My name is Callum Russell. I am blind since birth and make use of a long cane. I suffer from a condition called Lebers Congenital Amaurosis, which means that I have no light or colour perception. In other words, I don’t see anything. However, I have never allowed my disability to hold me back. I have a BA in modern Languages, as well as a Masters in European Political and Administrative studies and have just become a trainee fundraiser for a local charity.
Having spent considerable time in the UK and overseas, there are many customer experiences that I could share. But one positive experience which stands out was the treatment I received whilst flying with Tam Airlines (now Latam Airlines) from London Heathrow to Rio De Janeiro. A crew member was assigned to me throughout the flight and was always available if I needed something. When it came to meal times, she would come and serve me a few minutes before everyone else in order to have the time to explain to me where things were and to ensure that eating was as smooth as possible. These may sound like small things, which they are. But these touches meant that I arrived in Rio feeling fresh and ready for two months of back-packing around South America.
By stark contrast, I had the worst customer experience whilst in transit at Newark Airport. When my incoming flight arrived, I was put into a wheelchair, despite the fact that I can walk. The explanation given was that “this is what we do”. When I arrived at US immigration, I was told to put my fingers “on the green screen” and to “look into the camera”. To top it all off, the gate for my connecting flight was changed and all the airport could do was find another passenger to put me on the plane, as they “couldn’t take responsibility for me anymore”. This experience had two consequences. On a practical level, it meant I continued my journey feeling utterly exhausted. But more importantly, my confidence to travel ‘independently was temporarily dented. For some in this situation, their confidence would never have returned.
As a result of my experiences, I run a website called independentgapadvice.org, which seeks to encourage and enable young people to travel and volunteer overseas. The site includes specific advice for people with disabilities, such as how to book assistance when flying and how to self-advocate when staying in hotels, hostels, etc. My message is simple. Disability should never be considered a barrier. It would be great if customer service was always good. But bad customer service provides an opportunity for constructive feedback and generally, people want to learn. My experience at Newark was one of the rare occasions where people didn’t want to improve. But never let such experiences grind you down.