Search This Blog

Loading...

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Unpredictable: Flying when Using a Wheelchair

I spent four days at the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities (ASBH) meetings in Atlanta. I returned to Syracuse physically and intellectually spent. Four days at an academic is too much for me. The night I got home I slept 11 hours which is extremely unusual. Flying to and from Atlanta was its usual mixed bag. Syracuse airport is small but clean. Amazingly, it is filled with employees that on the day I traveled were good at their job, polite and respectful. I got through security and boarding without a hitch. I wish I could say the same thing about Atlanta. Atlanta was terrible leaving and departing.

Arrival in Atlanta: Remarkably getting on and off the place on the flight to Atlanta was typically slow, first on last off. I find the wait upon arrival frustrating. Why are people in the back of the plane so slow departing?  Is there a party back there with free drinks? And more to the point why am I forced to wait until the plane is empty, that is every passenger departs the plane. Sorry for the aside. I get off  the plane and think all is well. My colleague and I are happy and head toward the elevator. We find a line--a long line. Atlanta airport has a single elevator for people that use a wheelchair. Yes, one elevator. The line I crankily and rudely observe is filled with people that most likely can walk a good bit and I speculate many do not need assistance. After I make this observation my colleague looks at me askance. She is correct, I of all people should have a nuanced understanding of disability. I apologize and acknowledge my comment was rude but remain deeply annoyed by the wait. I cannot help but note at least one man left the elevator line for the escalator nearby. I hope I do not sound petty. Think about my experience in terms of time. I boarded the plane first and exited last. This added about 45 minutes to one hour to my travel time. Now I have no choice but to wait for the elevator adding about 20 minutes to my travel time. I would guess in total an hour was spent in the Atlanta airport merely waiting. Sadly, I would deem this an uneventful trip.

Departure  in Atlanta: I get to the departure gate with my colleague who has experienced her first disabled travel related perk. We did not wait on the very long line TSA security line. The line appeared to be a 90 minute to two hour wait. I have been on that sort of line and it is not fun. As a result of not waiting on the security line we had time to eat, use the rest room, and get to the gate early. The usual pre-boarding starts and all appears well until I look over and see the straight-back. I have not seen a straight-back that old in more than 20 years. I regret not taking a picture of it on my smart phone. The straight-back should have been retired a decade ago. It was dirty. The canvas was badly worn and ripped in spots. The seat was not padded and had a deep depression. I was very worried I would fall through the seat when I transferred onto it. There was no strap to keep my legs on the chair (I have really long legs). My colleague thought the straight-back looked like a torture device. Getting on the plane was going to be risky and painful. I asked if another straight-back was available. Yes, but it would take a long time to find and would delay the flight. Every straight-back thanks to the Air Carrier Act is supposed to be padded. In the past too many paralyzed people have been hurt because of a lack of padding.  So there I am in Atlanta--I can risk my health and arrive home on time but in pain or assert myself and insist on a straight-back. Only one of the two men that were tasked with getting me off the plane was competent. I thus ask my colleague if she can hold my legs and protect them from injury. Frankly, I was humiliated for being forced to ask my colleague for help. Thankfully I got to my seat and transferred without assistance or trouble.

What never ceases to amaze me is the fact I would consider the round trip relatively uneventful. I arrived back in Syracuse in one piece as did my luggage and most importantly my wheelchair. I also arrived in pain. My right hip was on fire for many hours. It was like a person had a blow torch on my hip. Two very stiff drinks and a long sleep relieved my pain. But it was not the physical pain that bothers me. Why is acceptable for people that use a wheelchair to be limited to one elevator in a major international airport? Long lines waiting for the elevator are inevitable. I have no doubt this is a well-known issue. Why was a dilapidated straight-back still in service? Why was I forced to either  delay a flight or risk my health? And did I really have a choice? What if I did indeed request an appropriate straight-back? I have no doubt this decision would have been met with hostility. The fundamental issue is not the risk and inconvenience I endured. Access for people with a disability is perceived to be a "problem". The idea my civil rights were violated never crossed the mind of the airport employees.  Traveling highlights a myriad of social inequities that are deeply ingrained in American society. The airline merely takes this hostility to a higher and obvious level  I wrote a pointed email to Delta and based on the reply I may or may not file a complain with the DOJ. I asked at the time and in my email to Delta to remove the worn out straight-back from service.  I will keep readers up to date on what transpires.

10 comments:

Patti said...

I can't tell you how many times I have been hit in the head by carryon luggage from EVERYONE walking past me in my aisle seat!

william Peace said...

That happens to me as well. If in aisle seat I lean toward window and leave my arm up and ready to block bags from hitting me.

Mike in Albany said...

Come to think of it, why should it be necessary for airport or airline personnel to have to "go get" a straightback? There should be one at every gate, along with having it mandatory that at least two personnel must be on duty at every gate at all times who should be fully trained in how to use it.

John Kelly said...

I keep thinking of the "O" word, the restriction of choices to the unacceptable, the risky, the humiliating. I've been let go by people who do not speak English, watched my wheelchair crash down steps onto the tarmac, and once I was even ordered off a plane by what looked like a SWAT team, because they couldn't get my wheelchair in the hold. We need to demand the right to roll on and role off.

william Peace said...

Mike, A straight-back was present at the gate. It was just about 30 years old and non operational. two personal were on duty. One was not competent and appeared to struggle to walk himself. He also did not speak English. What the law requires and reality are radically different. Getting on and off the plane has been farmed out by airlines to the cheapest bidder.
John, All airlines are bad but Delta is the worst. Old planes and hostile employees typify the Delta experience. Had to laugh at the SWAT team reference. I was once abandoned on the tarmac and had a SWAT team come after me with guns drawn.

Stephen said...

With respect to prioritizing passenger evacuation in the event of an emergency, what do you think airline industry policy should be for paralyzed passengers?

I haven't researched the actual policy, but found this article which addresses this concern. It indirectly answers the question as to why disabled passengers are the first to board and the last to de-plane.

http://www.nonprofitrisk.org/library/articles/disability072706.shtml

B Burton said...

If you need Delta's help getting from one terminal to another in Atlanta you are parked with all the other "wheelchairs" (not "people in them", just wheelchairs)in a tarmac level holding area until a bus comes. Then people are asked to walk to the bus! At the next terminal some were taken by to their gates while the rest of us were told to sit and wait. Yeah, right.

william Peace said...

Stephen, I have never looked at the official policy regarding getting off a plane in cue of an emergency. Regardless of what is written in case of a disaster such as a plane crash I have no doubt I will not be helped.
Burton, I was not impressed with the Atlanta airport. I have had a comparable experience r.e. being left on the tarmac in Seattle. And yes it always "wheelchair" and never the person that is addressed.

Middle Child said...

I recall Don's being told very loudly and crisply when the plane was fully loaded that "If there is an emergency you will have to wait till everyone is evacuated" said with a smile - far out. One time in one of those dreadful chairs - luckily I was walking slightly in front and noticed don's foot had fallen off the plate and was being forced under the plates as they pushed him talking to each other and not even looking at him. I stood in front to stop the pushing and straight away both reacted angrily till I told Don what was happeneing to his foo. Put it back up on the plate and watched the whole way - made them go slower. Don said within the stewardess's hearing - I will have this X Rayed and if it is broken I will take it to court, what are your names? - They had badges so that was easy - He was heading to the Sydney hospital anyhow so it was looked at - wasn't broken - they just didn't give a shit

william Peace said...

Middle Child, In the event of a natural disaster or plane crash I am sure of one thing--I am on my own. Evacuate all people from a plane crash and then come back for me? Will never happen. The real issue to me is the airlines see people with a disability as an onerous burden. Until this changes I see no reason to expect service will improve. Yikes, what a gloomy reply.