And so began another epic struggle for my preexisting rights as a traveling blind man. The airport employee and I explained that my yellow lab was a service dog. The cabbie continued to deny me service. Another employee piped up in my defense and — perhaps a little too loudly — explained to the driver that he was breaking the law. I whipped out my cell phone and warned the driver that I would report him. Finally, a third employee joined in the ruckus, insisting that Madge was not merely a pet. With four people angrily indicting the cabbie, he finally caved, and Madge and I were allowed to board the cab — albeit beneath a flurry of angry mutters.

The tense, silent ride that followed represents many frustrating moments I have experienced while traveling both in the US and abroad. Even though I am protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) — and by similar regulations in other countries — I am constantly reminded of just how unfamiliar ticket agents, flight attendants, hotel staff, and transportation companies are with the law. What’s more, they often seem to lack training in dealing with disabled patrons.

I was not born without sight. My vision loss was the result of a brutal attack that occurred in San Francisco six years ago. Still, every traveler has a host of challenges waiting for them along the way, and it’s no different for blind people. The challenges we face, however, tend to be different from those of the average sighted traveler. I would say there are four main problems I encounter while traveling:

1. No guide for guide dogs

Traveling with a guide dog really amps up your speed. In my experience, cane versus canine is akin to riding a tricycle underwater versus driving a Harley. I make sure to only travel to countries that have some type of access law for service dogs, yet some people still ignore the law and refuse to let me in.

Sometimes, this is dependent on how the culture of the country I’m in views dogs. In the Czech Republic, for example, a service dog would be heartily welcomed. Many restaurants even have a communal water dish for canines accompanying their human patrons. However, if I were in India, with its abundance of mangy street dogs, Madge would likely be canis non grata.

2. Who moved my cheese?

It’s a challenge having to instruct airport and hotel staff exactly how they should deal with me. I always explain to the hotel’s cleaning crew how imperative it is that they never move my things. Unfortunately, in many cases, they do. When this happens, I have to call the front desk to send someone up to help me find what I’m looking for. This is a big, preventable waste of everyone’s time.

3. Indecent denial

Another problem I encounter is entrance. I’m not talking about getting on buses or subways; the whoosh of the automatic door shows me where to go. Rather, I’m referring to being denied entrance. Even without Madge, some places of business have refused me entry simply because I was blind and unaccompanied. They viewed me as a liability, thinking I would get hurt without the help of a sighted person.

4. Ingrained bigotry

Certain cultures view blind people as bad luck. They feel that the blind person lost his sight because of bad karma, and they prefer to keep their distance. On the other hand, there are certain cultures that revere the blind. This is definitely something I consider when choosing which country or city to visit.

What needs to be done?
The millions of blind people around the world comprise a very viable market; after all, they have to travel for college, weddings, and other practical reasons, just like the next person.

I definitely think the travel industry would benefit from some corporate initiatives — that is, actually enforcing disability etiquette training for its employees. This is especially important in places like the US and Europe, where it’s already part of the law. Not only would this help travelers with disabilities, but it would promote a greater understanding among the public at large by busting certain stereotypes about the disabled.

When it comes to hotels, for example, front desk staff should be trained to ask patrons who are blind what, specifically, they can do to make their stay as comfortable as possible — no two visitors’ needs are alike.

Travelers who are blind can also help by always having a copy of the ADA that details the guide dog section. If traveling to Europe, make sure to have a copy of the corresponding EU law written in the language of the country of destination. I also always call ahead to hotels and airlines to let them know I’ll be arriving with a guide dog. Even though I write my specifications when I make my reservations, these don’t always get read, and I find people usually appreciate a kindly heads-up.

It’s also important for the average joe to know what he can do to help out a traveler who is blind. A blind person should always be asked if he’d like help before a stranger jumps into an advocacy role. My situation with the angry cabbie in New York is slightly different; the airport employees were on duty, and it’s their job to help.

If nothing else, it would greatly behoove industry leaders to realize that the millions of blind people around the world comprise a very viable market; after all, they have to travel for college, weddings, and other practical reasons, just like the next person. I firmly believe that much of the ignorance can be eliminated via education and training, ensuring everyone’s trip is memorable for the right reasons.

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