As a disabled person, I now expect to be treated poorly in airports

My first time using a wheelchair was back in 2013.

I was 18 and on my way to Morocco with my family. Looking back, I can’t help but see it as my rude awakening into life as a disabled person — disabled not by my body, but by barriers in society.

I’d dropped out of university in December, just weeks before, because a series of health problems had snowballed during my first term, forcing me to postpone my studies.

I was exhausted, in a fog of fatigue, and it had become almost impossible for me to walk. I could manage only a few steps before my legs would turn weak, heavy and useless, like I was wading through custard. 

I saw many different doctors, who suggested that my symptoms could be anything from anxiety to chronic fatigue syndrome, but they couldn’t come to any conclusion. All I knew for certain was that my body now behaved differently — and that I could walk only a short distance. 

But we’d booked this trip months before, so when the time finally came around, we weren’t keen to cancel. We needed a holiday — and I was determined not to let my health get in the way.

So we set off, with some nerves but mostly anticipation. 

It was my first time booking ‘special assistance’ — the service which helps disabled or elderly passengers to safely navigate an airport and board a flight.

We’d taken a taxi to the terminal, so I hadn’t had to move too much. But on arrival, I was met with my first obstacle: the special assistance desk was located not at the entrance, but deep into Departures. Somehow, I would have to get there on foot.

My brothers suggested that I sit on the luggage trolley like it was a makeshift wheelchair. They wheeled me like this through the airport to the special assistance desk where I was given a real wheelchair, pushed through security, and given priority to board the plane. So far, smooth enough. 

It was when we landed that I faced my second barrier; this one attitudinal.

I was met by a special assistance attendant who wore a permanent smirk and kept asking me why I needed the wheelchair. At the time, I still didn’t have a diagnosis, so this wasn’t an easy question for me to answer. I told him simply that ‘I had an illness that makes it hard for me to walk’, to which he replied that I was ‘too young’ and looked ‘too well’ to need a wheelchair. I felt ashamed, like I was somehow guilty, and I worried that maybe I would never be believed, because my illness was invisible.

Thankfully, these days I do have a diagnosis: I know that I have several invisible conditions, including Ehlers Danlos Syndrome (EDS) and Postural Tachycardia Syndrome (PoTS). EDS is a connective tissue disorder, which affects everything from my joints to my digestion, and PoTS is a dysfunction of the autonomic nervous system, causing fatigue, faintness, palpitations and headaches. 

But these days I know better: that disabled people don’t have to disclose the intimate details of our medical conditions just to get the basic access that we deserve.

The attendant wheeled me reluctantly through security. Then suddenly, without a word he disappeared, leaving me in the corner of the airport, my wheelchair facing a wall. The experience was humiliating. 

When my family eventually found me – as they had to go through separately –  they were shocked, but we were still all new to the lived reality of being disabled. We brushed this off as a singular bad experience and didn’t complain. 

But, unfortunately, this was not the last time I experienced inaccessible air travel. 

Airports may have introduced measures like disability awareness training, but until there is clear communication and access is stream-lined between airports and their airlines, disabled travellers will continue to suffer degrading experiences.

Four years later, in Italy, the special assistance that I had booked to meet me from a flight failed to show up. By this point, thanks to extensive physiotherapy I was able to walk slightly longer distances, but I still needed a wheelchair to get me through because it’s always such a long way to walk to the gate.

I was with my friends and it was our first holiday as a group, and I didn’t want to slow us down or throw up a fuss – so I accepted it, and decided to try to get through security on my own. The queue for passports took over an hour, and the room — in the heat of an Italian summer — was boiling. But since I didn’t ‘look disabled’, I worried that if I spoke up and asked for help, I wouldn’t be believed; I still had the memory of that rude special assistance attendant at the back of my mind. I sat on my wheelie bag and my friend fanned me when I almost fainted. 

But my worst travel experience happened in 2018; this time, on home ground. 

We had landed after a return flight from Madeira when the flight attendants announced that all passengers requiring special assistance would be driven to Passport Control in a separate buggy. We were isolated from our friends and families but assured that we would soon be reunited.

After a long wait on the plane, we were made to board a small van and were driven to a room just off the tarmac. An attendant told us that someone would come and pick us up; then she left, locking the doors behind her. The only exit was a towering staircase, which clearly, none of us could climb. So we waited. I phoned my family and they tried to find me, but none of us could work out what room I was in, and the airport staff were no help in trying to reunite us. 

It was almost two hours before we were picked up. Some of the group were crying, others had missed their connecting flights and all of us needed the loo. Once we got home, we complained — but the short apologetic email did little to alleviate the harm that was caused. The airport blamed the airline and the airline blamed the airport. There was no explanation, and certainly no compensation.

But these experiences are not mine alone. They happen to disabled travellers all the time. 

Last month, an Irish swimmer tweeted that his wheelchair was ‘destroyed’ by the airline on his way to Tokyo for the Paralympic Games. In the US a few months earlier, a viral TikTok showed a disabled passenger in distress after her wheelchair was broken by the airline. ‘This is my life,’ she sobs. ‘This is the only way I can live my life.

But the problem doesn’t stop at broken wheelchairs and snail-paced ‘special assistance’.

A 2021 study by AbleMove found that 62% of disabled passengers restrict their food or fluids before a flight because airplane toilets aren’t accessible. The same study reported wheelchair users suffering injuries and having bad experiences during transfers, with 60% of respondents having had their wheelchairs damaged during travel. 

Unless these incidents happen to someone high-profile (eg. Frank Gardner or Sophie Morgan), they rarely make the mainstream media.

But the pandemic has shown us that air travel can change: from PCR tests to a ‘traffic light’ system to flexible tickets, airlines and airports have had to quickly adapt to protect the health of all of us. 

It’s a shame then, that we don’t see accessibility as being for all of us. Especially as one in five of us is disabled; our bodies all have changing needs as we age; and many of us will experience temporary impairments, like pregnancy or a twisted ankle. 

The United Nations defines ‘accessibility’ as the right to ‘participate fully in all aspects of life’. Travel is a part of life: our disabilities shouldn’t determine whether or not we get to see the world.

So, as borders reopen, restrictions are lifted and planes return to our skies, let’s start over. Let’s pressure the aviation industry to include disabled people; to update its attitudes and its infrastructure.

Because disabled people aren’t asking for seats in business class or complimentary champagne.

What we want is simple. To safely board a plane. Order an overpriced Bloody Mary. Get tipsy with the altitude. Empty our bladders. And land on the ground with our wheelchairs – and our dignity – intact.

That doesn’t sound like special assistance. It sounds like a human right.

Do you have a story you’d like to share? Get in touch by emailing [email protected] 

Share your views in the comments below.

Source: Read Full Article