Airports are blind to fliers like me.

James Alan Fox

July 26, 2015


It's high time for the visually impaired to collectively demand fairness in flying.

If you are able to read these words under the overhead light on your morning flight without having to squint or use a magnifier, then this column is not about you. Continue on, nonetheless, as this has everything to do with you and the overwhelming majority of folks who are uninformed about the plight of the visually impaired.

By way of establishing my credentials on this matter, I was recently certified as "legally blind" (and apparently no longer merely "illegally blind"). I do have some vision, but below the legislatively determined threshold that qualifies me for special services and accommodation.

By virtue of my new status, I receive wonderful assistance from the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind in terms of mobility training and low-vision devices. I also qualify for certain government benefits, including an excise tax exemption on the car I cannot drive, an irony that always mystifies my friends.

Despite the help, I still struggle in a world that is itself blind and ignorant to vision impairment unless it comes with dark glasses and a Seeing Eye dog. And nowhere is it any more frustrating than with air travel, and I don't just mean that useless in-flight reading light.

Why, for example, do airport monitors need to be hung so high? I constantly have to stop strangers to ask whether the Boston flight has had a gate change and is on time.

The crowded terminals are especially treacherous. I can't tell you how many roller bags I've tripped over. I have a choice: Look down to avoid these wheeled obstacles and bump into people head-on, or look up where I'm going and hope not to cross paths with low-lying luggage.

I do use a white cane, which is supposed to alert others to my limitations. But with so many people fixated on their mobile phones as they walk, several of my canes have been stepped on and broken by oblivious travelers. At least then I get to say with justified indignation, "Are you blind? Maybe you need this cane more than me."

I used to depend on airline personnel at the ticket counter to handle check-in for me. But now I am directed to the electronic kiosks for self-service seat assignment and to print my boarding pass. Frankly, these screens are not all that easy to see, but they at least have freed up the ticket agents to stand around and look on with puzzlement and sometimes amusement as I bend over in an attempt to read the screen.

And there is absolutely no blind justice at airport food courts. Forget about being able to read the menus placed high up on the walls behind the fast-food counters. It is demeaning and embarrassing to ask some uninterested teenage cashier to read off the breakfast selections while a line of hungry and impatient travelers grows behind me. I usually end up with a hasty choice and later realize that I could have had a V8.

With time to spare at the terminal, I seek out the tiny large-print section in the bookstores. But for some unexplained reason, these editions are often arranged on the very top shelf where the titles can't be read except by people who needn't read them. Although I complain, bookstores fail to see the absurdity and choose not to alter the corporate-imposed store layout.

It is high time for us of limited vision to raise our voices and collectively demand fairness in flying. It is much appreciated that some airlines have moved in-flight entertainment from the top of the cabin to the backs of the seats, although I don't for a moment believe it was done for sake of visibility. The farsighted world is blind, or at least myopic, when it comes to seeing the somewhat unnecessary struggles of us in the low-vision set.

This Sunday marks the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which has been a tremendous boost for folks with challenges of various kinds. For struggles like mine, however, the problem is that when people think disability, they think paraplegic. When people think accommodation, they think wheelchair accessible. Meanwhile, many midrange disabilities go unacknowledged. It is classic case of out of sight, out of mind.


James Alan Fox is the Lipman Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University and a member of the USA TODAY Board of Contributors.