My day was all planned out. I got up early to get my house ready for contractors to start a remodel, a remodel that was intentionally planned to start while I was out of town. I finished packing my bags and headed to the airport. I was flying to Washington DC to attend a conference, and participate in some of the celebratory activities surrounding the 25th anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
I had the usual preflight worries, would my chair arrive in one piece, what I have competent assistance helping me transfer onto the airplane? Things like that. Typical worries of any wheelchair user who flies. I went through my usual checklist of things that needs to happen with my attendant. Double check we have all the bags, double check all the chair parts get onto the plane, double check that my chair actually gets on the plane.
I had plans upon arrival. I had checked, and double checked that ground transportation would have an accessible van. I had spoken to hotel management to ensure I had an accessible room. I had researched the location of the nearest drug store so that I could pick up some supplies I need for my equipment, that I cannot bring on a flight. I had selected a restaurant for dinner, and we planned to go to the zoo for a couple of hours. I was looking forward to a relaxing evening before my presentation tomorrow.
It was going off without a hitch. Traffic was light, and we got and we got to the airport early. Check-in was easy, and fast. we had time to sit down and have a leisurely breakfast before going to security. Security went smoothly. We had one little bump when we were partway to the concourse, and discovered that one bag was left behind at the security checkpoint. My PCA was able to quickly go back and grab the bag. The inbound flight was delayed, but boarding went smoothly. One of the flight attendant confirms my wheelchair was on the plane, and also good to go.
Suddenly someone was pounding on the aircraft door,and trying to open the door. The flight attendant was clearly unhappy as she explained the proper protocol to the person on the other side of the door. The aircraft door was re-opened, and the gate agent rushed up to me.
“Your wheelchair will not fit on the plane, you will need to get off,” she exclaimed loudly. Apparently the standard height handles on my power wheelchair are too tall to fit on a 737 aircraft. I tried to explain different techniques to get my chair in the baggage compartment. After some negotiation, my attendant was allowed to work with the ground crew to get my chair on the plane. Meanwhile the flight attendant makes an announcement that the plane was delayed to get some vital cargo on board.
The verbal abuse began almost immediately. Fellow passengers, inducing the gentleman who had a connecting flight only 35 minutes after the flight was due began to complain that the plane should not be delayed due to a wheelchair. Another gate agent arrived to say there were no seats on later flights, and my only option was to fly without my chair (with my chair to follow on a later flight) or fly tomorrow.
As I was trying to explain how it is impossible for me to sit for hours in an airport wheelchair as I would not have battery power to operate my ventilator, nor can I safely sit in an unsupported wheelchair without getting pressure wounds, I could feel the physiological affects of the discrimination set in.
My mouth watered with a metallic alkaline taste, that was quickly replaced with the bitter taste of adrenaline. Tears welled up in my eyes despite all efforts to quench them back. I could feel my heart racing, and I was clenching my teeth to prevent hyperventilation. All the meanubile I continued to negotiate with the gate agent, request a complaint resolution official (CRO) and take the verbal abuse around me.
One man sitting behind me was particularly bad with the abuse, as if he was ever going to make his connecting flight when the plane was delayed to begin with. Other passengers began streaming to the front of the plane, where theyou would demand that I fly without my chair, or get off the plane. One passenger even engaged in fat shaming claiming that if I weren’t fat, my chair would somehow be shorter.
The flight attendants did nothing to quell the abuse. It became clear that the only way my chair would fit on the plane would be to loosen the bolts attaching my backrest, but United Airlines claimed they didn’t have any wrenches to do so.
The CRO arrived and offered seats on a much later flight.** With no other option I deboarded the plane, and set out to wait for the next flight.
The ADA was passed twenty-five years ago this week. Despite twenty-five years of progress in some areas, much work remains. Air travel is horribly inaccessible for many disabed people, especially power wheelchair users.
The Air Carriers Access Act, passed in 1986, governs flight accessibility. Airlines are able to discriminate with impunity because consumers have no right to due to enforce the law.
More disheartening today was the treatment from my fellow passengers. I’m certain not a single one would view their words as discriminatory. While a part of the problem is an individual sense of entitlement that supports the one at the expense of everyone else.
The larger problem is that disabled people are devalued. Our lives are worth less than others. This is reinforced to the public at every turn, from laws and regulations that force us to pick healthcare over work, to assisted suicide legalization proponents who tell the public that our lives are not worth living and are to be feared, to failing to have laws that ensure that disabled people have full access and participation to all parts of society.
The ADA was enacted twenty-five years ago, but its mandate is far short of full inclusion for disabled people is not an accomplishment of the ADA. It is long past time to enact a true comprehensive mandate to allow full inclusion for disabled people in all parts of society, including airline travel, housing, education, benefits, and access to federal programs and facilities. Disabled people deserve more than a piecemeal approach to civil rights. We have been neglected for far too long.
**That flight was then 5 hours late due to mechanical difficulties — maybe they really don’t have wrenches.