BREAKING BARRIERS. The blind lead the blind toward fuller citizenship

IT'S being called the third wave of the civil rights movement. The first was blacks in the '60s. Then came women in the '70s. The '80s are the decade of the disabled. From crippled to handicapped to disabled. The terminology is changing; so is the self-image for the 37 million Americans with some kind of disability. That the disabled are winning Olympic Gold Medals, writing award-winning books, becoming active in politics, and having families shows their time has come.

While the struggle for civil rights has been going on for more than a decade, there's evidence that it's gaining in strength and momentum:

Deaf students at Gaullaudet College protested until they got, for the first time in the school's 124-year history, a hearing-impaired president.

Wheelchair activists with sledgehammers pounded the curb bordering the Hollywood Walk of Fame to protest that city's failure to provide curb cuts. And in Washington, D.C., they surrounded Department of Transportation buses with their wheelchairs to protest what they say are discriminatory mass-transit policies.

Blind people are being arrested for their activism on airplanes. And they're working in fields considered open only to those who can see.

While the disabled are breaking barriers to a fuller life, society's own walls against including them in the family of man are starting to come down. One indication is a spate of films and plays on the subject in recent years: ``Children of a Lesser God,'' ``Mask,'' ``Elephant Man''; and the television show ``Love Is Never Silent.''

The article below is the first in a series that will look at three groups of disabled people - the blind, the deaf, and those in wheelchairs - and the technological advances that are changing their lives.

PEGGY PINDER is a lawyer who frequently flies around the country on her cases. She is also blind. Because of that, she says, she is often ordered to preboard against her wishes, subjected to oversolicitous and unnecessary attention by flight attendants, and made to change seats. One day in late March, while on a Midway Airline flight, she refused to move. And got arrested. To the airlines, these are issues of safety and public convenience. To some blind people, they are symbols of the larger problems of discrimination and paternalistic thinking that they encounter daily. And they're ready to go to the mat over it. Since 1978, members of the National Federation of the Blind have picketed, filed lawsuits, and negotiated with airlines. In the last three years, an average of one blind person a month has been arrested or removed from a plane, according to Ms. Pinder, who, as a vice-president of the federation, keeps track of such things.

``What we've said all along is we want to be defined out of the category of handicapped passenger who must be subjected to all this special and unnecessary treatment,'' she said, speaking by telephone from her home in Grinnell, Iowa. ``Don't assume we don't know anything.''

Where the two groups lock horns is over the policy many airlines have of not seating blind or other disabled people in emergency exit rows, because they don't want them to impede the exit of other passengers during an emergency.

But Pinder was not sitting in an exit row; she was asked to move closer to one. Sandra Allen, director of Midway's corporate communications, said that her airline seats handicapped passengers, including the blind, in the front row of the cabin because those seats are closest to a floor-level emergency door. ``We think we can help the blind and handicapped if they're close to our personnel.''

Pinder says policy differs from airline to airline and is quixotically enforced. The fears behind it, she says, are unfounded. ``They think we're incapable of moving. They think we'll impede emergency evacuation. There's no evidence of that, and there's evidence to the contrary that a blind person can perfectly well get out in acceptable time.''

In some cases, says Pinder, being blind would be an advantage. ``If the cabin is completely filled with smoke, I'm going to be more likely to know what to do because I'm used to operating without visual clues.''

The Federal Aviation Administration has no regulation regarding where blind or handicapped people should be seated, but it recommends that they not be seated in exit rows and leaves it up to the discretion of the airlines, says spokesman Fred Farrar.

``It's an irrational rule,'' says Mary Jane Owen, who is blind and the director of Disability Focus Inc., a nonprofit organization that promotes a disability perspective on social policy in Washington, D.C. ``We don't know who's going to panic and who's going to be cool.''

But she joins others in saying that perhaps the activists are not choosing their battles wisely. ``I think [the exit-row seat] is a rigid symbol. And personally, I don't have time to be put off a plane.''

``I think the federation is a bunch of militant kooks,'' says Jeffrey Turner, a blind computer programmer/analyst in Boston. ``The laws [on airplanes] are for the protection of the public.''

Mr. Turner says that every blind person has different needs for assistance. ``Even if one individual is totally independent and able to fend for himself, there's someone else who appreciates the help a lot.''

The wranglings with the airlines are only one aspect of the fight blind people are having in their reach toward inclusion as full members of society.

Unemployment is a major problem. Seventy percent of blind people are unemployed. ``If any other group had that kind of unemployment rate, you'd have a terrible scream,'' says Kenneth Jernigan, past president of the National Federation of the Blind. Until recently, the blind worked in ``sheltered shops,'' government- or privately run organizations set up to provide employment for the blind. They were paid less than minimum wage to make such things as helmet liners, mattresses, and uniforms.

They were taken care of by a host of government and private agencies that some activists say are receding in importance as the blind increasingly establish their own economic footing. Some say these agencies have a vested interest in keeping blind people dependent. Ms. Owen would like to see more money allocated toward rehabilitation.

``There have got to be major changes made,'' she says. ``As things are now, we're throwing away lots of money on some programs. I don't want to see them thrown out, there'd be too much hardship for some people. But we've got to change it.''

Many of those blind people who do work are breaking into jobs that had been considered only for the sighted: computers, law, health care, and teaching. There are two PhD candidates in biochemistry. ``Every time we find something that a blind person can do, we find a blind person doing it,'' says Jernigan.

To change perceptions, Pinder and other blind speakers go into Rotary Clubs, women's clubs, and elementary schools. ``I talk to kids as an articulate and self-sufficient adult, show them that we are part of their world. One way you change the world is by talking to people around you in your community. The other way is by changing yourself; knowing what you can do and projecting with all the people that you deal with that they can be comfortable with a blind person.''

Owen says she's found children very receptive to learning about the disabled. ``When I first lost my sight, I became fascinated with all that I was learning about overhangs and open doors. My adult friends were frightened, but the kids loved it, going out with my cane, learning to listen to echoes.''

While the blind may be starting to break barriers in employment and perceptions [see story next page], the battle with the airlines is not over yet. The federation has offered to give talks in airline training programs to help personnel understand the needs and capabilities of the blind. Few have taken them up on it, says Jernigan.

And the FAA, spokesman Farrar says, is ``in the early stages of a possible proposed regulation that would bar handicapped people from emergency exit rows.''

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