The Horrifying Truths of Accessible Travel [May, 2023]

The Pains of Accessible Travel  

Flying can be challenging for everyone, unless maybe you’re on a private jet. But when you add a wheelchair into the equation, accessible travel is even more challenging. What are the things you hate the most about flying? The long lines of people going through security, the stress of catching your flight on time, or maybe the thought of losing your luggage?

Pause for a moment, and think of how many people you have seen in wheelchairs at the airport or on your flight. Not many, right? Well it’s because all the things mentioned above are amplified when you’re flying in a wheelchair.

Going through security is a nightmare. Getting on the plane is incredibly difficult. If you lose luggage with medical equipment then you’re screwed. So let me take you on a journey of flying in a wheelchair, and open your eyes to the world of accessible travel. 

Accessible travel
Image shows an empty wheelchair on a beach with an ocean horizon. This symbolizes the difficulties of accessible travel people with disabilities face.

Arriving at the Airport 

The first stage of accessible travel. This is where the fun begins. The beginning isn’t much different for me than for other people. You find your check in desk, they’ll tell you where to go, and then you proceed on to security. This is where the first real headache comes when you’re flying in a wheelchair.

My first experience with going through security was when I was 11, I was flying from Los Angeles(LA) to Vancouver. Two officers pulled aside me and my family. We weren’t allowed to ask questions and they separated me from my family, I started to get freaked out, and I started crying. My mom came to try and calm me down, and give me a hug but they started yelling at her saying she couldn’t touch me or even be near me, which of course freaked me out even more.

The workers then started to try and move my limbs in ways they couldn’t move when I was getting patted down. When I told them that my limbs don’t move like everyone else’s, they told me to stop talking and let them do their job. This experience traumatised me, and the way I was treated made me feel like I wasn’t even human. Surprisingly, 11 year old me didn’t have a bunch of drugs on him, so they let me go. Did I mention that this was my first time flying? Not a great first impression. 

Now you might be thinking that was just a bad experience. Nope! This is a major problem with accessible travel.  Anytime I cross a border or go through an airport I have to get there super early. This is because I know going through customs and security is going to be a long process of getting every inch of my chair swabbed down, getting the bomb sniffing dogs to check out my wheelchair and medical equipment, and then having an officer go through all my belongings and take everything apart. 

Everyone is wondering while in security, what’s the deal with the liquids, and why does my computer need to be separated from my luggage, and do I really need to take my shoes off? Then amplify those questions for me because my wheelchair is part of me. It helps me to move my head, it allows me to move, and then they take it from me because I fit the terrorist profile so closely. A white male who is 21 years old, and has mobility issues.

Getting on the Plane 

Image shows a man sitting in an airport. In the background there is an airplane and the sun is setting.

So now that we’ve gone through security, we get to go on the airplane now. That should be fun right? Well unfortunately with most things regarding accessible travel, it’s another long process. 

My wheelchair has customised seating because I have very little mobility. So the chair is customised to help me move and adjust for comfort. Without it I can’t adjust my head and body. This means that sitting in a regular airplane seat is usually not an option. Thankfully most seats are detachable from the base of the wheelchair, so I could put my seat on the airplane seat. But that would be too easy. For some reason most airlines won’t let you do this for liability concerns. You can say that you’ll sign a waiver but I’ve only ever had that work once, thanks Alaska Airlines, you’re the true North Star of accessible travel!

So if an airline won’t let you fly in your seat, surely they have a solution? They sure do! Sit on the lap of the person you’re flying with. Yup, you read that right. Now I’m not saying this is a regular occurrence, or at least I hope it isn’t. This is what happened to me though. A big issue with accessible travel is the lack of consistency between airports and airlines. You may have a great experience at one place, or have an experience like I had at another place.

I was flying home from Texas to Calgary, and catching a connecting flight from Calgary to Vancouver. When I got to the gate in Texas, Westjet told me I couldn’t use my seat on the airplane, when I told them that I literally can’t sit on the airplane seats they basically told me to figure it out. The solution they offered was to sit on my dad’s lap. Now I love my dad, but no 17 year old wants to sit on their dad’s lap for 4 hours, and neither did my dad. It was a very long and uncomfortable 4 hours, they offered us a free blanket but that didn’t really solve the issue. 

After landing in Calgary, I went to the gate where my next flight would be. I talked to the Westjet staff and told them what just happened, they told me that was horrible and should never happen. Now they didn’t actually do anything, because I had to do the same thing again flying to Vancouver, but hey, at least they felt bad.

Getting the Wheelchair on the Plane 

Wheelchairs are very expensive. Mine is in the $30,000 range. If anything happens to my wheelchair while on vacation, it can turn a time of relaxation into a time of stress very quickly. This is a part of accessible travel that often is overlooked. When you’re not on vacation it can be difficult to find someone who can fix your wheelchair, but if you’re in a foreign city that you barely know it’s almost impossible to find a place to fix your wheelchair. If you do find a place that can fix your chair in a different city then you could be out of pocket for a lot of money, and if you don’t find a place then you lose the ability to have any independence.

I was catching a flight from Vancouver to Seattle to catch another plane to Texas. From my window seat I could see the crew putting my chair in the storage area of the plane. I’ve been in some really stressful situations but this, this takes the cake. I watched them nearly drop it on it’s side 3 separate times. Then I watched 3 men walk around my wheelchair like monkeys that just saw fire for the first time for about half an hour, when the pilot came up to me and asked what kind of battery it had. Once I told him he said “oh I should have asked you sooner that would have saved a lot of time”. 

People are starting to get annoyed at this point, and asking questions. So the pilot gets a genius idea to make an announcement to the whole plane, it went something like this “we are having trouble loading someone’s wheelchair in the plane, we are sorry for the inconvenience”. Now as much as I like to think I blend in, I don’t. So the mystery of who’s wheelchair it was, didn’t need a detective. When we landed in Seattle, I got a lot of dirty looks as people were getting off the flight. At least my chair survived with minimal damage.

Getting off the plane 

The easiest and most relaxing part of accessible travel. It can take a little bit for the ground crew to bring my wheelchair to the gate, I like to imagine them taking my chair for a little joyride. There’s been a couple times I’ve received it at the gate where either my battery has been unplugged or something happens to be bent weirdly. Thankfully I’ve never had my chair so damaged I couldn’t fix it myself.

Making Accessible Travel Accessible 

Image shows a handicapped a yellow parking spot with tire marks visible.

As you have hopefully picked up by now, accessible travel really isn’t all that accessible. But what can be changed? Well, it’s actually quite simple… better education and training. Not everything, but most difficulties people with disabilities face can be fixed with just more awareness.

The other thing that needs to change, is the ability to bring your wheelchair onto the plane. There have been studies showing that if you can tie down a wheelchair similar to a wheelchair accessible van, then the wheelchair would be safe to fly. This could also greatly increase profits for airlines by opening the door to large group of people that currently avoid flying.

With new regulations, and changes on how people view flying, this is the perfect time to implement ways to allow ALL people to fly. While Inclusivity is also finally becoming a bigger priority for people, I think if an airline made the right steps to ensure people of all abilities could travel they would gain a lot of respect. As always, I’m excited to see what the future holds.

This summer I’ll be exploring LA, and San Diego. I’ll be flying on a different track… a train. I’ll let you know how travelling on a train compares to flying in a wheelchair.

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