For Wheelchair Users, Air Travel Can Be a Nightmare—but It Doesn’t Have to Be

More should be done to accommodate disabled travelers in airports and on planes.

Unpacked: Accessible Travel

Wheelchairs are extensions of bodies—intimate, personalized, and expensive objects that make the world as accessible as a plane.

Illustration by Terri Po

This story is part of Unpacked, a series that explores some of the biggest questions about traveling responsibly. Read more columns on the Unpacked home page—and be sure to subscribe to the podcast.

I tend to steel myself for the experience of getting from a curb to my airline seat, regardless of how crowded the airport may be or how long the flight is. My parents met in the travel industry and I have a multicultural family based throughout the world, so it isn’t the overall environment that gives me pause—in fact, ever since I was a kid I knew how to pack and progress through a security line efficiently.

Bracing myself has to do with the fact that I have cerebral palsy, which mostly affects my legs. Because I can’t walk for long distances without pain, I use wheelchairs to make airports more manageable. In these instances, my disability is a thing to be managed by a string of strangers, and I’m tasked with confronting hurdles that are never easy to predict.

For starters, the waiting section to get a wheelchair for assistance to a gate is almost always set several paces from the ticket counter. The attendants who take passengers on this journey do so on a first-come, first-serve basis, but numerous attendants throughout the country have told me that they’re often understaffed and underpaid by a contracted company that’s generally separate from the airlines and airports they serve. Often, this creates situations where there are too many passengers en route and too few people to help.

Fellow disabled passengers and I have routinely shared our departure times with one another, giving up our place in line in case another person’s flight is sooner than ours. But that’s when there’s someone specific in charge of this waiting section, which isn’t guaranteed. If someone isn’t available to manage our names, ticket numbers, and gates—and relay that information to attendants spread throughout terminals—we can be forgotten. Sometimes this task is a seamless few minutes of en-route-to-security small talk with attendants, and other times it’s nearer to half an hour before someone comes to sweep me away. On the familiar occasion that the wait pushes past an hour, which has happened to me in Portland, Minneapolis, San Francisco, and New York City, I weigh whether I can withstand walking on my own in order not to miss my flight. At least I have that option, although it can risk injury.

If other disabled passengers and I aren’t overlooked but flight schedules outnumber attendants, then they have to push or drive two or three of us at once like a stressful juggling act. Even if I check in for my flight with hours to go before boarding, it’s never clear how long the process of getting to security will take.

Upon arrival at security, the next obstacle is brushing off pointed stares because wheelchairs are brought to the front of the lines (this occurs again when I’m wheeled in front of others waiting to board and later leave the same plane). It can feel like getting judged from every direction, where how I walk through a metal detector or show my boarding pass from a wheelchair is scrutinized as closely as what’s scanned through the X-rays. I usually want to say something like, “These are the rules, I hate waiting, too!” but that never happens.

As soon as I’m in my seat, I can relax. If I need to, I can go to the bathroom or grab something from the overhead bin. Mostly, I can appear as an average passenger, sitting there with a drink and a few untouched peanuts, settling in for a nap.

These movements aren’t always possible for travelers who use wheelchairs full time, particularly when it comes to the bathroom, and that can create an entirely different set of obstacles. These travelers are stuck in their seats for the full duration of the flight, enduring any pain that may arise because of it. Furthermore, their wheelchairs aren’t optional, nor are they things they are “bound to” in a negative sense. Wheelchairs are extensions of bodies—intimate, personalized, and expensive objects that make the world as accessible as a plane. So when passengers are separated from them and later find out that they’ve been broken in transit, it can cost their lives.

Our disabilities are either pushed out of focus and apart from the crowd or forced into such an acute form of attention as to be viewed as yet another annoyance nondisabled passengers have to tolerate.

I hesitate to share these common experiences in the disabled community, including ones that aren’t my own, since I am very aware of the privileges inherent to air travel. Yet I’d like to uphold two truths in equal measure: Traveling by plane is a luxury, but it often comes at a steeper emotional and physical cost for disabled people. Our disabilities are either pushed out of focus and apart from the crowd or forced into such an acute form of attention as to be viewed as yet another annoyance nondisabled passengers have to tolerate. It can be tiring, infantilizing, and intimidating. A nondisabled friend who once met me at the airport to catch a flight together said the experience was like “seeing a different world.”

It doesn’t have to be this way. In 2018, the American Institutes for Research found that the nearly 20 million working-age and disabled adults in the country have about $490 billion in discretionary spending, which can be used to cross oceans or at least several states. From a business perspective alone, airlines should consider what it would mean to cater to this cohort of millions of Americans more intentionally.

Lowering the height of ticket desks so that wheelchair users could have a conversation over them is one possible solution, as is ensuring a maximum wait time for assistance through security. A more ambitious project, which is technically possible, would be to build future airline fleets that would allow full-time wheelchair users the chance to stay in their own chairs for the duration of the flight, and wider in-flight bathrooms to move around more comfortably.

From a human standpoint, disabled people should also have the right to choose how they’d like to showcase this nuanced aspect of their lives in public. ADA security accommodations exist, but perhaps there can be a specific line and well-trained agents to cut down on the feeling of being a disruption—just as it could be beneficial to ask other passengers not to line up to board until every wheelchair passenger has already been seated.

People with a range of disabilities should be hired by airlines to figure these solutions out, since they know from personal experience how to be treated with dignity. And to help, nondisabled travelers who agree that providing airline access is a civil right can try to enforce it. While ground transportation like trains and subways must provide some form of accommodations under the Americans With Disabilities Act, which passed in 1990, similar yet insufficient regulations for air travel were passed in 1986. Congress introduced an amendment last year that would require changes, but at the moment, it hasn’t moved beyond the initial introduction phase. Getting in touch with your representative to reiterate its importance could provide momentum.

And while those gears turn, if help is obviously needed, ask a disabled traveler if they need assistance before lending a hand. Disabled people should fold more seamlessly into the pursuit of getting from point A to point B and beyond, but until big changes are made, every bit of kindness and cooperation makes a difference.

I’ve taken hundreds of flights in my lifetime, and I’m eager to take more. When I’m up in the air and suspended in my body, I still try to admire the beauty that’s visible after and before the fray of airports. I can get lost in admiring how clouds billow in puffs and sheets above the ocean, or how fields look like verdant quilts of well-planned patchwork. I’ll always smile at the way man-made wonders like the Golden Gate Bridge or natural beauties like the Grand Canyon look from the sky, as if they could fit neatly on the square tray in front of me. Getting from the ground to this perch isn’t exactly pleasurable for most, but it shouldn’t feel as precarious as it does for disabled people. Maybe, one day, it’ll feel as calm as cruising altitude, when all are allowed to coast.

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