U.S. Department of Transportation Makes 3-part Recommendation

As a blind person who uses a service animal in my day-to-day activities, I am deeply concerned with the U. […]

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As a blind person who uses a service animal in my day-to-day activities, I am deeply concerned with the U. S. Department of Transportation (DOT) three- part proposal which will, if approved, violate my rights to fair and equal travel on airlines. The U.S. Department of Transportation three-part recommendation will have grave consequences for users of service animals. The DOT has recommended that “If the service animal does not fit, it should be re-located to another space in the cabin if possible in the same service class. If no single seat will accommodate you, you may be offered the option of purchasing a second seat, traveling on a later flight, or having the service animal travel in the cargo hold.” This is the Notice of Proposed Rule Making published by the Department of Transportation in the Federal Register on November 4, 2004.

I have some suggested changes to the DOT proposal, and they are:

1. Keep the service animal user, along with their working dog, together in the same assigned seat. If the person and their service animal have to move, put us together in an alternative seat, either first or second class. The travel agents who have booked my flights had me assigned in the bulkhead seat so my dog would have more space to stretch out and relax. The dog and the service animal user are a team, and some of us have many years of a working relationship with our service animal. Separation from our service animal is not an option.

2. Do not charge the service animal user for the seat next to him or her because our dog might be considered too big for the assigned space. It is ridiculous to charge me for another seat because someone perceives my dog as too big for the space at my feet. I’ve flown many times and my large dog guide has never been an issue with the people who were seated next to us. The airlines and the flight attendants have been exceedingly supportive and helpful to me on my flights across the U.S. It is unconscionable that if the DOT proposal becomes a rule it will negatively affect my seating rights in future flights.

3. It is unrealistic to assume I will have the luxury to reschedule my flight at a later time. I do have a life and I do have places I need to get to on time. It is nonsensical for the DOT to expect me to take a later flight because my dog is considered to be too big for an assigned seat. This recommendation will make it harder for me to make my connections to catch other flights when I have to travel across the country. It will also make it impossible for me to keep my job as my employer will not understand why I chose to schedule a later flight when I was expected to be at work in another city at a specific time.

4. Lastly, it is equally unrealistic to recommend that I put my service animal in cargo. My dog guide is not a pet. The conditions in cargo are not safe for animals, and I would not put my dog in such a dangerous situation.

“On February 1, 2001, President George W. Bush announced a $1 billion plan to help Americans with disabilities. The purpose of this program is to provide access to jobs, education and assistive technologies by: Funding 10 pilot programs for the improvement of transportation for people with disabilities.” (According to the National Business and Diversity Council.)

The DOT proposal will not help the disabled and the proposal will also limit our use of transportation. How are those of us who use dog guides supposed to meet our employment and/or education responsibilities if the DOT proposal requests us to postpone our flight at a later time? The DOT proposal puts us and our service animal at risk of injury if our animal is put in cargo. I do not understand why the DOT will take us backwards when so much money has been appropriated to provide those of us with a disability better access to jobs and transportation across the United States. The DOT plan contradicts President Bush’s plan for disabled people to have access to jobs, transportation and education. The DOT recommendations cited above are unacceptable because such a change could negatively affect the way I’m treated on future flights.

“The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) and the U.S. Department of Transportation’s implementing rules prohibit discriminatory treatment of persons with disabilities in air transportation.” (National Business and Disability Council). However, the proposal by the DOT is nothing less then discriminatory to those of us who are disabled and users of service animals. Many of us who are disabled are already marginalized because of our disability, and the DOT proposal will make it harder for us to bridge the employment gap.

The DOT proposal is a form of discrimination because this plan will result in a difference between how disabled people are treated to that of non-disabled people. These recommendations present a danger to service animals and to the safety and mobility of service animal users. The DOT proposal is also unrealistic since many disabled people are already burdened with limited income and extreme costs in expenses in travel and other basic life activities which some non-disabled people take for granted. “Earned income represents only 71% of the total income of people with disabilities, compared with 92% for those with no disabilities. (U.S. Department of Labor). The 2004 Harris Survey of Americans with Disabilities, National Organization on Disability cites, “Of all working ages of people with disabilities, ages 18 to 64, only 35% are employed full or part-time compared to 78% of working age people without disabilities.

On Thursday, August 25, 2005, my wife and I boarded our return Northwest Airlines Flight from the Biloxi Gulf Port Airport for Memphis and Minneapolis. Imagine what would have happened to us if we were asked to book another flight. I believe that if we delayed our flight two or three days, neither of us would have gotten out alive because of hurricane Katrina. If my dog guide was put in cargo, he would probably have died as the heat index in the Gulf Port region of Mississippi was in excess of one hundred and seven degrees. The heat and humidity were also unbearable around the Memphis Airport. To expect such a well trained animal like my dog guide to travel in such heated conditions without water, protection from the heat and unnecessary exposure to the elements is cruel at best. A dog guide is an extension of the service animal user, and separation from our service animal will put us at risk of injury.

Please support us in our effort to stop the DOT from either implementing or enforcing this incredibly discriminatory proposal. For further information, please contact President Rebecca Kragnes of the Minnesota Guide Dog Users at [email protected]

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