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Friday, June 8, 2012

Cant' You Walk a Little Bit?

I flew from New York JFK Airport to San Jose recently. As usual, the experience was trying at best. Flying in the post 9/11 era is miserable. Security is designed to humiliate passengers into being subservient. Airlines nickel and dime passengers at every opportunity and there is a fee for everything.  None of this is news to anyone who has flown in the last few years. I am not your typical passenger and my experience is well out of the norm. I would love to have an ordinary experience—that is to be subject to routine degradation. But my degradation surpasses what bipedal people will ever experience.  If one uses a wheelchair you are sure to have a negative experience flying—it is the norm.

The hardest part of flying for me is the most basic—getting on and off the plane. Flying home to New York from San Jose on the Red Eye led to the following encounter.  In terms of problems one can encounter this was minor.  It made me yearn to be bipedal.

We have landed and the door to the plane is open. People begin to stream out of the plane and the stewardess states to the ground crew “We have one straight back, he has his own wheelchair in the belly of the plane”. A declarative statement. No problem you may think. Ten minutes later I hear the ground crew ask the stewardess “How many wheelchairs do you need?” The reply, “One straightback and he has his own wheelchair.” The flow of exiting passengers is now a trickle—parents with kids and seasoned travelers who just woke up. The ground crew looks into the plane and asks “How many wheelchairs?” Again, the reply, “One straightback, he has his own chair.” Another ten minutes go by.  At least twenty minutes have passed since the stewardess requested a straightback. Every passenger has exited the plane. The pilot and co-pilot have exited as well. Three women, ground personnel, look in at me. They stare, say nothing and exit. They return moments later with an airline wheelchair wide enough to sit two people. Without preamble I am told, commanded really, “Get in this chair”. The stewardess again states “He needs a straighback and he has his own chair”. Ground personnel look perplexed, do not reply and exit the plane again. Minutes later they return. They have my wheelchair now. Again, the ground personnel state “Get in the wheelchair”. Yet again the stewardess states “He needs a straighback. That is his wheelchair outside.” I look at her, she looks at me we both say “JFK sucks”.  The ground personnel look hopelessly bewildered. I am loudly told “Just walk a little bit to the wheelchair.” Maybe they think in addition to being paralyzed I am perhaps deaf. I state that I need a straightback. Ground personnel are taken aback. I am asked “You can’t walk a little bit?” No, I reply. The stewardess says “He needs a straightback”.  Yes, I say “I need a straightback”. Utter confusion reigns supreme.  Ground personnel are befuddled and one person asks the stewardess, not me,  “You mean he cannot walk at all? What do we do? How do we get him out of the seat?” Stunned silence ensues. I take a deep breath and remain calm. I state yet again I need a straightback. A look of confusion mixed with fear comes across the ground personnel and they ask me “Are you certain you cannot walk a little bit?” The stewardess and I just look at one another. In unison we say “we need a straightback”. Completely perplexed ground personnel leave the plane.  A few minutes go by. Not only have all the passengers left but the cleaning crew is on board the plane and they are looking at me and wondering why the hell is this guy still on the plane. Ground personnel return and they have the straightback. This tiny wheelchair is placed next to my aisle seat. I transfer into the straightback, position straps against my legs. The straightback is pushed all of the six or eight feet and then I transfer into my wheelchair. Time elapsed since landing: 45 minutes.  


Leslie said...

The stupidity boggles the mind. Particularly the "can't you walk just a little?" When I was traveling with a broken ankle in a boot I got the "can't you take the boot off and walk through the scanner" nonsense - which I obviously couldn't - and of course that was a temporary short term thing but certainly impressed me with the lack of thought by most of the security types. And clearly your time being wasted by their foolishness didn't matter. I hope you didn't miss a connection as a result!

Catherine said...

I'm sorry too. Anytime one needs anything from airlines, airports, there is a good chance of a problem. My last flight, a young lady whose wheelchair was supposed to be checked on the plane ended up with no wheelchair. Somehow it got left.

GirlWithTheCane said...

Is that typical? (I never had to fly when I was using my chair).

Write a letter. If their response isn't satisfactory, we can put the airline's name up on my blog as a "Worst of the Worst" (accessibility-wise), if you like. Because that's absolutely unacceptable.

william Peace said...

In reply to the four comments above, the experience I had no longer even strikes me as unusual. When one travels via any American carrier and uses a wheelchair it is an invitation for abuse. There is a deeply entrenched bias against people with a disability in the airline industry--especially paralyzed people who are perceived as a burden and flight safety risk. European based airline carriers are even worse. What I wrote about pales in comparison to other experiences I have had. More than once I have crawled out of a plane in frustration and anger. The most frustrating part for me is to see other passengers dawdle and knowing I can exit faster but because of airline policy must be the very last passenger off the plane. Writing to complain is a waste of time. When my rights are seriously violated I send a letter to the DOJ and file a formal complaint. This too accomplishes nothing but makes me feel better.

Matthew Smith said...

A while back, I read (or perhaps saw on a video) Kim Robbins saying that a hotel owner had said the same to her, regarding why she couldn't get up and walk the few steps into the inaccessible bathroom. This was in Canada. She has a C6 injury.

william Peace said...

Matthew, When I was first paralyzed I got the "can't you walk a little bit" line on a regular basis. Fast forward 30 years and the only time i ever hear it is when I fly. I would guess this is asked as so many elderly people can and do walk a little bit. Still, it is a real indication of ignorance.