Travel. It is never easy, especially for the blind. Have you ever flown alone? For the first time in my 17 years of being on this earth, this Thanksgiving weekend, I went through the airport and onto the plane independently. Something that may seem simple to the average sighted person, it quite daunting to those who struggle to see.
You arrive at the airport 1-2 hours before the set boarding time of your flight. You then look at your ticket and find your airline and gate number. Go to the security check that matches your boarding pass. The crowds that are pushing through to get to security are overpowering you and try not to cower with your cane at the feet of hundreds or people. You finally make it to the TSA check and realize that you bogged down by bags, papers and chargers. As you cram the chargers into your carry-on and start to take off your shoes, a security officer calls over and says “Anything bigger than an IPad needs to be in it’s own bin”. This is the icing on the cake. With one shoe off, you hop over to cut a poor elderly woman out of line, grab another bin and on the way back grab another bin to put your 2 pound, 10-inch tablet in. This is great. No only have you annoyed the TSA security check members, you have now cut off the poor woman who had walked a mere 2 feet in the past 5 minutes. You step into the x-ray machine and the alarm sounds. Oh boy, just what you need. After a thorough check of your bag and everything you own, the security man clears you to go. You then realize that you cannot see the signs telling you which gate is next and ask for help and the response you receive is “Go sit on that bench and wait for someone to come and get you.” “What? my flight is in 20 minutes and I need to go.” And there is a bigger problem at hand: where is the bench? You finally stumble to the gate you hope is yours and when you do, you are greeted by a woman who looks thrilled you’re here. You wait for what feels like hours and finally the most soothing words ever enter your ears “Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you for flying with American Airlines today. We will hit the skies in less than 10 minutes.”
That was a hypothetical situation, but let’s dive into what really happened to me on my most recent flight. To give you some context, I was flying to DCA on American Airlines on Tuesday, November 19th. My flight is scheduled to leave at 12:50 and board and 12:22. To be safe, I arrive at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport at approximately 10:32 a.m. I had my mother drop me off at the front and there I went into a world I had never experienced alone. After the 10 minute struggle of security, I asked for a guide to my gate and I was told to sit on a bench and someone would be with me shortly. Subsequently, I was moved to a different bench and then a different one. What is this? The Apple Store? Finally a golf cart came rolling up and offered me a ride. I gratefully accepted and hopped aboard. She drove me to my gate and then helped me find an empty chair. So here it goes, the waiting game.
I waited. I played with my hair. I looked at my phone. I glanced around. I listened to music. This process continued until about 2 hours later at 12:40 they announced that it was 5 minutes until boarding. I asked to pre-board and the very generous woman at the desk told me that a spot had just opened up for a closer seat. Shout out to her because I am eternally grateful. I was moved from seat 10A to 2A. Once aboard the flight, I sat and waited for others to board. Once everyone was boarded the captain announced they were having a minor issue, but “it should be fixed in about 15 minutes.” 10 minutes later the voice of the capitan blared yet again through the speakers “sorry folks, a problem with the door has occurred, so your 12:50 flight to DCA has been cancelled. Everyone must deplane.” Heck no, I did not just sit in this airport for the past two hours for absolutely nothing. I scrambled to grab the rest of my things and then scurried off the plane. Racing down the terminal I flew to the front desk. Out of breath, I slammed my boarding pass down and said “I need to rebook, my flight to DCA was cancelled. Now, for whatever reason this woman had the impression that I might as well have been deaf as well. She then proceeded to tell me that she could get me on a flight at 8 p.m. Wednesday, the next day. That just was not going to work. I was here on Tuesday which meant I had purposefully meant to fly out on Tuesday. She then proceeded to tell me she could get me on a connecting flight that went through Philadelphia with a 2 hour layover so in total a 6 hours experience. I told her that first of all, that means that I would be there way too late and that secondly, I am visually impaired and not going to try and navigate that other airport alone for the first time. Begrudgingly she told me there was a 5:22 p.m. flight that went straight through to DCA that day. I accepted with great excitement.
I am very sorry to the people that did not have the chance to re-book their flight, but it meant the world to me she finally took my needs seriously. I want to encourage all special needs folks out there to assert themselves and be persistent—for me, it made a huge difference. I may look confident and self-assured, and young and mobile, but being thrown around to different airports would have been a much more taxing experience for me than the average person. Need I remind you, this was my first unaccompanied trip through an airport.
So, I got my new boarding pass and the journey began. An eight hour airport adventure that felt like 2 days. What did I do to keep myself company? I ate, and I watched some great movies. That day was the day that I explored the entire vicinity of Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. Every 30 minutes or so I would move from gate to gate and the full airport experience that everyone hopes for. Do not forget that I could not have done it without the food from the airport Chick-Fil-A and the kwiki shop that sponsored my Reese Cups and Smart Water at hour 7. I also would like to give a special thanks to Anker, they make the best portable chargers on the face of the planet and without mine, I probably would not have had the experience I had.
One other thing that made this trip so special is that I met another little girl who was visually impaired. For privacy reasons, I will not reveal her name, but out of the corner of my eye in that 8-hour airport stay, I spotted someone else with a cane. Since I am loud and can never keep anything to myself, I introduced myself. She was very inspirational to me because unlike me, she was using her cane at such a young age and using it with confidence. A special shout out to her and her family who did not think I was crazy when I came up to them and started talking.
In the end, I made it to DCA safely. Getting there was no easy task, and when I got there, only more struggles ensued, but that is a story for another time. If you are interested to hear all about that experience, please let me know in the comments down below. It is equally funny. Thanks to my portable charger and the food I bought, my trip was pretty good. It definitely was not the trip we were expecting, but is it ever when you try and fly?