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Travel company offers blind woman free trip

Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

JoAnn Becker.

By Globe Staff 

The chairman of the Boston travel company that turned away a blind woman who signed up for a group trip to Vietnam issued an apology to her on Wednesday and offered her and a guest a free trip of her choice “as a gesture of good faith.”

The plight of JoAnn Becker, who has been totally blind since birth, was featured in a front-page column in The Boston Globe on Tuesday, sparking widespread and sometimes passionate discussion among readers, both for and against her.

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In his letter to Becker, Alan Lewis, chairman of the company, wrote that he took full responsibility “for the way your trip was handled. I am very sorry and saddened by the way our organization communicated with you. I apologize to you, the community, and our travelers.”

Lewis said his family “has always stood behind human rights and strived to change people’s lives through travel,” citing more than 35 years of work on behalf of “people in need” by two family foundations.

“Our culture is one of caring and compassion,” Lewis wrote. “We certainly did not exhibit this in your situation. I would like to offer you, and a guest, a free trip of your choice as a gesture of good will.”

In an e-mail to company employees, which was posted by a reader on the travelers forum, Lewis was blunt: “The way we communicated with —and about —Ms. Becker was poor and patronizing, and I have personally apologized to her.”

Lewis said that Becker “is quite able, but when traveling to less developed countries, she will need (and has needed) support. We will provide Ms. Becker with the assistance she needs in a way that will support the tour and maintain the pacing and integrity of the itinerary.

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“We believe that by taking these actions, Ms. Becker will be able to fully — and much more easily—realize her dream of experiencing the world,” he wrote.

A spokeswoman for Overseas Adventure Travel did not respond Thursday to an e-mail and telephone message.

Becker, in an interview, said “I appreciate his apology because I was not treated in a respectful way.” She said she will accept the offered trip “in the spirit of the nice gesture it was intended to be.”

Many readers called it outrageous that Becker, who has traveled to more than 40 countries, would be denied the chance to travel once again with Overseas Adventure Travel, a Boston-based company and industry leader in small-group international travel to places like Egypt and India.

“I hope that Ms. Becker is able to travel wherever she wishes, kudos to her for her curiosity and courage,” one reader wrote.

But comments posted on the Globe column and on an online forum for people who have traveled with Overseas Adventure Travel included some faulting Becker for even considering a trip to Southeast Asia.

“The problem is that she expects other guests to assist her,” a reader wrote. “That is very selfish.”

In the column, Becker recounted that when she reached Cairo on the first day of trip with Overseas Adventure Travel several years ago a company manager abruptly ordered her to fly home because she is blind. She refused and completed the trip with the group, with a minimum of extra assistance, she said.

After signing up for the Vietnam trip this year, Becker got a call from the company. It contends that Becker was told she could go on the trip if she found a traveling companion. Becker remembers it as the company telling her she couldn’t go because she’s blind.

Becker says she is capable for traveling without a companion. She says she occasionally needs to take an arm when walking, preferably of a guide hired in the country she is visiting on an ad hoc basis, as she has done on some previous trips.

A graduate of Wellesley College and a marketing and technology professional, Becker leads an independent life.

Becker said some of the comments she read in the aftermath of the column have been painful. “It’s obvious that a lot of people have a lot of misconceptions about blind people. They don’t think I’m independent enough to do much of anything. My God, by the sound of it, they think I am unable to cut up my food.”

“I don’t consider myself disabled. I am blind. I took my niece to Greece last year on a cruise. It was a large ship. It was so interesting that she couldn’t find our room but I could. To me, it was a no-brainer. Once I am shown where my room is, I don’t need to be shown again. Because I work out ways of knowing how to get back to it.

“People make such assumption about what I can and can not do. I know that in a developing country, some roads will be unpaved. So it would be easier and safer if I walk with someone.”

Becker said she is hoping to have the chance to sit down with Overseas Adventure Travel officials.

“This is not about this trip alone,” she said. “I want a plan that is fair to me, fair to Overseas Adventure Travel, and fair to others on the trip. Travel groups should have something in place that make sense to everyone.”

.   .   .

In an earlier column, I wrote about on the practices of debt collectors and pointed out that more lawsuits are filed in Massachusetts courts over credit card claims than any other dispute — tens of thousands of them. The column dealt with law firms that are sometimes accused of intimidating mostly low-income people, many of whom do not know their Social Security, veteran’s benefits, and other income is protected.

On Thursday, Attorney General Maura Healey announced that the largest debt collection law firm in the state and its two owners have agreed to pay $1 million in restitution and significantly change their practices after being sued by her office for widespread consumer abuses impacting thousands of consumers.

A settlement against Lustig, Glaser & Wilson, and its two principals, Ronald E. Lustig and Kenneth C. Wilson, alleges they routinely sued consumers for debts they did not owe or debts that were inaccurate, and consistently violated state law and abused the court system in their pursuit of debts.

“We cooperated with the attorney general’s office in its investigation,” the Lustig firm said in a statement. “We negotiated a resolution of the litigation. There are no findings of wrongdoing by the firm or of harm to consumers.”


Sean P Murphy can be reached at smurphy@globe.com
Follow him on Twitter @spmurphyboston.