FAQs on traveling when blind or visually impaired

I returned to Chicago last night after a weeklong vacation in the Pacific Northwest, and the long flight back yesterday gave me time to write out answers to questions I get about how I manage to navigate O’Hare alone with Whitney, my Seeing Eye dog:

Whitney makes the most of travel time.

Whitney makes the most of travel time.

  • How do you get to the airport? Many people who are blind use public transportation to get to airports, but I’m afraid of using the subway alone with my Seeing Eye dog – I’m nervous about falling into the tracks. I’d be open to taking a Chicago Transit Authority bus, but I’d want to do a trial run ahead of time to know exactly where they’d be dropping me off. I usually use a hotel shuttle, taxi, limo, or van service, and I tip well.
  • Where do you tell them to drop you off? Before I leave home, I check and double-check which airline I’m using and have the driver let me off at that specific Curbside check-in. Even if I’m not checking a bag, the workers at curbside check-in can check me in, get my boarding pass and sign me in for airport assistance. The curbside check-in worker guides my Seeing Eye dog and me to a seat inside and lets me know what my call number is. I tip them well.
  • What do you do in the waiting area? Whitney sits under my seat there as I empty my pockets and put my change, iPhone, keys, and all into a compartment of my carry-on (will make it easier to go through security). Then I listen for a airline assistant to come call out my assigned number.
  • How do you get to security? When an airline assistant calls our number, I get their attention and have them place my carry-on bag onto the seat of the wheelchair they brought along. I give Whitney the “follow” command and we shadow the airline assistant to the security line.
  • How do you get into the screening area? For obvious reasons, I don’t have a valid driver’s license. I use a State of Illinois ID card instead, and show that along with my boarding pass as I enter the screening area. I have a cool wallet with a long pocket that holds my boarding pass and ID in it, very handy if/when I need them again at the gate.
  • How do you get through security? I take my laptop computer and hand it to my airport assistant to place in a bin along with my shoes, jacket, and carry-on bag.
  • How do you get through the magnetometer? After giving Whitney the “sit” command, I lengthen her leash and give her a “rest” command so she’ll sit still while I let the TSA screener know how I intend on getting through. My dog sits while I explain, and her leash remains in my left hand as I extend my right hand to the scrrener and ask them to pull me through the arch. If I brush against the interior wall by mistake, the alarm sounds. I remind my Seeing Eye dog to “rest” where she is and I return, turn around, extend my right hand to the screener and walk through the arch again. Once I get verbal confirmation from the TSA agent that I’ve cleared successfully, I turn around and call Whitney to come through. The alarm goes off when my dog comes through, but going through by myself ahead of Whitney makes it clear to the screeners that her harness and leash set off the alarm, not me.
  • So do they have to wand the dog, then? Sometimes the screener wands her harness, and they always feel around her collar and pet her to inspect as well. I often quip to the TSA worker that my dog is the only creature who actually likes going through security. “It’s the only time I let someone pet her when her harness is on!”
  • How do you get your stuff off the conveyor belt? It’s important for me to remember what color jacket I was wearing, what shoes I had on and what type of laptop I use so I can describe them to the airline assistant helping me — they collect my things once they’ve cleared security. I’ve added Braille stickers to some of the keys on my laptop, and I often open it quickly and feel the keys to confirm its mine.
  • How do you find the gate from there? My airport assistant knows where the gate is, so I give Whitney a “follow!” command and we shadow them from there. Once we’re at the gate the airport assistant finds me a seat. I ask to sit close to the jetway so I can be alert to when the flight is called, and so I’ll know which way to face when I give my guide dog the “forward” command to get us on the plane. Once I’m seated, my airport assistant heads to the desk with my boarding pass and returns with a pre-boarding ticket for us. I tip them well.

Usually someone from the airline approaches us to let us know they’re about to announce pre-boarding, but if they forget, I hear the announcement and, since I’m in a seat near the jetway I can hear the airline staff talking to each other there. I stand up, square my shoulders in the direction of their voices, and give Whitney a “forward!” command to lead me there.
The airline worker looks at my boarding pass, checks me in, and Whitney leads me down the jetway on her own, a flight attendant on board meets us as we enter the aircraft, looks at my boarding pass to determine where are seat is and then leads us to the row.

Pre-boarding means there aren’t any other carry-on bags in the overhead bin yet, so it’s easy for me to put mine up there by myself. Once I’m situated, Whitney backs into the row, sits with her bottom under the seat in front of me, nestles her head between my feet, and…we’re off!


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