A couple of weeks ago my girlfriend and I flew to Portland to visit friends. We arrived at LAX three hours before a two-and-a-half-hour domestic flight — spot on by my standards. If that seems excessive, I’m gonna guess you’ve never tried to get through an airport with cerebral palsy.
My airport fate rests with someone called the wheelchair agent. They pick me up from a designated spot at check-in, take me through security, and drop me off at the gate to minimize the amount of time I spend on my feet. If you suspect that’s just a luxury, let me remind you LAX is the largest international airport on the West Coast (and the second busiest in America). When you can only stand up for about ten minutes and walk at a pace best described as “grandmotherly,” that place was not built for you.
I know better than to expect quick deliverance from the “special assistance waiting area.” But that day still managed a new personal best of over two hours in limbo. Add in half an hour getting there from curbside and, for those of you keeping track at home, you’ll see we had less than half an hour to get through security, to the gate, and onto the plane.
As I sweated it out waiting for the security green light, our dear agent decided now would be a great time for this conversation:
“So what happened?”
“… I’m sorry?”
“She’s so young, and she’s in a wheelchair. What happened to her?”
“Nothing. She’s disabled.”
“Oh. Well, maybe someday she can be cured. With God, all things are possible.”
(Unless God can also get us to Gate 36B in three minutes or less, I’m not interested. Thanks, though!)
In the U.S., the law designed to protect disabled people during air travel is called the Air Carrier Access Act. It “prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability” both in airports and on planes. And yes, it canonized many accommodations and rights that are easy to take for granted today: assistance with boarding and deplaning, not limiting the number of disabled people on a flight, permitting us to travel alone, prioritizing space for mobility aids in the baggage compartment, and not refusing to provide us transportation outright. But as you may already be able to tell, there’s a ton of room for (mis)interpretation in how that law is written and — more importantly — applied. And if you’re queer, you already know that having a law on the books isn’t enough.
“Prohibiting discrimination” does not dissolve the prejudice behind it. And that, to me, is the issue with disability and airlines: they may know the law to the letter, but they don’t understand disabled people. They’re more interested in protecting themselves than ensuring us an equal experience. It’s all part of the numbers-first strategy that most recently culminated in Delta’s Great “Re-Accommodation” of 2017 — but it also tells you a lot about how we understand bias against disabled people and bodies in this country. A ramp to the flight deck won’t keep a TSA agent from asking me if I’m “faking it.” Accessible lavatories don’t mean much if the crew leaves you behind to crawl to one. And not even a U.S. Senator can guarantee her wheelchair won’t “literally break apart while she is sitting in it” thanks to in-flight damage.
Ableism reveals itself in attitudes and priorities as much as structural barriers. Here are six more stories of why, and six more reasons to despise the airline industry.
(For the record, we nabbed the last two seats just as they were closing the door.)
Alyssa / 29 / Portland, OR
In all honesty, air travel is a total coin toss. I’ve had really great and validating airport and airline experiences, and I’ve had some pretty horrific and humiliating experiences. Ultimately I find myself going into every travel experience hoping for the best but expecting the worst.
When I was eighteen, I had a series of surgeries and complications related to my disease that left me a newfound incomplete paraplegic and needing the use of a wheelchair for a long time. I had been having a really hard time accepting everything that had happened and was really lost, and I somewhat reluctantly decided to go on a trip to get away for a bit. After I’d boarded the plane, I was told I was unable to assist with safety procedures so I’d have to move away from my seat (near the emergency exit aisle). Once I was re-seated I thought that would be the end of it, but the flight attendant came up to me and (loudly) told me that if there was an emergency evacuation, I would need to stay in my seat as to not hold up or be in the way of others getting out — and she said it in this awful tone. I remember spending the rest of my flight just feeling so anxious and upset that she’d gone out of her way to make me aware that I was a potential burden to others. I held onto that for a really long time.
“Ultimately I find myself going into every travel experience hoping for the best but expecting the worst.”
TSA can be pretty brutal, especially with those x-ray scanner machines. I can’t stand in them for a number of reasons, the most important being that it can cause problems with an implanted medical device, and TSA frequently causes a big scene when I ask to walk through the standard metal detectors. All that being said, I tend to appreciate the little things, like the TSA crew from my most recent flight that was just generally accommodating and considerate. I always have a lot of love for folks that let me voice my needs, and follow through with them in a respectful manner.
Stacey / 38 / Pittsburgh, PA
My disability is invisible, so it’s mostly a question of medicating myself appropriately. If I do, my air travel is fine as far as disability goes. (Still terrible because I am fat and airplanes are Not Built For Fat People, but that’s separate from my disability.) If I forget to take my medication far enough in advance of a flight, I worry about having a severe panic attack such that I might read as threatening to other passengers or airplane staff, and end up injured by people trying to protect themselves. Of course the worry ramps up the anxiety which ramps up the worry, and it gets ugly.
I’ve never discussed my needs with an airline; there’s not much they could do, and it’s not worth the stigma of disclosing when I do not have a specific ask to make in terms of accommodation. We need to make it easier to know what sorts of assistance are available and how to access it.
Alaina / 24 / Boston, MA
My air travel experience has been fairly positive — but I also don’t fly very often and I haven’t flown using a wheelchair yet. I do find airports generally inaccessible in a lot of ways. There are elevators, yes, but there’s also the long, long amounts of time you have to spend standing, and there are few alternatives for people who aren’t able to do that. When I was a kid, it was significantly easier for me to stand in lines for longer, but the next time I travel, I’ll most likely be using a manual wheelchair with my cane packed away for indoor use, and I do worry about that. I also have sensory processing disorder, that usually means unless someone is speaking loudly and very clearly, I won’t know what they’re saying. Crowded and busy areas like airports are awful, because I can’t hear someone if there’s a lot of background noise.
“A lot of people don’t realize this: when you have a mobility impairment, almost 100% of your attention is taken up by making sure you’re able to walk and stand, that you’re not losing your balance, that you’re not going to fall, that you’re going to keep moving. That’s why trying to sort out an airplane line is difficult.”
Airlines need to consider mobility impairments beyond wheelchairs. For me, it’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to stand and walk for long periods of time. Before my disability progressed, even as a kid, I had difficulty with taking my shoes off and taking items out of my suitcases while walking. A lot of people don’t realize this: when you have a mobility impairment, almost 100% of your attention is taken up by making sure you’re able to walk and stand, that you’re not losing your balance, that you’re not going to fall, that you’re going to keep moving. I don’t often carry my own plate, especially if it’s heavy, across a crowded restaurant to my table, because it’s impossible for me. That’s exactly why trying to sort out an airplane line is difficult.
I will say that last May, I traveled to Chicago using Southwest. I requested to pre-board, and at the time, I didn’t have any mobility aids with me. I expected them to ask me what my needs and disability were, or request some sort of verification or proof. They didn’t. They were kind and accommodating, and my partner and I got to pre-board (they let one person who is with you pre-board too, and she carries my bags so it was very helpful). So it is possible. But if it’s possible to take a train instead, I’ll opt for that, just to take airlines out of the equation.
Eva / 34 / Los Angeles, CA
My wheelchair has been damaged so many times! Also, I have to get patted down because I can’t go through the X-ray. My hands are swabbed for gunpowder even though I can’t use my hands.
When I went to go pick up my service dog, I brought my power chair because I was going to need it. Once we landed the seat was broken and super uncomfortable. I had to find a wheelchair repair shop. I had to get my chair fixed while I was going to class eight hours a day.
Bani / 29 / Quito, Ecuador
I can’t separate my experience flying while disabled and nonbinary from being a poor person of color, and when you’re dealing with these multiple things, it can be hard to figure out why exactly you’re being treated like shit. I actually did a roundtable with disabled POC about their own experiences on my website. I’ve been traveling for over a decade now and have had invisible disabilities for many years, but didn’t develop more seriously physical, life-interrupting disabilities until six years ago. Eventually, one of these turned out to be an extremely rare sitting disability that makes sitting down an excruciating experience, complicating the way I travel times a million.
“I can’t separate my experience flying while disabled and nonbinary from being a poor person of color, and when you’re dealing with these multiple things, it can be hard to figure out why exactly you’re being treated like shit.”
Before my flights, I usually comb the airline’s website to read their disability accommodations and follow up with a phone call, but it has never ever helped. Basically I ask if I can stand up or walk around for at least the majority of my flight, and all I get is a bored person telling me no. You can stand when the seat belt sign is off, but when I ask where, there’s no answer, and usually there’s turbulence and the attendants wheeling food and drink down the aisle, so I don’t have many options. Sometimes on flights I go to the bathroom and just stand there (and cry) for some relief, but only have a minute or two since there’s usually a line of annoyed folks waiting outside and knocking on the door. Once I reach my gate before boarding, I will speak again to the airline representatives or flight attendants for help and I get the same answer. I often get looked at and treated like a liar or like I’m exaggerating. In order to fly, I have to heavily sedate myself with a cocktail of substances to make it to the other side, and once I land, need to rest for usually a week and visit the nearest emergency room.
Because I’m broke I take the cheapest flights with the longest layovers, up to 14 hours between two flights of five hours each, elongating my pain and discomfort. There really is nowhere to lie down comfortably and because I usually travel overseas, I have to pick up my luggage from baggage claim myself, limping with a cane and sometimes with a shoulder brace on, take it through border security and check it onto my next flight, alone. No, people don’t usually help, and if I ask them to, I have to tip them (which would be fine if I had more money).
“The ADA tends to disintegrate in the hands of airlines and their staff, especially for POC and QTPOC, and it doesn’t matter if the law is on your side.”
We need more and better accommodations for all kinds of disabilities, not the few airline staffs sometimes accommodate. The ADA tends to disintegrate in the hands of airlines and their staff, especially for POC and QTPOC, and it doesn’t matter if the law is on your side. Specifically, we need areas to lie down in airports specifically for disabled, pregnant, and elderly people — and not in VIP areas, because we ain’t all rich.
Mel / 32 / Portland, OR
Flying is hell on my chronic pain, just to sit still for a long time in those teensy seats that aren’t big enough for a person who’s over five feet tall and 100 pounds. When you add in the walking or wheeling across the terminals to get to your gate, which often changes because air traffic here in America is hot garbage (I’ve had gates change on me three times for a single connecting flight), then often I’m in a good deal of pain before I even get on the plane. I usually end up twisting in my seat and trying not to cry after about two hours — and that’s kinda the best case scenario. I’ve also had to deal with airline employees at the terminal who are super huffy about having to change my seat (as if I got to choose it in the first place) if I get stuck on an exit row, since they only let able-bodied folks sit there. I’ve been made to wait til last (even though I am supposed to be able to board early) so they can figure out where to stick me.
“It’s sad when I feel ‘lucky’ that I’m only discriminated against a little bit.”
These things are all annoying, and they piss me off, but it’s nothing compared to what my wheelchair-using friends have been through. It’s sad when I feel “lucky” that I’m only discriminated against a little bit. I don’t fly anywhere now unless it’s really important. It’s too painful and too shitty.
So what do we do about this? The ACAA already requires training “for airline and contractor personnel who deal with the traveling public” — but clearly this training needs to incorporate cultural competence and understanding alongside the requirements for on-board wheelchairs or movable armrests. And here’s a question: how many of the ACAA-mandated Complaints Resolution Officials are actually disabled?
Mel offered up one suggestion for airlines looking to improve: “HIRE DISABLED PEOPLE. Let them know how you need to change.” And Eva echoed the sentiment: “Listen to us! We know how to handle our equipment!” Disabled people often don’t get enough credit for our expertise — especially if it comes via lived experience. But who better to help airlines shake off some of that bad PR than the people who have lived it?
“It’s never been about a need for airline or airport employees to go an extra mile for me; it’s always been more about feeling respected in these environments,” Alyssa explained. “It’s okay if I have to advocate for myself regarding my needs, but I don’t want to have to advocate for my personhood on top of it all.”