Thursday, March 7, 2013

Air Travel

Air travel is a hugely revealing experience for people with disabilities. It simultaneously grants us incredible mobility, and throws our incapacities and dependencies into stark relief.

Depending on the type and degree of your disability, and no matter what airline websites and federal regulations say, it can be nearly impossible to get your body onto a passenger aircraft, and entirely impossible to do so with dignity. The boarding, seating, and de-boarding process even divides people with disabilities from each other; quadriplegics have a far worse time than paraplegics, those of us who walk … even unsteadily … find getting on and off the plane to be the easiest part of the whole trip. In fact, as a walker myself, my relative facility for getting on and off a plane efficiently makes me feel more physically capable than I feel on most ordinary days.
Photo of US Airways regional jet in flight
Photo from

If you do need help though, at any stage of the air travel process, you have to come to terms with true helplessness. You have virtually no control over what will happen. Most likely, things will go mostly okay. There are reasonable regulations, and most people mean well. You probably won't die, or be seriously injured. But whatever happens all you can do is put your faith in "the system". Even skilled advocacy may not help. The social rules you live with on ordinary days don't fully apply. The strategies you normally use to cope and carve out areas of independence and choice don't apply in the usual ways. Even non-disabled people who fly regularly know this. It's why so many people of all abilities dread air travel. As a person with a disability, your ability to give up and say "screw you guys, I'm going home" is even more limited.

This is one of those situations where attitude really does make a difference. If you go into air travel thinking that things ought to work the way they're supposed to work, then you'll have a terrible experience, not just physically but psychologically. On the other hand, if you enter air travel world with the understanding that it is almost like a different culture you're entering, then you may be able to protect your self appropriately, get where you're going, and roll with the punches in terms of changing plans and expectations. Plan ahead, for sure. But assume that what actually happens on the day will be different.

As an aside, I've often thought that non-disabled people who want to understand what everyday life is like for people with disabilities should just think about the last time they took a complicated airplane journey. That's what it's like most people with disabilities run our everyday errands.

About the only tool that's about as useful in air travel world as it is in the regular world is money. The Air Carriers Act is an important law and I'd fight if it were ever under threat. What enables me to fly despite my disabilities is mainly a wad of $5 bills to give to people who will help me get me and my stuff through all those interim steps that others take mostly for granted. Car to terminal, to baggage check-in, to a gate that may be steps away or a mile away. And reverse on the other end. $5 bills can really iron out a lot of the wrinkles of traveling with a disability.

Of course, the ultimate liberation is that, ordeal or not, if you can fly at all, you end up just as much in a whole different city … or a whole different continent … as all the non-disabled passengers you flew with. Everybody who flies knows what this hyper-mobility feels like. People with physical disabilities, I think, feel it more keenly.

All of which is on my mind because I'm traveling to North Carolina tomorrow to visit relatives. I'm excited and apprehensive, in equal measure. Wish me luck, because ultimately that's all I've got.