On October 18th and 19th I hosted a Checkered Eye information booth at a conference of the California Council of the Blind (CCB) in San Diego, California U.S.A.,(not the Canadian Council of the Blind).
In the past, the CEP has met with opposition from organizations of and for the blind, so when I was invited to be an exhibitor by the CCB, I figured I should go for it.
I feel like it was worth the travel time and expense as most of the people I chatted with were more than welcoming to the concept. Even those who saw its merit but didn’t think the symbol was for them, took a booster card and said they’d be happy to pass along the information. Many also decided they’d like to wear a Checkered Eye so there are now some new checkered eye users out there helping spread the word. How awesome is that?
Below is a photo of Paul and Paul Juinior wearing CCB t-shirts and checkered eye pins. By the way I wasn't able to resize the photos this time. I hope it doesn't mess up anyone's access.
I also made what I hope will be long time connections with people involved with groups specifically for people with low vision.
As for the very few people who expressed the same skepticism I’ve encountered in the past; two of them ended up embracing the idea once they understood it completely, and another, who remained skeptical, reminded me of something Kelly McDonald articulated for me. The charming Mr. McDonald is a broadcast journalist I’ve met at disability related events over the years. Kelly explained that sometimes, if a person has never had sight, they might have a hard time grasping some visual concepts. This could explain why this skeptical lady seemed to think that the Checkered Eye was an unreasonably blatant announcement that a person has low vision, and yet seemed quite comfortable with the sizeable white mobility cane she was holding.
Here’s the bad news part of this blog post.
While preparing for my trip to the CCB conference, I decided to add a few days in BC to visit 2 of my siblings and my parents. I got a travel agent to book the flights and let the airlines know that I am a traveler with a disability and that I’d require help finding my way. Cory from Robert Q travel was wonderful. I was a bit concerned when she let me know that I’d have to transfer planes at the Los Angeles airport during my trip from San Diego to Vancouver, so she made a phone call dedicated to arranging my assistance there. She let me know that they’d asked for some information that she didn’t have and gave me a number to call and fill them in. When I called I was assured there was no additional information required. Of course I called Cory back to ask her what this extra info was. She didn’t recall so she called them back herself. Without going into tedious detail here I’ll tell you that there were 5 phone calls made in attempts to make sure the airline knew when and where I’d be at LAX and that I’d need help getting from plane to plane. Fine.
The first leg of the trip started at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport where a tall, dark and handsome medical student met me at a pre-arranged spot.
Below is a photo of him.
He guided me without incident to check in and to an area where I awaited the next assistant who then took me through security and customs. I ended up well acquainted with a couple, one of whom was in a wheelchair, who were travelling on the same flight. Lovely. No Problems. It was quite apparent that the ACAP staff (Airport Customer Assistance Program) were busy but well trained and equipped to assist travelers with special needs. The flight attendants also understood my needs and were terrific. Upon arrival in San Diego I also received specialized assistance and was delivered directly to a taxi. Terrific, I was there!
I must say that the hotel staff at the San Diego Del Mar Marriott was also very well equipped to attend all of us blind folks and the many guide dogs. I’m pretty sure they had extra personnel on duty, and all the people I met were just great.
Below is a photo showing part of the exhibit room. People are leanig over exhibit tables, two with guide dogs. There are also three people leaving; one with a human sighted guide and two with guide dogs.
I stayed in San Diego from Thursday to Sunday and my departure was an early one. I arranged a taxi the previous evening and was up and ready in the wee hours of Sunday morning. My cabbie Noor was very sweet. He was from Somalia and had eight kids. When he told me he also had another one on the way I told him he better cut that out! The world’s already overpopulated! We both laughed. As we approached the airport he said he wouldn’t leave until someone was there to meet me. He didn’t have to wait long as an attendant approached me with a wheelchair almost as soon as I exited the taxi.
I guess it’s their procedure to use a wheelchair because when I let him know I didn’t need it, he insisted. Okay fine, I’ll take a ride.
So this uniformed gentleman took me to the check in counter and then to security. He wasn’t able to go through however, and when I cleared that area and had my shoes back on, there was no one to meet me. I explained my situation to the guards on this side of the check point and they summoned someone for me. The lovely Myra, who came to help me, was from TSA, Transportation Security Administration. She took me to where my plane would be boarding and, since I had several hours to wait, she showed me where I could get a coffee and where the ladies room was. When it was boarding time, Myra came back and brought me to the person who was directing people out to the plane. This was one of those occasions when there was no hallway leading directly into the plane. Instead the passengers walked across the tarmac and up a moveable staircase to board. We also left our so called carry on to be loaded with the rest of the luggage. I think that had something to do with the size of the plane. So actually, the other passengers were the ones who helped me to the plane.
I had to explain to the stewardess that I needed help finding my seat but the rest of the flight was fine.
I should mention here that there had been a 25 minute fog delay for our departure from San Diego, so when we landed at LAX, time was relevant. The stewardess asked me if I would need help. I told her yes, and she asked one of the fellows moving baggage to bring me over to the luggage cart. He helped me find my bag and brought me to board a bus that brought us all to the terminal. Unfortunately there was no one to meet me inside. The other passengers were all rushing along to make it to connecting flights. I considered asking if someone else was going to Vancouver and could I tag along with them, but then thought the better of it. I found a person who looked like staff and asked if she was there to help me. She wasn’t. I asked her to check if my next flight was still on time. She looked at one of those screens and let me know it was departing on time, which was still over an hour away. When I told her again that I need help finding my way through the airport, she told me to have a seat and someone would come get me.
As I watched all the people hurrying through the area, I again considered asking if anyone was going to Vancouver…I didn’t do it.
I have no idea how long I sat there but it felt like way too long. There was no more rush of foot traffic and still no one arrived to take me to my connecting flight. Finally I got up and approached another person who looked like staff. He had come into the area and gone behind the desk and was making what seemed to be a very important call. Another fellow who looked like he was in a pilot’s uniform was also speaking with him and they were both watching out the window. I wasn’t waiting any longer. I got up and got his attention. I let him know my situation and he made a call and assured me someone was on the way.
Finally a little lady whose name I couldn’t possibly spell came to assist me through the terminal. She was from Ethiopia and had a name with one of those guttural sounds in it. She said I did well pronouncing it but I won’t try to spell it. It seemed to me that she hadn’t actually received any training on how to lead a blind person, as she tried to take me by the hand. I let her know I could follow her and we hurried along to a place where we awaited the “wheelchair bus”. It took a while so we had lots of time to chat. I told her about offering her elbow when assisting a blind person and to walk slightly ahead of them. She taught me a few words in her language but of course I can’t remember any of them. At the right time however, I was able to thank her in her language.
The bus driver seemed like someone who was just putting in hours and maybe was stressing himself about something. I felt like I kind of had to bug him to get me someone to help me find where to go, but he got someone. Again it was with a wheelchair. Fine. This person brought me to the WestJet counter and left me there.
When I handed over my boarding pass the young lady behind the counter looked at it, keyed in something on her computer and then let me know I’d missed my flight. I kind of didn’t believe her because there was still about an hour before the departure. She let me know that it was quite a distance from where we were and that I wouldn’t make it. I tried to insist we give it a shot but it just was not going to happen. I stood for quite a while at the WestJet counter with this young lady whose name I think was Jessica. Jessica was very good; she arranged for another assistant to come and get me, but let me know they didn’t know which gate the flight would come to yet, so they didn’t know where to take me. In hindsight, I think it’s possible that they didn’t send anyone until they knew where to take me because before anyone showed up they had a gate number, flight number and new boarding pass.
When Jessica let me know the next flight was not for another 9 hours I didn’t throw myself kicking and screaming like a two year old onto the floor. Not in real life anyway. Thinking about it now I can imagine a cartoon image of me standing there with a very grim, shaking face and steam shooting 10 feet out of my ears, the old Flintstones work whistle wailing at top volume.
Jessica had managed her part of this debacle with great professionalism. She remained calm, always gave me the impression that she knew what to do, and very importantly, gave me the impression she was truly sorry about what had happened.
The assistant showed up while steam was still shooting out of my ears so I didn’t chat much with her. She took me to the waiting area for my gate and let me know she couldn’t stay. Before she went on her way I got her to take me to a sit down restaurant. I was not in the frame of mind to have to explain that I couldn’t read overhead menus and then try to find myself a seat carrying a tray, dragging a suitcase and dangling my white cane from my wrist.
So in this family style restaurant in the Los Angeles airport, where everybody but the cook did a great job, I ordered a beer and something forgettable. I finished my meal before I got on the phone with the same people I’d called in advance to make sure they knew I am a disabled traveler and to arrange assistance.
I wanted to know if they could arrange a place other than the bus station type seating area for me to spend the 9 hours they’d tacked onto my travel time. I thought maybe there’d be a flight crew lounge, a first class lounge, or even a hotel attached to the building. Nope. Nope. Nope. “Sorry ma’am, we don’t have access to that.”
I let them know that I have impaired vision and that someone had just brought me into the mall type of place and dropped me in a restaurant, so I’d like someone to come and show me around at least. I had no idea how big the place was or what kind of time killing options I might have here.
After a 59 minute phone call, during which I was on hold a lot and they tried to apologize and just brush me off, another assistant showed up.
This young lady showed me where the ladies room was and brought me to the seating area. My phone battery was almost dead so I asked if I could use her phone to call her boss; I wanted to speak to the people in charge of attending travelers with disabilities. She dialed him up and handed me the phone.
Young Josh did a great job. I ranted in his ear and he responded with the appropriate concern but ultimately without authority to do much. It seems to me that he was a WestJet employee, not a member of any crew that was specialized in assisting travelers with disabilities or medical concerns. I could be wrong but I got the feeling that doesn’t exist at that airport. So Josh arranged for $20 worth of food vouchers which he delivered to me personally. He also let me know that WestJet was offering me a $50 travel voucher. I declined that and told him I’d be calling them later.
t manage to strike up any conversations. Maybe I was still giving off that cranky snarky old l…
Below is a photo of me with a suitcase in an airport, a hand on my hip and a slightly crabby look on my face..
Josh showed up at boarding time again and made sure I was attended. I did manage to have a great chat with an orthodontist on the flight to Vancouver. Louis was a very interesting guy and we were both thrilled that no one had showed up to sit in the seat between us in our row of three. It was nice to have a bit of good luck on my day with a few very unlucky moments.
A couple of other good moments: Donna, the stewardess who seated me on the Vancouver flight, already knew about the checkered eye and so did the customs guy in the Vancouver airport. I liked that a lot.
The wrap up to this somewhat messed up transport job was this: American Airlines, who flew me from San Diego to L.A. gave me a credit for a future flight, which, since I rarely fly, I’ll likely never use, and WestJet, who flew me from L.A. to Vancouver, also gave me a likely useless travel credit and upgraded my seat for the final flight of my trip from Vancouver to Toronto.
A bit more crap from the travel story; while the people I’d spoken to on the phone had not been able to provide me with a satisfactory conclusion, they had all been very good at conveying compassion. However, the people on the customer feedback phone lines were surprisingly bad.
I won’t go on too much about it so I’ll summarize their angles that should go in a “what not to do list” for people doing customer care:
-pass the buck (it’s not our fault)
-blame the customer (you shouldn’t have gone through LAX)
-play the victim (I’ll hang up if you’re blogging live).
In conclusion I’ll say that I’m not all that confident in airport assistance for travelers with disabilities. The majority of the staff I dealt with was competent, but when a person is so dependent on the assistance of others, it is imperative that each one of them is trained and capable of fulfilling the duties required of them both independently and in cooperation with the entire team, and that they team has adequate procedures.
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