This morning, I retweeted a USA Today column by James Alan Fox, a legally blind professor. Because low-vision! Mainstream media outlet! Yay!
He writes about the experience of using airports as a visually impaired person. As I read, I ticked off each point he made, recognizing them as my own travel frustrations. I felt much more connected to this guy’s experience than I do to the usual gripes about flight delays and TSA policies. The article is mildly funny, so that didn’t hurt. I especially liked the bit about not trusting a bored teenaged kid to interpret a fast food menu to your specifications. Been there. And not just in the airport.
On reflection, I wonder whether the appearance of this point of view in the mainstream press, especially in the form of a commentary, is a good thing after all. Sure, we want people to understand how life works when you’re visually impaired, making your way in a world that imposes barriers to getting your sh*t done. But will such complaints lead to better travel experiences? And do they leave the impression that low-vision folks can’t travel effectively?
I have often said that an airport can be an easier environment for a low-vision traveler than a city street. Most people in the airport flow in a particular direction, completing steps in the same order, and following signs with arrows to numbered gates. We’re all on foot, and on unfamiliar ground, so the playing field is a bit closer to level. In the city, traffic patterns differ by road, intersection and neighborhood, and no two people aim for the same ultimate destination. Signage is random, and so are passersby one might ask for help. In recent years, smartphone apps have significantly improved the airport experience, if only in terms of providing up-to-date gate information, and providing a way to conduct transactions in an environment (the phone screen) that is accessible and tailored to your specific needs.
So is Professor Fox’s column useful? Most USA Today readers don’t design airports or those infuriating airline kiosks. And if our goal is to maintain independent travel experiences (rather than being held hostage to the whims of uninformed employees or fellow travelers trying to “help”) aren’t our efforts better spent lobbying airlines and educating architects about what does work for low-vision travelers?
I recently participated in a travel-related study; giving feedback about a system designed to facilitate independent travel within an airport. It wasn’t as emotionally satisfying to provide technical feedback as it was to cosign an article that mirrors my own travel gripes, but it’s a practical way to be a part of the change I want.
It’s an unspoken truism among people with disabilities that raising the consciousness of the non-disabled world can have unintended consequences. Cluing the mainstream in about “what it’s like for us” elicits sympathy, diminishing our stature as competent adults., and making it tougher to achieve the accommodations that facilitate independence.