I’ve been a blogger for seven years and while I write about human rights issues broadly, I’m often pushed back to blindness. Pushed back is the right phrase, for as any person with a disability will tell you, there are too many moments when your physical difference is managed poorly by the temporarily abled people you work with or meet. Once I was lifted by three men while I was vacationing in Jamaica. They grabbed me and hoisted me into the air. All of them were well meaning: their goal was to place me securely in a boat. The blind man needs help. We’ll give it to him. I smiled. “Its a cultural thing,” I told myself. Their intentions were good. The trouble is that lots of well meaning actions by non-disabled people are simultaneously demeaning. Those helpful beach guys saw my blindness as something akin to what I’ve come to call “trouble luggage” which is the ultimate pejorative objectification of disability. My friends who travel with wheelchairs know all about this, especially when they’re flying. The airlines view disability (all disability) as trouble luggage. Its rare for a disabled person to have a good day when traveling. You can joke if you like by saying its rare for anyone to have a good day when traveling but trust me, the demeaning and objectifying experiences of disabled passengers are so consistent and so humiliating they far outstrip the lukewarm unhappiness of non-disabled travelers.
Boarding a plane not long ago with my guide dog by my side, the flight attendant said: “That dog doesn’t have a blue blanket, it can’t come on the plane.”
I’ve flown (quite literally) hundreds of thousands of miles with my guide dogs. I’ve heard lots of oddball things from travel professionals. (Guide dogs are allowed on all public transportation). But this was the first time I’d been hit with the “blue blanket” “trouble luggage” scenario. And those who know me know I’m seldom speechless but standing in the doorway of the airplane I was momentarily flummoxed.
For one thing, “blue blanket” (for me) brings to mind the famous and hilarious scene in Mel Brooks’ classic comedy film “The Producers” where Gene Wilder, playing the role of Leo Bloom a downtrodden accountant, finds himself swept up in a nefarious and illegal money making scheme in the company of Zero Mostel (playing the role of Max Bialystok, a corrupt Broadway producer). Bloome has a fetish object, a childhood remnant, a blue blanket, which he pulls from his suitcoat pocket and rubs against his face when he feels that Bialystok is bullying him. Bialystok steals the blanket which of course produces comic hysteria from Bloom. “My blanket, my blanket, give me my blanket…” Etc. And so the flight attendant was telling me I couldn’t get on the plane because my dog didn’t have a blue blanket.
“Guide dogs don’t have blue blankets,” I said. “I’m not sure what you’re talking about.”
“Oh no,” she said. “That dog has to have a blue blanket or it cant’ come on the plane.”
“Ah,” I said. “You know when guide dogs are in training as puppies they wear blue blankets, maybe you’re thinking of that?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “But you can’t come on the plane.”
Civil rights veterans know this trick. You just sit down. I sat in the nearest seat. I tucked my dog under my feet.
“You’ll have to get a supervisor,” I said.
She stormed off the plane and up the jetway. Civilization was stopped. People with oversized suitcases began piling onto the aircraft without a flight attendant. But I was the supreme piece of trouble luggage.
And of course the attendant reappeared and said nothing more to me. Someone told her it was OK. Her silence suggested she’d been dressed down or patronized. That’s the thing: disability “trouble luggage” always leads to abjection and misunderstanding. The commuter airline had not trained its flight attendants. I needed Leo Bloom’s blanket.
I’m fond of pointing out blindness is a low incidence disability. Its highly likely most sighted people (which is to say, most people) won’t come into contact with a blind person. If you’re blind and you travel you must always reflect on your ambassadorship—you’re the official representative of the country of blindness, yes you, standing right there in a jetway with your dog and your backpack loaded with dog food and an iPad.
So I come back to blindness all the time. The days won’t let me forget it. At a cocktail party a woman says to my wife, who is not blind, “Oh you dress him so well.” Try enjoying your foie gras after that.
“It takes a busload of faith to get by,” Lou Reed said. What will the next moments bring? How will I maintain my equanimity? Everyone has to ask these questions but blindness intensifies their frequency.
“What will he be having?” says the waitress, looking directly at my wife.