Grounded, But Still Soaring
This article originally appeared on the Disability.Gov website on April 14, 2014. By Guest Blogger Albert J. Rizzi, M.Ed., Founder and CEO of My Blind Spot, Inc. I was returning from a business trip to Silicon Valley. The organization I founded, My Blind Spot, and the dedicated engineers at Intuit had been working together to develop accessibility features in Intuit’s widely used small business accounting software, QuickBooks for Windows. I had just met with a group of QuickBooks trainers and trainees about the tutorials we were developing as part of our effort to make QuickBooks software accessible for the blind. The meeting had gone well, but I was tired and ready to get home. My guide dog, Doxy, and I had enjoyed our flight from San Francisco to Philadelphia, where we would pick up our connecting flight to Long Island. Doxy has been my guide dog for almost eight years, and he has crisscrossed the country on business trips with me. He flies more frequently and, at times, more adeptly than most people do. Since we had traveled together by air so many times without incident, I never anticipated the situation we encountered when we boarded our flight in Philadelphia. Doxy and I were given a seat in the back row of the plane. The proper positioning for a guide dog on a plane is lying down at his master’s feet, vertically, with his head and shoulders, or rear and tail, tucked underneath the seat in front of his handler. Because this was a rather small plane, there was no seat in front of me—only the aisle. After showing me to my assigned spot, the flight attendant reminded me that I needed to make sure my dog was under a seat for takeoff. I was a little concerned about how we were going to manage that, given that we had no seat in front of us to make that happen. Fortunately, the woman beside me—Mary, from Pittsburgh—graciously offered her foot space for Doxy’s trip. I got him in position, and we were ready to go. The plane, though, was not ready. A delay kept us stuck on the runway for over an hour and a half. After the first 35 to 45 minutes of the long wait, Doxy inched out to be closer to me for petting purposes and to rest his head on my feet. At no point was he in the aisle or blocking the way for anyone on the flight. The flight attendant again came back to ask, or actually insist, that the dog be stowed under a seat before we could take off. I once again moved my dog into position as asked, under Mary’s seat, and we all proceeded to wait for another 45 minutes in the queue for takeoff. Needless to say, Doxy inched out yet again to rest his head on my feet. His hindquarters were under Mary’s feet, in front of her seat, and Doxy’s chest and his head were under my legs, resting peacefully, when the flight attendant came to admonish us yet again. This time, she was more insistent than before, stating that she had told me about the dog needing to be under the seat and that we would not be able to take off until he was positioned properly. I asked her why she was being so evil to me. She responded that if she were evil, she would not be speaking with me and would have just turned the plane around and had us both removed. That comment did not sit right with me or any of the other passengers within earshot. I pointed out to the flight attendant that we had been waiting to take off for a long time, and suggested that if she would go back to her jump seat and give me a high sign just before takeoff, I would then accommodate her demands as best I could—reminding her, however, that given the seat I was sitting in, I did not have the tools to succeed at satisfying her request. She left, annoyed, it seemed to me; yet perhaps willing to give my suggestion a try. The passengers around me were very taken aback by her tone, her demeanor and her attitude and said as much as we all went back to our conversations while we waited to take off. What travelers of all abilities need to know is that the only time items or service animals need to be stowed or secured safely, is during taxi, takeoff and landing. We were not taxiing, we were certainly not taking off and well, suffice it to say we never got the chance to land. When the flight attendant walked away from us, we thought we were actually going to be taxiing for takeoff. Instead, we parked on the tarmac for reasons not at all clear – just left waiting and wondering. Finally, the pilot announced that we were turning around and heading back to the gate. At that point, we had been sitting on the runway for one hour and 44 minutes. When we got back to the gate, a gentleman came on board and asked if he could assist me off the plane. I assumed they were helping the poor, feeble blind guy get off first. I collected my bags and the dog harness and started to walk to the front of the plane. I quickly got the sense that something was odd. I assumed my fellow passengers would start to de-plane as well and move to collect their belongings. But as we got to the door, I realized that was not happening. I asked my escort if I was the only person getting off the plane and was told we would discuss that inside the terminal. I responded that we would discuss it right here and right now. Admittedly, it was then that I became enraged with the flight attendant and let that be known without question. A few moments later, I found myself being escorted across the tarmac and into the terminal by Lamarr, the gentleman who had boarded to take me off. In the terminal, I was told that I had been removed from the plane because Doxy and I posed a threat to my fellow passengers and the flight crew. I was shocked, confused and humiliated. How could this have happened? Doxy had been lying by my feet, out of the way of foot traffic. He hadn’t been threatening or aggressive and neither had I. I couldn’t understand the logic behind this decision or why such drastic action had been taken. I was at a loss for words and felt utterly confused. Why had this happened, and what was I supposed to do now? As I continued to express my anger and confusion, Lamarr asked me to calm down. I expressly told him that I always self identify as a blind traveler with a guide dog; better arrangements should have and could have been made; and this flight attendant was ill equipped to do her job. Lamarr, whose demeanor was kind and soft-spoken, said he agreed with me and was uncertain why I was removed from the flight. This was music to my ears. Not only did this employee of U.S. Airways state clearly that the dog was resting peacefully under my feet and the passengers were calmly conversing, he also pointed out what everyone on the flight could see – everyone except me. There were eight empty seats. Another U.S. Airways employee in the terminal, Linda, spoke out loud and clear: “You mean the dog could have had his own seat?” I repeated the question: “You mean we could have had our own seat?” Lamarr answered in a dumbfounded tone: “Yes, the dog and Mr. Rizzi could have had their own row, as well as their own seat.” Why this woman had been intentionally blind to the options before her to resolve this conflict was a mystery to the three of us. I had become more relaxed and realized that I had another problem: how the hell was I going to get home? It was at that moment that Lamarr said: “Oh my God.” I asked what the problem was. Was some unseen airport security officer bearing down on me with handcuffs? Lamarr said no – everyone was getting off the plane. The flight had been cancelled because my fellow passengers refused to fly without me and with the offensive flight attendant. My anguish turned to elation as each and every one of my fellow passengers, numbering about 30, entered the terminal. They told me they had observed my mistreatment, and without me on board, they would not fly. I had felt so alone, but suddenly I had the support of complete strangers to restore my spirits and bolster my faith. We were escorted to a bus and endured a drive of nearly four hours to Long Island instead of the 45-minute flight we had expected. On the bus, a number of people posted about the incident on Facebook to express their outrage. Phone calls started coming in from news media around the world. The next several days were packed with TV and radio interviews, press conferences and news articles. The story went viral. Coincidentally, the day after my experience was reported, another story ran about how the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had leveled the largest fine ever, $1.2 million, against U.S. Airways for having denied access and supports on flights to more than 375 people with varying degrees of paralysis. I have always been an advocate for myself and for others. This was a terrible mistake, but it became a wonderful opportunity. I found myself in the position to educate thousands of people around the world about the rights of travelers with disabilities. I was consulted about the proper protocol to be followed when assisting a passenger traveling with a service animal, and about the expectations travelers and airline personnel alike should have regarding the types of assistance and supports air travelers with disabilities should receive. Thanks to this incident, in December, I was asked to speak at the first ever Airline Transportation Access Conference hosted by the Association for Airline Passenger Rights, the AAPR, in Washington, D.C. I have continued to be asked about this experience, and I have continued to talk about what changes can be made in the industry to ensure no passenger is treated as poorly as I was that night. On a January day in 2006, Albert Rizzi opened his eyes to a world gone dark. The meningitis that sent him into a drug-induced coma had robbed him of his sight. Albert threw himself into learning to navigate the world as a blind person, bringing a sense of adventure to his endeavors. In 2009, he founded a nonprofit, My Blind Spot (www.myblindspot.org), dedicated to helping visually impaired individuals live, achieve and prosper. Today, Albert is a tireless advocate, debunking stereotypes and speaking out for accessible technologies, employment and financial independence for the blind and visually impaired and for people of all abilities. At My Blind Spot, we believe that access to the right tools promotes ability and restores infinite possibilities.