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Monday, 22 August 2011

Wheelchairs and Airline Travel

Let's talk about physical disabilities and air travel.

"Up, Up and Away..."

I didn't do any air travel when I was in my wheelchair, but I've traveled several times with my cane. Besides the fact that I'm slower going through the security scans (it takes me more time to put my cane through, take my shoes off, get my computer out of my carry-on, get myself together again on the other side) I haven't really encountered any difficulties beyond what someone with physical disabilities and a mobility aid might expect to experience: my gate has been changed at the last minute and no one's told me, and one time I tried to get on at pre-boarding as instructed at the ticket counter, was told to to sit down and then was later told I should have gotten on at pre-boarding.

But the airlines were also more than willing to deal with those little errors by immediately offering me a ride on a cart to my correct gate, upgrading me, and just generally being pleasant and very nice to deal with. I really have no complaints.

Others with physical disabilities haven't been so lucky.

"...taking his legs and dismantling them and giving them back broken."


I had no idea that they dismantled wheelchairs to make room on flights.

http://www.kfor.com/news/local/kfor-airline-returns-mans-wheelchair-in-pieces-20110817,0,6355799.story

As long as my journey back to mobility was, I've never known what's like to have to give up my walking aid to a stranger, knowing that they're going to take it apart and trusting that they're going to get it back to me in one piece. I imagine that if you fly a lot in a wheelchair, you learn to live with that reality, but I would think that there's always got to be some anxiety behind it. We talked in the posts about disability sensitivity about how even having another person even touch or lean on a wheelchair can be anxiety-producing for its owner, because the chair really is a part of the owner's personal space. Imagine being presented with that part of yourself in pieces at the end of a flight by people that you'd entrusted it to.

And apparently this happens more that we hear about, when in many cases it's not necessary to break down the chair.

Before dismissing this story as a man being a "victim", as one of the commenters did, just think about it. Think about feeling physically powerless for a few flight, on the understanding that you'll get your power back when you land - and then you don't.

Think about how it feels to be respected so little, that people hand your legs to you in pieces at the end of the flight and just say, "Sorry".

Soon after returning home from Ottawa Rehabilitation Centre, I had to call the Ontario Disability Support Program. I don't remember who I talked to. I've since had many, many positive dealings with them, through work and in my personal life. But I wasn't used to dealing with government services at all that point; I was overwhelmed by my new circumstances and the new information being thrown at me. When I got off the phone, I started to cry.

"What's wrong?" Dad asked.

"They made me feel disabled," I sobbed.

Let's do that to as few people as possible, and let's start by treating people in wheelchairs with respect on the airlines.

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