A band of newly arrived travelers gathered in a hotel in Cairo for a luncheon to kick off what promised to be a once-in-a-lifetime two-week tour of Egypt.
Then someone in charge called out JoAnn Becker’s name. When they got behind closed doors, the man told Becker: “I’m sorry but you have to fly back to Boston.”
There was no emergency. Her check to the tour company, for thousands of dollars, hadn’t bounced. Yet Becker had a sinking feeling she knew why.
Becker is totally blind.
For years, she traveled the world with her husband, who was sighted. When he died 15 years ago, she vowed to continue experiencing new cultures. She has traveled in groups but without a “walking companion” a dozen times, including twice with Overseas Adventure Travel, the Boston-based travel company that ordered her home from Cairo.
“I’m sorry,” she remembers telling the man who told her to go home. “I’m not going.”
And she didn’t. Becker stayed on with the group tour and had a ball.
International travel in guided groups is a big and growing industry, with some of the largest companies headquartered in Massachusetts. There’s a lot of competition for upper-income baby boomers and seniors. I’m one of the targeted people, apparently because of my age and a few purchases from the National Geographic gift catalog. Fancy brochures with alluring photos of distant lands pop up in my mailbox, along with the usual Jiffy Lube coupons and supermarket circulars.
Tour groups often have to contend with problematic travelers. You know, the one who dawdles in the hotel while the group waits in the bus. Or the one who gets lost, or loses a wallet, or takes a spill down the stairs.
Becker said she’s not that person. And Ellen Mays, who met and befriended Becker on the Egypt trip, said the biggest offender was a French woman who refused to adhere to the schedule.
“She was much more of a problem than JoAnn,” said Mays. “JoAnn’s blind, but she’s not impaired.”
Yet it would be hard to imagine someone being sent home for being imperious (or French).
Becker managed quite well on the Nile. Overseas Adventure Travel arranged for some extra assistance, though Becker and Mays said little was actually required.
But when Becker signed up this year to go to Vietnam, the company said no.
The travel company contends it told Becker she could go on the trip if she found a traveling companion. Becker remembers it as the company saying she couldn’t go because she’s blind.
Becker told me she smoldered over the slight for months. Then she came across this new consumer column in the Globe. Like many blind or visually impaired people, Becker has a service that reads the newspaper aloud.
“I want to dispel the myth that the blind can’t travel alone,” she said. “It’s like saying the blind can’t manage to cook and clean. I’ve developed alternative techniques to maintain my independence.”
No doubt, Becker is a dynamo. She told me she reads constantly (and belongs to a book club with sighted friends) and has traveled to more than 40 countries. A Wellesley College graduate, she is a marketing and technology professional. (She is not revealing her age to me, except to say she’s about my age. And I’m not getting any more specific, either.)
During our interview, Becker motioned to me to stand so she could take my arm. “This is the accommodation I need most often, to take an arm as we walk,” she said. Believe me, it didn’t seem much of an imposition, in part, I suppose, due to her charm and grace.
Overseas Adventure Travel told me in an e-mail that travelers must be able to handle the rigors of the company’s trips on their own. When I asked about the Cairo incident, the company said travelers are sent home “when someone’s safety is in question.” The trip coincided with the Arab Spring, when Cairo was a cauldron of political and civil unrest.
I’m sure Overseas Adventure Travel cares about Becker’s well-being. But I think it cares most about its own well-being when it ducks having a blind person on one of its trips. Perhaps it worries that the rest of the group will feel inconvenienced by someone who needs a bit more assistance.
I talked to half a dozen people in the travel industry. This issue does not arise very often, but when it does, there’s no easy answer, they said.
“It’s a sticky situation,” said Karen McCrink of Atlas Travel, one of New England’s largest travel companies. “The bottom line is the person’s safety. But deciding whether she’s capable to go on her own, that’s a tough call.”
Sue Bramhall runs a travel company, Mind’s Eye Travel of Camden, Maine, that caters to the blind and visually impaired (she is a member of that group, having gradually lost her sight).
“We all want to be independent,” she told me. “We don’t like to be told no.”
At the same time, Bramhall admits to being torn. After all, she screens out people in wheelchairs. “We’re not set up for that. That’s not our mission.”
Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act almost 30 years ago to get people like Becker (blind since birth) and Bramhall out of the shadows and into the mainstream. It says businesses can’t exclude disabled people from participating in their services.
Instead, the law tells those businesses to try a little harder to make it work. They must make reasonable accommodations for the disabled.
Kathleen Engel, a Suffolk Law professor who specializes in employment discrimination law, said that Overseas Adventure Travel probably illegally discriminated against Becker because there was no effort to accommodate her, except to demand a companion. “I think she would win in a lawsuit,” she said.
But Jeffrey Ment, a Connecticut lawyer who represents tour operators, disagreed. He said requiring a companion is the only thing that makes sense.
“A blind person could fall down and get hit by a car,” he said. “They’re not in their living rooms.”
During the several days I traded e-mails with Overseas Adventure Travel, the company’s position evolved. At first, it was a confusing mixture of “you can’t go if you can’t handle it on your own” and “you can’t go unless you have a companion.” But later the company said it would help pay for assistance if Becker goes to Vietnam.
“We are happy to partner with her by hiring, and sharing the cost of, someone in Vietnam who can assist her as needed,” the company said late last week, without saying how much it was willing to spend.
Becker said she doesn’t want to pay more than anyone else and is tired of Overseas Adventure Travel making assumptions about what she can and can’t do. She’d like a less patronizing attitude and an apology.
I think Overseas Adventure Travel deserves some credit for its offer to Becker, which came under the glare of my attention. But the company should go further by picking up the entire tab for a traveling assistant, if one is actually needed. It’s a relatively small expense for a big company to accommodate her.
But for Becker and those like her it’s hugely important to be world travelers who happen to be blind, instead of blind travelers.
Paul Saner, head of the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind, said he is outraged that Becker was denied the opportunity to travel.
“Blind people just want to enjoy all that life has to offer,” he said.