Handicapped air travelers told a government panel yesterday and Wednesday that air travel for them means confronting discrimination and humiliation.
Blind passengers and those who use wheelchairs said airline policies are so inconsistent and so inconsistently interpreted that they never know what to expect. The witnesses were testifying before a 15-member advisory panel that will recommend regulations to the Department of Transportation to implement a federal law prohibiting discrimination against passengers with disabilities.
Witnesses who are blind told of frequent conflicts with airline employes over seating, including confrontations that ended with the passenger's eviction from the airplane by police.
Witnesses who use wheelchairs said they also encounter discrimination, as well as improperly maintained wheelchairs used to help board mobility-impaired passengers.
Homer Page, who is director of the Office of Services to Disabled Students at the University of Colorado, the deputy mayor of Boulder, Colo., and an official in the Colorado Federation of the Blind, said that on one flight he had been told by a flight attendant that, in the event of an emergency, he would be evacuated after everyone else.
On another flight, Page said, he was seated in an exit row by the airline and then escorted off the plane by the Maryland State Police when he refused to move. On another flight on which he was seated in an exit row, a flight attendant expressed pleasure about the seating arrangement, saying it would save her from having to explain to him where the exits were, he said.
"The inconsistency and irrationality and illogic of these policies and the way they are implemented ... really is a nightmare for blind people flying," he said.
Airlines defend policies that prohibit the seating of blind passengers near exits as necessary to provide for the safety of both the blind person and other passengers, witnesses said.
But several witnesses challenged the notion that blind passengers are inherently less able to open exit doors on airliners than are passengers who can see.
"If safety were really at the heart of the problem, we would agree the rules should not be changed," said Marc Maurer, president of the National Federation of the Blind.
In some situations -- for instance, in a smoke-filled cabin where vision is obscured for everyone -- a blind person might actually function more efficiently than a sighted passenger, he said.
The issue is not whether they should being seated near exits, Maurer and others said, but that the airlines discriminate against a class of passengers rather than making their rules on the basis of ability.
The rules "classify blind people as being less able than others. That is the classic definition of discrimination," he said.
Maurer and others denied having staged confrontations over seating to raise the issue of discrimination, but Maurer said that he and others "intend to use every morally justified means to eliminate discrimination against the blind."
Witnesses using wheelchairs said they, too, encounter airlines that treat all mobility-impaired passengers as if they had the same abilities.
"You cannot make a blanket statement about people who use wheelchairs in terms of function," said Philip Calkins of the National Council on Independent Living.
"You are assumed to have no level of competency once you leave the gate," said Kent Hogan, also with the National Council on Independent Living.
Walter S. Coleman, the assistant vice president for operations for the Air Transport Association, which represents the airline industry, said yesterday that there is no "intention to discriminate" in the air carriers' policies toward handicapped passengers.
The carriers' varying policies represent different views on how to provide for safety and service based on different airlines' experience, he said. Coleman, in testimony on Tuesday, urged the advisory committee to allow the airlines to have flexibility in the way they provide services for handicapped passengers.