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August 30, 2005

Flying Blind and Deaf but Not Alone

From: New York Times, United States - Aug 29, 2005


WHEN you are deaf-blind, technology is an ever-present companion. I travel with a laptop for e-mail, phone and Internet access. I use a G.P.S.-equipped Braille Note note-taker to get information about my surroundings. To communicate with others, I have a Screen Braille Communicator with two sides: one in Braille, which I can read; the other an L.C.D. screen with a keyboard, for someone who is sighted.

My other traveling companion is my guide dog, a yellow female Labrador retriever named Dinah.

But there is no substitute for the human touch. For example, printing letters on my palm is sometimes quicker and easier than the Screen Braille Communicator. And I still have to rely on other people - everyone from flight attendants, hotel clerks and cab drivers to the airline staff escort I need to get through security.

Occasionally, I also turn to other travelers for assistance.

One of my most memorable experiences with a Good Samaritan happened a few years ago. My flight from Atlanta to New York had been canceled. The next flight was supposed to leave at 9 p.m., but by 8:45 p.m., we still hadn't boarded. Someone finally came over to tell me the flight was now scheduled for 11 p.m. and that it would be a different flight, going to John F. Kennedy Airport instead of La Guardia. But 11 p.m. came and went, and I still didn't know what was going on.

I started waving my arms to attract someone's attention, and a man came over. I showed him my communication card and how to print on my palm.

His name was Allen, and he told me we were delayed until midnight. He said he would sit with me on the plane. We finally boarded, and when we sat down, I realized we were in first class because the seats were leathery and the armrests were wider.

I was so exhausted that I napped often during the flight. Allen became my interpreter, making sure I got any food or drink I wanted from the flight attendant.

I figured they must have upgraded us because of the delay. I sometimes get bumped up if there are open seats because airlines don't have much room for Dinah. I always try to get the bulkhead seat, but there have been times when my canine companion ends up sitting in the aisle.

When we landed, Allen helped me find a bag and a cab to the Helen Keller National Center. I asked him how much it would cost me to get back to the office, and he traced on my palm with his forefinger "Don't worry about it."

A few days later, the executive director of the center, Joe McNulty, visited me. "Remember that guy Allen you met on the airline?" he asked. "He called me to find out if you made it back here O.K. Do you know who he is?"

"No," I said.

He was Allen Brill, the chief executive of Rolex USA.

As told to Christopher Elliott.


Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company