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Monday, September 12, 2011

The Problem with "Special"

This summer I have been lucky enough to travel. I love to travel and thoroughly enjoy reaching my destination. However, I hate to fly. Domestic travel as most know is an absolutely miserable experience. Airlines, never known for outstanding customer service, have since 9/11 made flying a uniformly bad experience. Planes are fully booked, often dirty, and food absent. Airlines also nickle and dime customers to death: $2 for head phones, $25 for checked bags, $100 for an unaccompanied minor, $40 for the bulk head seat etc. Fees on top of fees ad to the cost of travel. None of this is new. Ask virtually anyone and they will have a miserable travel related story. Ask someone who uses a wheelchair and the stories become worse--much worse. Airlines have an institutional bias against people with a disability. This ingrained bias, bigotry really, has not changed in thirty years. What has changed is the law. The Air Carrier Access Act is firmly on the the side of people with a disability. No longer can I be banned from flying for no other reason than the fact I use a wheelchair. This does not in any way mean I am welcome or treated equally by airline employees. Indeed, I am routinely perceived as a "problem"--extra work for employees. And truth be told it does require more work to get me on a plane-not much but in an industry were time is limited and profit margins narrow I am perceived as a problem. When I fly I assume problems will abound. I am rarely if ever have a routine experience.

Aside from being perceived as extra labor, airlines I suspect resent giving passengers with disabilities "special" treatment. Special for me involves getting the bulkhead seat--never easy given the fact these seats are sold to any passenger willing to fork over $40 for a few extra inches of leg room. Special also means I am the first person on the plane and the very last person off the plane. I do mean last as in the very last passenger off the plane. Every time I fly I get to see the flight crew depart and cleaning crew come aboard while I wait for "trained personnel" to help me onto what the airlines call a straight back. This is a very narrow wheelchair that fits in the aisle of the plane. More often than not the trained personnel have no idea what they are doing. Each time I flew this summer multiple FAA regulations were violated assisting me off the plane. Waits for the trained personnel are common. I often get to sit on an empty plane waiting. Forget about making connecting flights in a reasonable amount of time. The special treatment I receive adds hours of time to my travel experience. Airlines do not care one iota. What is very clear is that my existence is of the lowest priority. First on last off--too bad. Cope with it. We will help you when we have assisted every other passenger--and I do mean every other passenger.

I am lumped by airlines into a group of special people. Children, elderly, and pets. Don't believe me? Check out any airline website. I am deemed a "passenger with special needs". If I have learned one thing in life it is that we Americans loath so called special people. We firmly adhere to a mythical sense that all people are equal. Those that are given special consideration are disliked. Being special is UnAmerican! This message is not subtle but overt. It extends well beyond air travel. At board of education meetings i have heard again and again why is so much money spent on special education. Regular kids suffer I am told. Need a lift on the bus? Why not just pay a taxi to take the child to school? Think of how much money we will save.

The thoughts above were prompted by an article in of all places the sports section of the NY Post. A tabloid not exactly known for quality. The article in question, Even TSA Employees are Scamming, by Phil Mushnick was published September 11. Mushnick was outraged that a TSA employee at Newark airport was willing to take passengers off the security line and directly to the front of the line. This was accomplished by sitting in a wheelchair. You see at most airports people with a disability do not wait on security lines. There is a special lane for people with disabilities. It is one of those rare instances using a wheelchair is an advantage. While I enjoy this advantage, especially when security lines are long, I think it is wrong. I should wait in line like everyone else. If I were standing in line I would be resentful of such special treatment. And this is the problem with special. I am not equal. So called special accommodations only lead to unequal treatment. Special buses, resource rooms in schools, handicapped seating--none of this fosters equality but instead segregation in a socially accepted form.

I will confess I have never seen the scam Mushnick described taking place at Newark. I would like to think I would make a complaint but upsetting the routine at airports is a very bad idea. Subservience is required when Americans travel. Humiliation rituals abound such as passing through security and passengers are expected to do as they are told by airline personnel. Rigid control is expected. Within these larger cultural parameters there is no place for me. I am dubbed special--a categorization that is inherently problematic and unequal. It also reminds me of Kermit the Frog--one of my sons favorite characters on television when he was a little boy--who maintained it is not easy being green. I can only concur with this assessment.


Elizabeth McClung said...

I concurr with most of your experiences with, as I have had to threaten, and threaten with FAA regulations to avoid my wheelchair being made into an unusable piece of very expensive metal. All planes are required to have the capacity to hold 2 wheelchairs. Unless they changed the law on that in the past year or two.

However, since I end up taking a LOT longer in the security section, I think the complaint is not only illogical in terms of function, but also ablist. Or perhaps simply buying into the disability heirachy in which those most 'able' are thus most 'equal'.

Did you plan this? No. I think in your complaint that those with wheelchair wait in lines you simply forgot the 1 in 35 who have MS, which comes with autonomic failure, particularly heat intolerance (like the inability to be in a crowded line for long without needing medical attention). As well as most of those with degenerative illnesses or travelling to hospitals for operations. Then there are the late stage cancer individuals with autonomic dysfunction as well as many other conditions, like those needing oxygen, which even if you have the $6,000 concentrator and the $400-$500 batteries which provide 2:35 of oxygen, means that if travelling with 4 batteries, after the various check-ins and waits, a recharge is needed or the person will run out of oxygen.

Is accomodation, the recognition that all individuals with disabilities the same as 'special' - perhaps to those who are ignorant of the complexity and diversity of those with disabilities - which in this case, as you argue for waiting in security lines, is you. You argue AGAINST accomodation.

How strange, that we must all have asses 12-14 inches wide or so in order to go to the bathroom, when using the 'straight back', and yes, coming off last, last, and then when they can't find your wheelchair, even more last.

Elizabeth McClung said...

Sorry, very long, but this is what happens to me at security (maybe you can determine if it is 'equal' or 'special'):

A person with a hand unit calls out, "Wheelchair, anyone free for a wheelchair?" And then I am parked until someone is free, sitting in front of everyone in line. (wave, smile wave)

Then I am taken to a blue box which happens to be right between the two X-ray machines, where they do 'medical pat-downs'. In this case, my wheelchair is scanned, and in some cases, I am transfered off it (again, in front of every single person, so yes, maybe 100 people watching me transfer), and it is further examined. My concentrator, which is an FAA regulation concetrator, is examined, then I am asked how long I can survive without oxygen (is that a common question for others?), and the concentrator is taken away and X-rayed.

Then the medications, which must be taken with me to regulate the flow of blood, diminsh the high probability of a stroke on board, and bleeding from the nose, anus and other orifices, is taken away. There is an arguement then and the carrier is called, to determine if the government, the airline, or the airport is responsible for the liquid medication. At this point, I am tested again, but for residue of bomb making equipment, and my medications are all tested for explosive potential (again, in front of everyone). After 40-80 minutes, I am patted down, and told I am cleared, and the wheelchair is returned, the concentrator, the medications, usually in a heap, since I have 'passed' being a non-terrorist. And I and my care giver have to transfer, then reassemble the concentrator and medications around, behind and under the chair. Then I get to wheel to the airline and start again.

It simply is what occurs when a liquid medication is required within a 12 hour window, so between checking in to security and on the plane, off the plane, security there, etc. The hazards of travel, with a care giver hunched down near the toilets having found a plug in to recharge a battery in case the security on the other end takes time or there is a delay in take-off.

The last thing I think about during all that is how I am 'special'.

william Peace said...

Elizabeth, Thank you very much for your long reply. You certainly have given me much to think about. And I am guilty as charged--I did not think of others with complex health issues. In your case and others, being taken off the security line is exactly what you describe it to be--a reasonable accommodation. Security is always a hassle for people with a disability. It can be a tedious process too. Among the many problems are a lack of training, knowledge, willingness to work, and complex and contradictory FAA regulations.

Your point r.e. special and equal is well taken. That is exactly how I would like to be treated--equal. This however is exceedingly rare. When I show up at security or the gate for the flight people look at me as though I am the scourge of the earth.

Two more points. !. Depending upon the size of the aircraft the airline is required to stow one and at most two folding wheelchairs in the cabin. Thus all rigid frame chairs such as mine go in the hold. I have had my chair damaged many times. 2. When going through security you have the right to be cleared in a separate and private room. TSA agents made this very clear throughout the summer.

Elizabeth McClung said...

Ah, thank you on your points. I guess the people on the plane don't know the difference between a folding chair and one where the wheels come off and the frame folds down (but it is a rigid frame) - Like you, I insist because every time I have put my wheelchair through checked at gate, it is ALWAYS damaged, often to the point where the wheels won't wheel or the axle is bent or broken. So, understand your frustration, I bullied my on board after reading about Wheelchair Dancer doing it.

And thank you for point 2 - I will ask for a room next time. Linda said that yeah, that's pretty much exactly what happens. I hope your trip to Seattle was wunderbar, though I was thinking of Pikes Place and wondering where you eat, as it does a nice trade in Pewter and a great alternative bookstore, albiet horridly unaccessible (but sells magazines not available elsewhere which you might like, I used to get B*tch and a couple others there).

I honestly, after remembering the rash of hijackings from the 70's and 80's (remember when everyone wanted to go to cuba), that security would tone down after a year or two, but instead it gets more and more intense - I had to, or my care giver had to take off my shoes last trip.

Thanks for your reply. I myself had forgotten until reminded regarding the number of people who fly to a specialist hospital with serious conditions (or maybe that is just Canada?). I find that airlines dislike accomodation of any sort - I wonder if diabetics have to pay extra for their meal now, I would not be surprised.

Anonymous said...

Hi. I think I can answer that question about “special” meals. I have numerous food allergies, & before the in-flight meals became those horrid “snackboxes” full of processed, packaged foods, it was possible to get a “special” meal. However, I had to make the request with the airline when I got the ticket, & then I had to call at least 3 days ahead of the flight to confirm, swear I had a medical condition & would have a violent allergic reaction to their usual slop, & have a parent testify to my allergies even though I was over 18, & even then, half the time they forgot or screwed it up so it was inedible. The only time I haven't been hassled & have had my special requested meals come out exactly as ordered is when I've flown first class. However, first class costs 4-5 times as much, which is why I haven't had an airline meal in years- I need neither the aggravation nor the extra cost.