by Day Al-Mohamed

Today, there are more than 600 million people who travel by air each year. By 2015 that number is expected to be over a billion. Along with the growth in the air industry, we have seen and will continue to see growth in the number of people who are blind and visually impaired participating in air travel. In 1986 Congress enacted the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) prohibiting discrimination in airline service on the basis of disability. The Department of Transportation has frequently issued guidance, in a number of forms, that interprets or explains further the ACAA text to assist air carriers in better meeting the needs of people with disabilities.

Although it is impossible to cover all of the issues in the space available, in the following paragraphs I will highlight some of the proposals impacting the greatest number of blind and visually impaired travelers.

One of the first alterations in the proposed rules is the definition of "air carrier." The definition now includes foreign and U.S. carriers, which means that the rules listed here and in the act itself are intended as requirements for U.S. airlines domestically and foreign airlines when at least one part of their journey is either to or from the United States.

Section 382.43(b), which deals with the provision of information and services through Internet web sites, has exceptional appeal to the blindness community. In response to some recent court cases that have overruled the perspective that the ADA applies to web sites, this proposed rule requires that all airline services and information be provided in a non- discriminatory matter regardless of whether that is in person, over the telephone or on the Internet. By utilizing specific wording, it requires that carrier web sites, including those of contractors and agents, be accessible. What is of special note is that under this section, online travel vendors such as Orbitz or Travelocity would also be required to be accessible.

Related to that is Section 382.51(a)(1) regarding electronic ticketing kiosks. These kiosks are appearing in airports all over the country. In our comments we stated our unequivocal support for the inclusion of specific accessibility requirements for these kiosks. They are a point of service and need to be as accessible as practicable for the widest range of users. Offers of employee assistance for disabled passengers to aid in use of the kiosks does not allow for independent access and is not equivalent service in that it circumvents the purpose of the kiosks in increasing efficiency and speed of check-in.

One of the proposed rules on which we had specific comments dealt with requesting assistance at the airport. We felt it was important to define the "when" of the assistance. We believed that the term "promptly" as used in "requiring carriers to provide prompt assistance in enplaning, deplaning and connecting to other flights" should be more specifically defined. What is "promptly?" Five minutes? Fifteen? This issue is of particular importance for those of us who might request assistance to a connecting flight, because delays in obtaining assistance may result in the passenger missing his or her flight.

As it currently stands, people with visual impairments have no way to discover flight status and other information vital to their travel. So the department of advocacy and governmental affairs made the decision to advocate for the highest level of accessibility possible with regard to airport facilities. We asked that the Department of Transportation consider including access to on-screen flight arrival and departure information which is usually available on monitors at the gates and terminals, and airport directory and map information for people who are blind or visually impaired as a part of general access to terminal facilities and services.

What has garnered the greatest amount of controversy and concern is the section concerning service animals. First, let me emphasize that this guidance only reiterates the unwritten policies that many air carriers have. Much of what has been said is not new. ACB's concern comes from the codification of stereotypes into the proposed rules that may lead to discriminatory actions.

The proposed rules define a service animal as "any guide dog, signal dog, or other animal individually trained to provide assistance to an individual with a disability" and make it clear that emotional support animals are included in this category. However one feels about the issue, the problem arises in the manner that this approach is being undertaken. The department has different requirements for guide dogs as compared to emotional support dogs (e.g., requiring documentation or a medical certificate for the latter, but not the former). However, that categorization is not clear because both are simply defined as "service animals." It could cause confusion for airline personnel and has the potential for causing discrimination against guide dog users.

The greatest furor, however, was caused by the suggestions proposed by the department involving a "service animal that cannot be accommodated at the seat location of the qualified individual with a disability with whom the animal is accompanying." The options offered by the department none of which are new such as purchasing a second seat, traveling on a later flight, or stowing the animal in cargo, are neither practical nor necessary. As we explained, the problem is that it is very unclear who would determine what constitutes such an animal and when it would be appropriate to seek any of the alternatives listed. This has the potential to discriminate against some service animal users solely based on subjective and unfounded conclusions.

The law recognizes that the service animal is there for a purpose; in the case of a guide dog, that purpose includes entering and exiting the plane. If the animal is in cargo, it cannot fulfill that responsibility, and it is essentially denying the handler use of that mobility aid. This is cause for concern because in implementation, passengers who are blind or visually impaired could be denied equal access to air travel simply because of their choice of mobility aid.

The department of advocacy and governmental affairs has made it a point to approach all of its arguments from a rights-based inclusive perspective. When commenting on these proposed rules, Krista and I offered a broad examination of how each might infringe on equal access. For both positive and negative commentary we were meticulous in offering explanations, justifications, and when feasible, suggestions to assist the Department of Transportation, so that in the future any rules or guidance on the Air Carrier Access Act would adequately address the needs of blind and visually impaired people.

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