Most disabled people have a tale of nightmare travel, from being abandoned on platforms by railway staff to supposedly ‘step-free’ underground stations being anything but. Ask disabled people about flying, however, and you will unleash a torrent of horror stories. Since I became a wheelchair user, I’ve taken eight flights and not a single one has gone as planned, despite all our advance preparation.
Amongst other things, I’ve experienced my wheelchair not turning up to meet me at the other end and seeing that (hugely expensive) wheelchair being physically flung with zero care onto a baggage carousel. I’ve experienced a range of ‘assistance’, from those who are genuinely considerate and helpful, to people grabbing my chair without asking and directing their questions to my husband instead of me. (If you ever want to make me really angry really quickly, this is the way to do it.)
My own experience of flying with a wheelchair
The worst flying experience I’ve ever had was when I arrived back at Heathrow after a three week holiday in Canada with my family. The transatlantic flight to London had been difficult; my aircraft seat didn’t work, meaning my CRPS leg was in a painful position throughout. (I will be forever grateful to the simply lovely Air Canada steward who went far above and beyond in trying to fix it, even to the level of actually physically dismantling part of the seat to try and make it work. It didn’t, but he tried so hard and was so kind.) I was also already exhausted after an incredible but long trip, travelling across Canada by plane, train and car. By the time we landed the pain was at a level where I was desperately trying not to vomit (this is a pretty common, very embarrassing and publicly shameful feature of my CRPS).
We waited until the plane cleared and Heathrow personnel arrived to transport me down the plane’s gangway in a special, narrow aircraft wheelchair. I’d used one to get on the plane back in Vancouver, so I knew the drill. I carefully explained to the two men ‘helping’ me that my left leg was exquisitely painful and if it got knocked I’d probably start screaming. Again, I’d given exactly the same warning back in Vancouver and everything had been fine so I wasn’t concerned. I should have been.
A Heathrow horror story
One staff member positioned himself behind the chair to push and other walked slowly backwards down the aisle in front of us, guiding his colleague to make sure my left leg wasn’t knocked. Unfortunately, he decided that to make absolutely certain my left leg was protected in the narrow aisle, they should push the wheelchair as far to the right as they could. Which meant ramming my right hip and leg into the aircraft seats as I went past them.
The first time this happened I explained it was hurting me and asked them to move into the centre of the aisle. They didn’t. The second time I loudly said “Ow” (because trust me, it hurt – the bruise that developed was proof of that) and told them they had to push me in the centre of the aisle. They didn’t. The third time I cried out in pain and got out of their chair. It had reached the stage where the crippling pain of trying to walk the whole length of the plane was going to be better than enduring this torturous wheelchair trip.
The man in charge of the wheelchair assistance didn’t like this much. He tried to argue with Ben, my husband and meanwhile I struggled through the aircraft, bursting into tears from the pain and the nastiness of the confrontation. The Heathrow man started to get aggressive and was told in no uncertain terms by my lovely Air Canada steward that he needed to leave right now as Ben was starting to look murderous. Eventually, after a lot of arguing, he did.
Second class citizens
Finally I made it to the plane doorway where, thankfully, my own chair was waiting for me. I was sobbing, in agony, mortified, and apologising to everyone I could see for causing such a fuss. Again, my lovely Air Canada steward was lovely: he gently pointed out that I had no reason whatsoever to apologise, that he was devastated that my terrible experience had occurred on his watch and that if he saw his wife in as much pain then he would have been just as angry as Ben was. He gave me a big hug while I cried on his shoulder and it made a truly terrible situation a little bit better. The whole thing was absolutely one of the worst experiences I’ve had as a disabled person.
The really sad thing is that I’m not even slightly alone. Google anything to do with disabled flying and you will find story after story of terrible things happening to disabled passengers, from wheelchairs being irreparably damaged to people being left waiting for hours for the help they need to disembark. This is one of the few times I’ve genuinely felt like a second-class citizen due to my disability and it is absolutely unacceptable.
Government announces new proposals for disabled flyers
So the recent news that ministers are considering new measures to improve the experience for disabled passengers is very welcome. The raft of measures proposed include limiting the amount of time passengers have to wait for help with boarding and disembarking and ensuring that they get their own wheelchairs back quickly. This would be achieved by making airlines create priority storage for wheelchairs so that they’re easily available on landing.
The government is also looking at whether airlines should be made to remove seats so that wheelchairs could be allowed in the cabin, rather than disabled passengers having to transfer to regular airline seats. This measure has been campaigned for by a considerable number of people for a considerable amount of time and could improve the experience of flying immeasurably for many wheelchair users.
In early 2019 the government will publish its new aviation strategy and we’ll know, what, if any of these recommendations will be implanted.
Is it enough?
While there’s little doubt that any and/or all of these measures will improve the experience of disabled travellers, you do have to ask whether they go far enough. The last thing disabled people want is special treatment; all we want is the same level of experience everyone else has. I don’t know if these new measures will be enough to ensure that.
Certainly the current situation on commercial aircraft leaves the disabled experience lagging far behind the able-bodied one. Forcing airlines to improve facilities for disabled people is a great move, but what really changes the paradigm is the way that people react to those with differing needs. If the Heathrow wheelchair assistance had just listened to me and tried to work with me, then all of this could have been avoided. If they’d displayed the empathy and compassion that my lovely Air Canada steward did then it could actually have been a great experience. What truly changes things is the way that people relate to other people and this is the single simplest and cheapest way that air travel could be revolutionised for disabled travellers.