Conference Vienna, part I – ethical asymmetry at the airport


At international conferences the university or institute hosting the conference often provides a list of hotels which are a relatively small distance from the conference site. The hotels on this list are usually neither the cheapest nor the cosiest, but rather well-suited for grave and grey professors. Since I am neither grave nor grey I often search for a (youth-)hostel myself. I can’t always find hostels that are close to the conference, but the nice thing about hostels is that they force you to have some social interaction. When I had found a suitable hostel near to the University of Vienna (which was the place the conference was held) it was time to book a flight.

In daily life, as I told you earlier, I make use of a tricycle. I even enter supermarkets riding on it. The obvious alternative, a wheelchair, is impractical for me because due to my spasticity I can’t use my left arm to spin the wheels of a wheelchair. Travelling by plane pretty much rules out the tricycle as possible mode of transport when I’m abroad, because it costs a small fortune to take the trike with me. A wheelchair it is then. Because I have ‘special needs’ – such as the wheelchair – I often opt for one of the larger airlines to fly with, because their service towards disabled travellers is better than the service provided by smaller airlines (matters are even worse with the so-called low-cost airlines).  For my trip to Vienna I chose to fly with KLM, the Royal Dutch Airline. To travellers in a wheelchair KLM provides ‘wheelchair assistance’, which you can simply ask for during the check-in at the counter (officially you need to book this in advance, but I never do that).

The lady who checked my passport and printed my boarding pass told me to report to the special ‘disability counter’ and there await being picked up for a wheelchair-push to the gate from which my flight was to depart. At the disability counter they told me to take a seat in their waiting room and wait for one of their colleagues. I looked around and I saw four rows of chairs most of which were empty, save for a somberly gazing elder couple and a Japanese girl with a rather blank stare. I sat down in, or rather stumbled into, one of the chairs in the row closest to me. The Japanese girl sat in the same row, with several empty chairs in between. I was about to start reading the book I had brought with me, when I noticed that the girl’s blank stare hadn’t changed direction since I first saw her. She was blind. While I was busy trying to imagine what it must be like to be blind I suddenly realized that I was staring at her. People often stare at me too. Especially when I ride my tricycle. I can understand why people stare. At my tricycle in the supermarket, naturally, but also at my tricycle in general, out on the street. I think people stare for the simple reason that they do not often see tricycles – let alone tricycles with adults on it. This curiosity for the outlandish, as I see it, has a significant advantage. When I meet people I don’t know they are often favourably inclined to having a conversation; they want to find out why I’m on a tricycle.

Blindness probably also induces the curiosity of strangers, but for blind people it is more difficult than for me to exploit this curiosity (if they even want to) because they can’t see the people with whom they could potentially have a nice conversation – life is not fair. I decided then and there that I would not let this particular girl be the victim of such ethical asymmetry. I decided to start a conversation with her. It turned out that she wasn’t as helpless as she seemed: she had been in the Netherlands to represent the Japanese Society for Blind Athletes. After learning about each other’s jobs and impairments and exchanging other pleasantries we decided to go for a coffee, as we had to wait another 30 minutes before one of the airport’s crewmembers would come to pick us up. I was a bit alarmed because I didn’t know how far we needed to walk to the nearest coffee bar. I had told Tomoe (I don’t know whether that was her first or last name; the other name was Takada) I could only walk very short distances, but perhaps she had misunderstood? Her English was not perfect, to put it mildly, so perhaps she didn’t even know I was disabled? I became even more alarmed when she asked me whether it was ok to hold my arm because she didn’t know the route to the bar. I told her that I would do my best and started lumbering out of the waiting room with the Japanese girl clasping my arm. I must admit that I felt a little proud at the situation; I didn’t feel like the handicapped one for a change. So we had coffee and our ways parted; hers back to Tokyo, and mine to Vienna. For a very brief period of time the half-spastic man was king in the land of the blind.

About fbenedictus

Philosopher of physics at Amsterdam University College and Utrecht University, managing editor for Foundations of Physics and international paraclimbing athlete
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