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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Travel and Gross Inequities

At no point in my life is the discrimination against people with a disability more evident than when I use mass transportation. Buses, trains, and planes all present significant barriers. Legislation designed to enforce the rights of people with disabilities date back to the late 1970s and early 1980s yet access barriers remain the norm. In terms of mass transportation I believe the airline industry is by far the most discriminatory. The aviation industry has a long history of blatant violations against passengers with disabilities. Year after year major American airlines such as Northwest, Delta and United are fined for violating the civil rights of passengers with a disability. No commercial airline has been spared from vehement complaints levied by people with disabilities. Based on my experience people with disabilities, especially those such as myself that use a wheelchair, have good reason to complain. In fact when I travel by plane regardless of the carrier I feel as though I am going to war.

When I leave my home for the airport I assume I will encounter needless architectural barriers and blatant discrimination by airline employees. This is the norm and it starts in parking lots where handicapped parking is often full, curb cuts totally absent, blocked or located in the wrong place. When I get to the terminal elevators are often locked or located in obscure locations. Finding an airline employee or security guard that knows how to unlock or find a key to turn on an elevator is always an adventure. These problems arise at old and new airports. Thus by the time I get through security and to the gate I am already pissed off. There I will be greeted by a stressed out overburdened gate agent that considers me more work. I need a gate claim for my wheelchair and seat assignment as far forward as humanly possible. The FAA stipulates that on certain planes people with a disability such as mine are supposed to have access to the bulk head seat provided it is not an emergency row. This FAA regulation means little to the gate agent because many airlines charge extra for bulkhead seats or assign them to their best customers. Again, my request for a bulk head seat is simply more work, a hassle for the gate agent who will need to deal with another angry customer who was bumped from an existing seat assignment.

People that use a wheelchair and travel often know the above saga and litany of complaints are never easy to deal with. They are also the tip of an iceberg in terms of what can go wrong when one travels and uses a wheelchair. Those unfamiliar with disability related problems when traveling are always quick to point out that air travel for any person is not easy. This assessment is correct. Planes are normally full and passengers are squeezed in like sardines and herded like cattle. But passengers that have a disability cannot be herded like cattle and must follow a different path. This "special" path is never convenient and too often discriminatory. A case in point is the security line. Those that use a wheelchair cannot go through the metal detector for obvious reasons. The norm for people such as myself who uses a wheelchair is to be physically patted down by a TSA guard of the same sex. The thoroughness of this pat down ranges from cursory to a very serious search of one's body.

The scrutiny people that use a wheelchair are subjected to is about to get much more intense. The reason for this is that the TSA posted a story on its blog about a recent case in Los Angeles. Apparently a man that was using a wheelchair was caught trying to smuggle cocaine in two packages taped to his body. The TSA has always maintained that wheelchairs and other adaptive devices make smuggling easier. This case worries me because I think the TSA will use it as an excuse to ramp up its screening of all people with a disability. Elderly travelers have bitterly complained about excessive screening as have those that use a prosthesis or have an artificial joint. The TSA sees the case in question as a great victory, proof that anyone is a possible terrorist threat. The TSA blog points out that in Columbia circa 2005 a man that used a wheelchair was allowed to bypass metal detectors and was not patted down. This man and his son tried to hijack a plane with two hand grenades.

So, beware of the TSA. Be forewarned all old ladies and men, wheelchair users, and anyone else that cannot navigate their way through an airport metal detector. You may be a terrorist and as such you will be searched. You will be subject to a close physical inspection and patted down whether you like it or not. Please don't misconstrue my words: I am not opposed to security or the TSA. Indeed, I think most TSA guards are courteous and professional but understandably firm. They have a job to do and I think the TSA needs to be aware that by the time a person with a physical disability gets to the security line they have already encountered needless barriers. The TSA need not add to the pressure associated with traveling by singling out people that use adaptive devices. The airline industry has already made travel difficult enough, the TSA does not need tp add yet another barrier.

14 comments:

FridaWrites said...

And the wheelchair might not arrive intact/working or at all. As much as I like travel, the process makes my stomach sink, and same-sex personnel or not, screening makes me hyperventilate-y.

I do feel that people with disabilities are being singled out too much in the screening process and that increased conversation with people with disabilities is needed so that airport personnel can behave more empathetically. My friend No Snoopy says he had an epiphany about everything that's wrong with America when airport security made a young girl with leg braces go through the metal detector over and over.

FridaWrites said...

I should revise that to say I like visiting new and old places; the air and car travel is the difficult part.

william Peace said...

Frida, I did not get into the abuse a wheelchair takes at the hands of airline baggage workers. I have had upholstery ripped and the frame of my wheelchair cracked. Even though the FAA stipulates one wheelchair can be stowed in the cabin that never happens. Other passenger carry on bags have priority because a wheelchair takes up too much space. The list of complaints is endless and I have no doubt airlines purposely discriminate against disabled people. No one I know that can walk experiences the sort of abuse I encounter.

FridaWrites said...

I agree with you absolutely. I was going to ask if you'd ever seen this story, but gazing down at the comments, I see we both have, lol! http://wheeliecatholic.blogspot.com/2008/08/woman-with-muscular-dystrophy-has-to.html
I didn't remember reading it at Ruth's blog specifically.

We're inconvenient and the terrorism they practice on us certainly minimizes the amount many of us are willing to fly.

I experienced some problems as a walkie with significant invisible disability, so I know it would be far worse now. My friend with MD has told me a lot of stories, and I listen carefully.

FridaWrites said...

Oh, and I ran across a surprising # of very similar stories when trying to google for this one.

Greg said...

your right...travel sucks!

william Peace said...

Greg, Airline travel sucks because the airlines want to insure it is a miserable experience for disabled people. In this regard, they are doing a great job discouraging people with disabilities from flying. In the last year I have come up with what I call the 800 mile rule. If I am not flying more than 800 mies I don't fly I drive. The hassles associated with air travel are only worth it if one is flying a significant distance.

Complicity Theory said...

Of course you get it worse, but the key think is that all airline experiences are meant to be punishment for the individual. Always. At all times. I've flown business class once, and that was ALMOST non-abusive. I flew to copenhagen with a friend and her power chair. It was interesting, but most of the problems came from ignorance, rather than from willful obstruction, and in the end it was not much different from other times when I've tried to do non-standard things. European end had no idea how to handle a sealed gel battery and that took a confrontation.

The worst part for me was that every one kept ignoring my friend, and looking to me. Luckily I knew enough to redirect things, and make it clear that I was just an assistant at this... though I know that even needing to have to do this is wearing on folks.

Obviously we got off relatively lucky, but my experience did suggest that it is the airlines systemic anti-passenger attitude at all levels that is most to blame, and that little less than a total passenger revolt is going to solve much. IMHO.

Becs said...

This is why my SO and I have pretty much given up on airline travel and stick to traveling by car. The one attempt we made at a cruise was absolutely disastrous (thank you, Norwegian Cruise Line) and won't try it again until we hear better reports.

william Peace said...

Complicit, International travel and travel within the USA are quite different. There is a modicum of service when flying internationally. When flying from NY to let's say Detroit there is no service and abuse is the norm. The point I was trying to make is that the airline industry perceives people with a disability to be an onerous burden. Yes, all passengers are a pain in the ass but people with a disability are singled out for abuse. Airline employees do not go to work and think "I am going to make life miserable for disabled people" but they are taught via the institutional structure that disabled people are a class apart. As such, they are the lowest priority and one need not treat them like other passengers. The result is a pattern of abuse that is sanctioned by the industry. For example, the law states one wheelchair can be stored on board and on newer planes a closet is clearly marked wheelchair storage area. Wheelchairs are never stored on board because they take up to much space. My request to store my wheelchair in this closet is always denied. The result is my wheelchair ends up in the cargo hold and I am forced to wait for over an hour for my wheelchair to appear. Thus when I travel I routinely add two hours to my travel time because I know I will be the last person off the plane and encounter access barriers at most airports. Traveling after business or during peak times is simply not possible because I know problems and abuse are magnified.

Becs, Like you I have given up on air travel on any and all short flights. I also will only fly from point A to point B. Connecting flights are misery and inherently problematic. What never ceases to amaze me is that many passengers are idiots and the airlines tolerate them without question. Yet passengers with disabilities are as a group the most polite and reserved yet subjected to gross injustices.

FridaWrites said...

I've heard Southwest does a far better job, but this is because they handle their baggage differently and they have no boarding assignments made in advance--thus it's far easier to allow people with disabilities to preboard and get the seats they need.

In general I do hear a lot of horror stories from people--taking a possible worst case scenario approach is probably best.

william Peace said...

Frida, I only liked one airline in the last 30 years of flying. That airline was SONG, a defunct part of Delta. SONG was supposed to be Deltas answer to Jet Blue. A great resource when flying is Seatguru. This website has dimensions and recommendations of seats for all aircrafts and airlines.

FridaWrites said...

I'm bookmarking that info. Delta in general--omg, crabby staff with disability issues. I've said I won't fly with them again though it's the same elsewhere.

william Peace said...

Frida, Delta and Northwest are the worst in terms of attitudes. Delta is robotic and rigid. Northwest is just incompetent or unprofessional.