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Gary C. Norman: Flying with guide dog reveals not-always-friendly skies

Gary C. Norman

Gary C. Norman

Since partnered with Bowie, my third guide dog, I have flown several occasions, including to Boston, where I co-hosted a public policy dialogue. Independent travel ultimately requires fortitude and prudence, all the more so when one must navigate with a dog partner. Air travel also implicates the law, including elements of administrative law as well as what I have coined “on-the-spot conflict resolution.”

From the outset, I must state that, as a young team, flying proves more and more frustrating for a lawyer and his dog.

In these polarized times, we need more organic conversation, including as to civil rights. I sit down at an airport terminal gate and Bowie and I are automatically visible, attracting questions. In these conversations, I stress that while traveling with a dog has its frustrations, it is a great privilege as well as responsibility. Moreover, I must employ soft resolution skills on almost a daily basis in dealing with the public as a lawyer with a disability.

On-the-spot conflict resolution skills includes as simple as properly managing how to interact with an often unaware TSA worker when navigating the screening portion of an air experience. (It’s not for the faint of heart.) In my experience, TSA workers at major airports rarely seem to know their own procedures regarding clearing a guide-dog team. Arguably, organizations who train and place service animals with the disabled public should incorporate an element of conflict resolution into their programs.

I have noticed, in my four flights with Bowie this year, that there appear to be more and more dogs in airports, some of whom are alleged to be emotional support animals. Considering this increased presence of dogs in the airports, I sympathize with the frustrations of airlines. In February, when I argued there was a misguided but arguable outgrowth of ever-diminishing customer service on the part of airlines, I had not yet flown with Bowie. I stand by that but now concede the presence of pets in airports is perhaps untenable. (Although I compliment airports that have pet relief/service animal relief areas inside the terminal.)

The U.S. Department of Transportation as recently issued a Notice of Advance Proposed Rulemaking concerning service animals and our airline industry. Among other questions, the Federal Register notice explored the possibility of airlines  requiring advance medical documentation for guide dogs or other service animals. As with most public policy there are positives and negatives, particularly involving advance notification and documentation.

I have concerns as to several elements of the notice. If included in a final rule, this could possibly pit veterinarians against their customers partnered with service animals. Moreover, advance documentation requirements will seriously hinder the ability of guide-dog handlers to access the freedom of air travel.  Blind people continue to experience challenges in accessing online platforms as well. It appears advance documentation will require blind or visually impaired people most likely to interact with web-based tools that are likely inaccessible.

There also has increasingly been an array of interactions of flight attendants and service animal teams – some positive, some negative. As with most professions one interacts with when a blind traveler, it can be an opportunity for targeting positive conversation and conflict resolution skills. I have always found it humorous, if well-intended, when flight attendants make a point of showing me their Braille information resources. The Braille is like a red badge of courage that they have met their arguable legal obligations to provide materials in alternative formats. On other occasions, I have had to advocate firmly with flight attendants.

As I recently indicated in a presentation at the American Bar Association, the next 25 years of disability-related civil rights depends on leveraging the law through holistic, non-partisan conversation instead of litigation, including, but not limited to, the organic interactions of a dog team navigating a busy airport.

 

Gary C. Norman, Esq. LL.M. serves as the vice chair at the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights. He can be reached at prometheusgroup16@hotmail.com.