On Sunday, March 4, my friend Mika Pyyhkala was not permitted to participate in a public tour of the USS John F. Kennedy aircraft carrier in Boston Harbour. Age old, unproven stereotypes concerning possible safety concerns were trotted out as the reason. The National Federation of the Blind has become involved in this incident on Mika’s behalf. The organization issued the following press release vowing to take action.

Numerous articles have been written in newspapers and posted on blogs concerning this issue, but I think it is absolutely critical that the most important point not become lost. Blindness, by itself, has not ever been proven to present any more or less of a safety concern in participation in any particular activity than it is for an average sighted person. It has, in fact, been my personal experience that any safety issues that have arisen concerning my blindness have often involved the lack of attention on the part of one or more sighted people. For example, I was hit by a sighted driver of a truck who was in a hurry and talking on his cell phone while crossing a street in February of 1997. Right now, we’re talking about the military’s denial of a tour of an aircraft carrier. But, we could just as easily be talking about a Child Protective Services agency taking a child away from his or her parents simply because those parents happen to be blind. We all take our chances as we live, and safety concerns surrounding blindness are most often simply unproven, and probably unprovable, stereotypes not based in fact.

Aside from the initial stereotypical safety concerns, the U.S. Navy officer was quick to emphasize the large number of sighted people being allowed to participate in the tour and the lack of an available person to accompany Mika. This concept that it is somehow acceptable to pat us on the head and toss us aside without a thought simply because it is inconvenient or people are simply “too busy” to bother with us is absolutely wrong and should be found personally offensive by all blind human beings. This “too busy” situation is encountered entirely too often when blindness involves the need for reasonable accomodations in order to fully participate. I have dealt with staff in doctor’s offices who attempted, totally without success due to my persistence, to avoid helping me with paperwork by claiming to be “too busy” to help. Sometimes, such people expect me to be accompanied by a sighted person who can act as a “caregiver” with whom they would probably feel more comfortable dealing rather than bothering with me directly.

As a blind community, whether aligned with ACB, NFB or neither consumer organization, we must do everything possible to vigorously confront the safety stereotype and the improper “too busy” mentality that is too frequently used to deny us access. I hope ACB and NFB will find a way to join forces in an attempt to challenge the military on this issue from a public relations perspective. The Navy should apologize to Mika for the initial outright denial of access and provide him with a full private tour of the USS John F. Kennedy. Members of the media should accompany Mika to document his safe, successful tour of the ship.