Since I’m leaving for Canada tomorrow, I thought I would devote today’s entry to the issues I face when traveling–both as a blind person,and as a blind person with a guide dog. There was a time (back in my corporate days) when I traveled much more than I do now, but I still fly frequently enough that I would view it to be a considerable aspect of my lifestyle.
I think that, particularly in the post 9-11 era, travel has become more and more of a challenge for me. Some of my biggest struggles have been around airport security, layovers, and getting assistance when in strange airports.
Sure, there are other inconveniences (like the no liquids that don’t fit into a Ziploc bag thing). (How happy must Ziploc be with this latest security requirement, with their products in every airport around the country?) I’m not making a jab at Ziploc here. In fact, I’m a huge fan–having obsessive compulsive tendencies when it comes to organization.
But the liquids rule is something that everyone has to deal with–blind or not. Oh, I know sighted folk also have to navigate security checkpoints, but I think the experience takes on a whole different meaning when you’re doing it with a dog. Even though it has been nearly 6 years since 9-11 (wow, how time flies), I am still amazed at the number of airport personnel who don’t appear to know the laws regarding service animals. I know some of it isn’t their fault. I mean, the TSA changes procedures like most people change underwear. Still, it boggles my mind that my dog and I are treated differently in almost every airport we visit.
Sometimes the TSA employees at the security checkpoint hardly look at my dog. (This made more sense to me when I worked a GSD, because they can seem a bit more intimidating. However, I am now working a Golden, who looks more like a guide Gund than a guide dog.) At other times the search of my dog is very thorough: with the individual checking inside his harness pouch and under his harness sign, and sliding their hands between the harness straps and his body. Even though it takes longer, I actually prefer this type of search. It makes me feel safer somehow, because I am more confident that all of the other passengers in the airport are experiencing the same type of scrutiny.
Still, I have had other things happen to me and my dog that are just plain odd. I was in one airport, and had implemented the procedure I typically use to get my dog and I through security checkpoints. (I place him in a down-stay, walk through the tunnel with the sensors in it so the agent can hear whether or not I make the metal detector go off, and then I call my dog through.) Of course the metal in his harness always activates the alarm, but usually the agent only searches him, since they’ve already seen me walk through without incident. In this case, the woman on duty told me that they would have to examine us both. When I asked why, she told me that because I had touched the dog, he had now “contaminated” me. I looked at her incredulously and said. “I know I can’t legally refuse a search, so I want to make it clear that that isn’t what I’m doing, but I just want to tell you that that is one of the stupidest rules I’ve ever heard.” She didn’t search me.
Another time, I was about to walk through the metal detector when an agent approached me and said. “It will be easier if I just take your dog from you.”
I replied that what he was proposing wasn’t legal, and that my dog would be staying with me.
He actually responded. “I know it isn’t legal, but if you choose to give him to me than it’s all right.”
I told him emphatically that I didn’t choose to turn over my dog. At that point, a supervisor rushed over. Perhaps he noticed the flashing neon “LAW SUIT WAITING TO HAPPEN” sign above the other guy’s head.
Layovers are also difficult–both because of the increasing lack of assistance being provided in airports, and because of the whole relieving the dog problem. I now try to avoid layovers at all cost. If I can get from one place to another on only one flight, the chances are that much smaller that I won’t end up stranded or delayed for hours. Several years ago (shortly after 9-11), I had a layover in Chicago on my way from Hartford to L.A. When I got off the plane, I explained that my dog would need to go to the bathroom. At first they told me that wouldn’t be possible. When I explained that that wasn’t an acceptable answer, and asked for the location of the nearest potted plant, they said that one of their employees would take the dog out onto the runway to pee. Now, those of you who use dogs know how likely it is that a dog is going to go to the bathroom–on a concrete surface that smells like jet fuel, with engines screaming near-by and mechanics and baggage handlers running around–without you being present. I initially said that even though I didn’t think it would work, I would be willing to try this proposed solution, as long as I could accompany the dog outside. They responded that I couldn’t come along, because it was a “secure” area. At that point, I became so exasperated that I said. “I’m blind, for God’s sake. What am I going to do, run from you?” A semblance of sense (or maybe it was shock) finally prevailed, and I was able to convince them that the dog and I should stay together. Thankfully they then decided that neither of us should be allowed on the runway, and that it would be better to take us to the arrivals area, where there happened to be a patch of grass. I was able to avoid having to wait in the extremely long security line again by leaving my carry on bag with the security supervisor. This meant that when we returned, they only had to swipe a wand over me and my dog before we were allowed back into the gate area.
The final issue I mentioned above is the problem of getting assistance when in strange airports. More and more of late, I have found myself relying on the kindness of fellow passengers, or my own exploratory skills, rather than waiting the requisit 45 minutes for an employee to show up (if they show up at all). And, if they do show up, I find that it is becoming more and more likely that they are terrified of my dog to the point that they are unable to function, that they expect me to ride in a wheelchair, that they already have a whole gaggle of other passengers (either minors or people with various disabilities) with them, or that they don’t have the faintest idea how to interact with someone who is blind. I actually had a North West employee in the Minneapolis airport tell me that they “didn’t have to help people with disabilities; they only had to help children.” Did I mention the flashing neon “LAW SUIT WAITING TO HAPPEN” sign? I asked her if she had ever heard of this little piece of federal legislation called the Americans with Disabilities Act.
I don’t know what the solutions to these problems are. Obviously better training for both TSA and airline employees comes to mind. You know, the basics, like: address the person rather than the people around them if you want to know what they need and where they are going, and assign someone else to assist a dog user if all you can do is stand there and shriek. Perhaps we need to install talking signs in airports that direct people toward major areas, like baggage claim, ground transportation, and particular gates. Perhaps someone needs to design some sort of GPS-type system that works indoors. Perhaps we need to coordinate our efforts so that several of us all show up at an airport at the same time, just to freak out the airport employees (a vengeful thought, I know, but entertaining none the less).
In the meantime, I have come to view the process of traveling independently as an extreme sport, and have learned to expect a total lack of competence and assistance from the majority of airport employees. That way, when things go smoothly, or when I meet someone who actually knows how to help me effectively, I am pleasantly surprised, and very, very appreciative.