Martine Abel-Williamson presents at the National Federation of the Blind

By Martine Abel-Williamson, World Blind Union Treasurer

In July I attended and presented at the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) Convention in Las Vegas. The NFB Conventions are the largest gatherings of blind persons in the world. I presented on behalf of the WBU, updating people on our current work, with particular focus on our initiatives in the areas of access to the environment and transport.

There were altogether 3,284 persons that registered for the convention, 82 of them from outside the US, including from Canada, Australia, India and various European and African countries. Before I left New Zealand, I emailed the links to the convention website as well as when and how people can listen in to it being live streamed and where presentations can be located afterwards to email listservs so that blind persons here can be connected and stay in touch. I’ve also emailed people information about the equipment and technology hard- and software that was available in an exhibition that formed part of the convention. New devices such as the Victor Trek, very much like the Victor Stream but with in-built GPS capability was promoted. People could also sign up with Lyft (which is like Uber) to have a ride in an autonomous vehicle between hotels on the Strip. Aira was available for free at the hotel during the convention duration. This is a software app which allow users to call a professionally trained person to direct and guide you to where you wish to go, read the print on items for you, etc.

Rideshare is a big deal in the States and I made use of the opportunity while there to travel in a Lyft, opting to go with rideshare. So, a Lyft car turned up with 2 passengers in it already to pick me up to go to a vet and on the way to the vet we dropped these 2 passengers off to where they wanted to go. You pay less via credit card than would have been the case if you opted for your own vehicle, but it was interesting to give it a go. I had to text the driver when he arrived, for one simply receives notification on your phone of the arrival of your driver, their contact details and that they’ll be leaving say within 72 seconds if you don’t make your way to the vehicle, so, I texted him to come and fetch me where I was waiting on a bench outside the hotel. It was too hot on dogs’ paws to wait on the footpath near where taxis would be parking.

At the convention exhibition there were also guide dog products such as sports harnesses in a variety of colours to make it modern and attractive, different kinds of travel bowls, harness pouches, and more.

Then there were various fares or summits on such as an employment fare where pre-registered job seekers could have interviews with any of up to 40 employers. I’ve met people who actually got interviewed and job offers while at the convention.

Blind persons could sign up for professional acting classes, various sports demonstrations and craft making opportunities just to name some of the side streams of what was on at the convention.

We had great presentations from the International Automobile Association and Google around accessible design of autonomous vehicles, acknowledging the importance for blind persons to be involved as a major new future stakeholder with skin in the game.

In my presentation I focussed on initiatives in the areas of how we work with the automobile industry to have autonomous and self-driving vehicles accessible for blind persons, expansion of audio described opportunities, Smart Cities work progress and access to international and flight travel.

I informed convention attendees of our huge WBU opportunity to be presenting to, thus advocating in person, in September, at the upcoming International Civil Aviation Organisation conference, to be held in Toronto, where WBU and the Canadian National Institute of the Blind (CNIB) will be advocating around adoption of a resolution to improve matters to do with international travel which include:

  • Access to self-serving kiosks in airports,
  • Access of guide dogs traveling,
  • Access to in-flight entertainment and contacting airline staff systems, etc.

I decided to test the waters in terms of access to traveling internationally with a guide dog by taking Westin (my guide dog) to the States with me. The most recent guide dog travel related research was done by me and my WBU Working Group in 2015 and I thought that now, 4 years later, will be a good opportunity to back research up with experiential evidence.

So, as early as April I started to prepare for Westin to travel with me. One needs to start way in advance when traveling with a guide dog, as all kinds of blood tests need to be done, some of them to be interpreted in Australia, to comply with our and other countries’ biosecurity requirements, well, especially when you’ll be traveling to a country which still have diseases such as Rabies and Heartworm.

To make a long story short: one would need an export certificate to travel from NZ to another country, an import certificate from the country one is traveling to, and then, an export certificate from that country when leaving to return to NZ.

This exercise was “eye-opening” to say the least. I’ve encountered obstacles such as:

  • Inconsistency of content of documentation provided by our Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI),
  • Vague criteria for veterinarians re what’s required in terms of vaccinations and treatments against internal and external parasites (fleas, ticks, worms, etc.),
  • Lack of information around the availability and need to liaise with a pet travel agency to help consolidate everything,
  • Unavailability while in NZ of veterinarian and United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) contact details to set up appointments until one reaches the States,
  • Airline software processes not working effectively, as my booking with Westin didn’t follow me to the States which caused quite an upheaval when I tried to leave the States,
  • The fact that the overall cost will be a huge obstacle and barrier.

My presentation was commented on positively and I’m still receiving organisational and individual messages around people being surprised and appalled around my experiences traveling with a guide dog and about our great WBU initiatives in general. I’m now needing to write this all up in some kind of report.

I’ve met guide dog handlers from Canada and the States who could acquire EU passports for their guide dogs to make travel and the storing of relevant information easier and more stream-line, so, surely, we in NZ could collaborate better with others from around the world so that we can have equitable and inexpensive travel options.

Since my return I managed to discuss with the MPI vet service at the airport an upcoming review of certain import and export processes so, I do look forward to this law reform opportunity. I’ll keep you posted. I do hope though that both the Blind Foundation and Blind Citizens will be wishing to collaborate and support systemic advocacy efforts to this regard.

While at the convention I participated in the North America Guide Dog Union (NAGDU) meetings. It gave me the chance to observe what their guide dog handlers are advocating for. Current hot topic issues are Uber and Lyft drivers discriminating against guide dog handlers, even though the NFB took Uber to court and won the case, forcing Uber to train their drivers better, etc.

Other issues on their radar include: Presence of fake service dogs in the States where people try and take pets with them on public and flight travel transport, saying their dogs are emotionally support and other kinds of service dogs and then when those dogs misbehave, all service dogs are being tarred by the same brush.

Many of their other discussion topics centred around peer support, assisting or advising new or first-time guide dog handlers, supporting handlers who’re in the process of losing their guide dogs, and much more.

Some guide dog handlers put boots or some kind of temporary wax socks on their dogs’ paws because of the heat outside.

There were 6 guide dog schools present during the convention and staff were supportive, especially when I struggled to locate a USDA registered vet to help me complete Westin’s export certificate. It was great to see guide dog school management and staff involved at the same conference as guide dog handlers. I’ve mentioned in previous reports that the same is being observed in Australia.