Ralph Sanders, white cane in hand, Boarded a United Airlines plane at Baltimore-Washington International airport Friday as he had dozens of times before, but this time the trip would be different.
When the stewardess asked Sanders, who is blind, to give up his cane during takeoff, he refused. When she said that a U.S. regulation requires he give it up, he told her she was wrong. And when she said the plane would not take off on its flight to Chicago unless he gave it up, he said, "Fine," and hung on. After 10 minutes the stewardess went away and the plane took off.
Similar scenes were taking place around the country. Sanders later said, as members of the National Federation of the Blind headed to Des Moines for a testimonial dinner.
Sanders said he was fed up, and yesterday, back home in Baltimore, he won a court order that bans United Airlines from insisting that blind passengers give up their canes on any flights that leave from or arrive at the Baltimore airport.
After winning the court order from Baltimore Supreme Bench Judge James E. Perrot, Sanders said the federation would seek similar bans throughout the country.
United says is must stand firm on the rule that canes must be stowed during takeoff and landing because the Federal Aviation Administration requires it, according to an airline spokesman.
"If the canes are put under the seat, they could skitter away during the takeoff or landing. If the blind person holds the cane and the plane comes to a sudden stop, he could be impaled on it or ti could injure a nearby passenger," the United spokesman said.
Sanders, who was blinded at the age of 6 in a gun accident, asserted that a blind passenger is "severely restricted" without his cane.
"With my cane I can travel as independently and competently as a sighted person," Sanders said. "Without it, if the plane goes down, I could be in trouble."
United maintains that the FAA last March denied the federation's request that the cane requirement be revoked. A United spokesman said the FAA ruled that "it is in the public interest to require persons carrying canes to stow them prior to takeoff and landing . . ."
Stanford Hess, lawyer for the federation, contends that the ruling, citing "the public interest," leaves the final word up to the airlines themselves.
Sanders said the airline policy on the cane issue grew from the "airline notion that blind people are helpless. They judge all blind people by that standard.
United spokesman David Ostwald said it is just a matter of "a regulation we are obligated to enforce."
He said that last weekend in some cases the airline operated flights with blind passengers aboard who "adamantly refused to give up their canes.
"But we are not going to do that again."