November 18, 2008

Follow up on Rami Rabby, DragonAir, and the CRPD

You may recall Jim Fruchterman's report on the injustice he witnessed being done to former US State Department employee Rami Rabby on a DragonAir flight. Below are further developments including Ravi's letter to Chinese president Hu Jin Tao

To: President Hu Jin Tau
People's Republic of China

Dear Mr. President,

I am a blind person, retired from the diplomatic service of the U.S.
Department of State and now living in Israel. On September 16, 2008, I
travelled on an El-Al flight from Tel-Aviv to Hong Kong where I joined
a small group of sighted American friends, all of us associated to a
greater or lesser degree with the Hadley School for the Blind, a
highly-renowned international correspondence school for the blind
which operates a branch, Hadley/China, in Fuzhou. Our threefold
purpose was to participate in the 20th anniversary celebration of
Hadley/China; to visit a number of other schools and service agencies
for the blind and disabled; and to spend some time sightseeing. I
write to you because, on one occasion at the Hong Kong International
Airport and on a second occasion at the Great Wall, I was subjected to
profoundly demeaning and humiliating treatment by officials whose
condescension toward the blind and low expectation of their abilities
where more egregious than any I have encountered elsewhere on my
extensive international travels.

On the first occasion, I and my fellow travelers where scheduled to
fly from Hong Kong to Fuzhou, on Dragonair flight 660, at 08:50 AM, on
Sunday, September 21. After boarding the aircraft, three of us who
were all assigned to the same row, agreed that I would sit in the
aisle sit. Imagine my astonishment when one of the flight attendants
ordered me to move to the window seat because, she said, "blind people
must sit by the window". I asked why; she simply said that was the
rule; so, in the absence of any rational explanation, I declined to
move. This exchange proved to be just the beginning of an hour-long
argument: I, on the one hand, repeatedly asked for a rational
explanation of the "blind by the window" regulation, while, on the
other hand, all members of the crew, including the captain, as well as
other airport officials, adamantly refused to provide me with an
acceptable rationale. They did say the regulation was aimed at "the
safety of passengers", apparently ignoring the fact that I, too, was a
passenger with the same rights and safety needs as my sighted
counterparts. I begged the captain to call his superiors and ask them
for a rational explanation, but he repeatedly rejected my appeals and,
instead, attempted in vain to embarrass me by telling me that I was
preventing all my fellow passengers from reaching their destination,
again, ignoring the fact that I, too, was a passenger and that a
senseless regulation was preventing me, too, from reaching my
destination. Finally, at approximately 09:50 AM, the captain said he
had no other option but to call the police, whereupon two officers of
the Hong Kong Police boarded the aircraft, forcibly lifted me out of
my seat and removed me from the plane. Jim Fruchterman, a member of
our group, documented the incident with his camera and added a
narrative of his own to the photographs, before posting the story on
his blog
plane.html), which I have attached for your review. Once I was in the
passenger lounge, I asked the Dragonair staff to contact the Israeli
Consulate in Hong Kong (since I was travelling on my Israeli passport)
and, failing that, to notify the Israel Embassy in Beijing of the
incident. There was no answer at the Consulate, and the Dragonair
staff refused to call the Embassy. The Dragonair staff did contact
Omer Kurlender, El-Al's Security Manager at Hong Kong International
Airport, who promptly came to see me. It is with his encouragement
that I am writing this letter. However, more importantly, I also fell
into conversation with Mr. Alaric Youd, an officer of the Hong Kong
Police, who was the only person throughout this ordeal willing to say
publicly what I had suspected all along, namely, that the reason
Dragonair insists that blind passengers sit in window seats only is
their fear that, in the case of an emergency evacuation during takeoff
or landing, a blind passenger seated in an aisle seat would inevitably
impede the rush of all sighted passengers toward to exits. If this is
not the reason for Dragonair's "blind by the window" regulation,
please let me know what the real reason is. May I take this
opportunity to thank Officer Youd for his moral support and to appeal
to you and to the Hong Kong police authorities that he not be punished
for his candor and honesty?

Eventually, the Dragonair staff told me they would schedule me on the
next flight to Fuzhou, this time on China Eastern Airlines. I wondered
if history was about to repeat itself, but when I arrived at the China
Eastern Airlines counter, the reservationist immediately asked me,
"would you like an aisle seat, a middle seat or a window seat", and
added, "We have no regulation about where blind passengers should

On the second occasion, on September 28, we were visiting the Great
Wall. Like most members of our group, I decided not to walk up the
Great Wall but rather chose the more leisurely transportation option
of an individualized cable seat much akin to seats on ski lifts
familiar to blind skiers or to seats on Ferris wheels much loved by
blind visitors to fairgrounds throughout the world. However, upon
arriving at the admission gate, imagine, again, my astonishment when
the gate agent barred my entry, declaring, "no blind people allowed".
Alleging, here, too, that the issue was one of safety, the officials
in charge urged me to ride up the Great Wall on what they called "the
special cable car for the blind" which was located some distance away.
Having no alternative, I decided to try the so-called "special cable
car for the blind", although I suspected this was nothing more than a
ruse by the officials at the Great Wall to get rid of me; and indeed,
I was right. A sign at the embarkation point for the "special cable
car for the blind" read "free cable car for leg disabled". But not
only that: the place was deserted and the "free cable car for leg
disabled" was not in operation, presumably pressed into service only
when advanced notice is given of the arrival of a disabled tourist.

Mr. President, within the past three months China has staged what are
generally regarded as the most impressive Olympic and Paralympic games
ever. While the whole world was watching you showed us the best China
has to offer. However, the two experiences I have related to you lead
me to wonder if China's Olympic and Paralympic face was only its
public face, and if there lurks, behind that public face, a hidden
reality which, at least for the blind and disabled, tells a different
story far less wholesome and far less welcoming.

The fact is that the executives at Dragonair have no empirical
evidence, only false assumptions, that blind airline passengers in an
emergency evacuation would not be able to find the exits as quickly
and efficiently as their sighted counterparts. Surely, any of the
blind Paralympics competitors could have convinced those executives
that their argument is deeply flawed. I myself would be happy to
demonstrate to them how fast the average blind person can move when
necessary. And what about emergency evacuations from an airline cabin
plunged into darkness or filling with smoke? In that situation, blind
passengers would not only move faster than those around them but would
be able to take charge and lead fellow passengers to safety. But
underlying Dragonair's "blind by the window" regulation is not only a
false premise about the physical abilities of the blind but a far more
disturbing implication, namely, that the lives of blind passengers are
not as important as the lives of sighted passengers, and that their
need for survival is somehow not as urgent.

As for the exclusionary policy of the authorities at the Great Wall,
it, too, reflects outdated notions about blindness and blind people
that utterly false and should be condemned by modern societies
everywhere. Behind the advice give to me to use the "free cable car
for leg disabled" is the traditional thinking that blind persons not
only have dysfunctional eyes but dysfunctional legs, too. Again, one
must ask how this myth still survives in a country which has just
concluded hosting the Paralympic games? Moreover, the "free cable car
for leg disabled" reflects that pernicious tendency, on the part of so
many authorities, to always opt for segregative solutions rather than
inclusive and integrative solutions, when seeking to accommodate the
perceived needs of people with disabilities.

Mr. President: it is my understanding that China has recently ratified
the International Convention on the Rights of People with
Disabilities. May I suggest that, if you wish to comply with the
spirit of that Convention, you immediately embark upon a national
drive to eliminate prejudice, discrimination, low expectation and
paternalism toward people with disabilities from all public life in
China, and replace them with a belief in the abilities of people with
disabilities and with policies that demand equality of opportunities
for them in the mainstream of Chinese society.

I know that you have
the capacity to this because, during my visit to the Shanghai World
Financial Center, I detected notations in Braille on the elevator
panels of that magnificent building, all you now need to do is to
inculcate that same message of welcome, equal access and complete
social integration in such unenlightened companies as Dragonair, at
such national monuments as the Great Wall, and everywhere else in your
otherwise wonderful country.

Avraham (Rami) Rabby

LIUJunyi Wed, Oct 22, 2008 at 10:03 AM
To: Avraham Rabby

Dear Mr. Rabby,
Thank you very much for your letter. We are very sorry to hear about
your unfortunate encounter in China. We are sure that these are
individual incidents that doesn't always happen to all disabled
persons. I want to ask you whether you have send the letter to relevant
authorities in China?

With Best Regards,
Ms.LIU Junyi
Third Secretary
Embassy of China in Israel
222, Ben Yehuda St. Tel Aviv
Tel: 00972-3-5467312
Fax: 00972-3-5467251
Mobile: 00972-52-8392699


Avraham Rabby Wed, Oct 22, 2008 at 6:26 PM
Draft To: LIUJunyi
Daer Ms. Liu Junyi:

Thank you so much for your letter responding to the letter I had sent
to President Hu Jintao.
I am afraid we are not talking, here, about an "individual incident
that doesn't always happen to all disabled persons." The basis for the
Dragonair incident was a company policy by Dragonair designed to apply
to all blind passengers, not just myself. Since no other Chinese
airline seems to have the same policy, Dragonair all blind and otherwise physically disabled visitors use the cable system, not just myself.
I did not send my letter to any government authorities in Hong Kong
or China, since it was extremely difficult to obtain the necessary
email addresses. Therefore, I should be most grateful to you would
work to persuade both the Dragonair management and the authorities at
the Great Wall to change their policies and adopt and more enlightened
posture to people with disabilities in line with the International
/Convention On Tithe Rights Of People With Disabilities which was
ratified by the Peoples Republic of China on August 1, 2008.


Posted by rollingrains at November 18, 2008 11:20 PM