The Friendly Skies, Amended
I have just returned to Columbus, Ohio from a trip that took me to many cities. I was in Chicago, New York, New Orleans, and then New York again.
I must tell you up front that I am not a man -- not exclusively. One might think of me as a six-legged creature -- something for which the Germans likely have a single un-hyphenated word -- for I am both a man and a dog. But of course that's not exactly right. I'm a blind man who travels everywhere with a trained dog guide.
Now that I am home again and catching up with my mail I've discovered news that puts my freedom to travel at risk. Every disabled American who travels with a trained service dog is right now in danger of losing the right to travel safely and independently on our nation's commercial airlines. It appears that the Department of Transportation is seeking to change federal regulations regarding the seating of passengers with dog guides or other trained assistance dogs.
The current policy is that the blind (or other persons with disabilities) are allowed to travel on board commercial aircraft with their dogs without incurring any additional charge. Service dogs are trained to lie quietly and unobtrusively at the feet of their human partners. If a fellow passenger sits next to a disabled person with a dog they must arrange their feet on one side or other of the dog on the floor. Over the past decade I have flown close to a million air miles with my dog guide and have never had a problem sharing a seat row with another passenger.
Nevertheless, the proposed rule changes under consideration at the D.O.T. would alter the existing policy. The language recommended in the proposed change suggests that the disabled passenger could be charged for an extra seat, asked to take a later flight or have the assistance dog shipped in cargo.
Obviously these proposed changes, if adopted, would have a devastating impact on air travel by people with disabilities who work with a service dog. My current dog guide is Vidal, a yellow Labrador who was trained by Guiding Eyes for the Blind, one of the nation's premier guide dog schools. Guiding Eyes estimates that the total cost of raising and training each dog guide for the blind is around $35,000. Each dog is paired with its blind partner and they become a working team. Dog guides make certain that their partners are safe in traffic and can navigate safely inside and on the street.
The bond between person and dog is profound. I owe my life to my dog. Imagine my having to put my precious guiding eyes in the cargo hold of an airplane. Imagine my being bumped from flight to flight and having to remain indefinitely in strange airports with a dog who will eventually need to be fed and taken outside. Imagine being told that your crutches or wheelchair or even your oxygen will cost you the price of an extra ticket. What a greedy and shallow nation we're becoming!
A friend of mine, an attorney, once told me that the worst laws are the unnecessary ones. I'm reminded of this because in all honesty there aren't that many people with disabilities who travel with service animals aboard our nation's airliners. In other words, let us not imagine that the seat rows of our nation's airlines are packed full of large dogs and that the flying non-disabled public is being severely inconvenienced. There are only about 10,000 guide dog users in the United States. When we factor in hearing assistance dogs or mobility dogs the number of dog teams might be as high as 30,000. Most of the passengers who sit next to me and my dog on airplanes are quick to say, "I fly all the time and I've never actually met a dog guide on board a plane before!" People generally like the experience of flying with a dog at their feet.
In the case of a passenger who doesn't want to share space with a dog the airlines are free to shift passengers around. Once on a flight to Alabama from LaGuardia a woman sitting next to me asked if she could sit somewhere else because she was allergic to dogs. The number of volunteers who wanted to sit with the dog was astounding.
I don't know who the people are who felt the need to complain to the Department of Transportation about sharing foot space with a service dog. But I'm willing to predict that they are in cahoots with an air travel industry that still shamefully doesn't provide disability seating on its airplanes and is always looking for a way to make an extra buck. Charging a person who uses a service animal is against the law. Has our nation's contempt for civil liberties eroded so badly that we're now willing to sequester or shake down the blind and their dogs without cause? It certainly appears that way.
Posted Feb. 21, 2005.
Stephen Kuusisto is the author of Planet of the Blind: A Memoir. He teaches English and Disability Studies at The Ohio State University. Read his essay Blind Pew Walks Everywhere in Columbus, Ohio.
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