7 Queer Disabled Folks On Why Air Travel Is Kind of a Nightmare

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

A white woman with long brown hair, brown eyes, and a nose ring, with her chest and upper arms covered in tattoos.

via Twitter

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

A person with long brown hair dyed purple at the tips holds a sparkly purple cane in their right hand.

via Facebook

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

A person with a closely shaved head wearing a grey shirt, purple and blue infinity scarf, and black leather vest stands next to a sidewalk produce stand.

Photo by Neha Gautam Photography

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.”

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Carrie's body is weird and she's making that work for her. She lives in Los Angeles, where she does a lot of crossword puzzles and longs for a squished-faced dog. Help her get better at Twitter.

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  1. I’m disabled. I can walk around my own house, and short distances, without assistance, but for longer distances (like airport terminals), I need a rolling walker with a fold-down seat. I frequently travel with my able-bodied husband. When I look longingly at the motorized carts driven by airport personnel, and I ask my husband if we could get on one to get us to our gate, he looks at me with my walker and says something to the effect of “Leave the cart for the elderly folx, you have your walker, the walk to the gate isn’t *that* long.” He prides himself on being “caring and understanding,” but really, he could do better. We live in a city with two major airports, IAH and HOU. Southwest only flies out of HOU, which is about an hour further away from us than IAH. I’ve flown SW before (alone), and I was very impressed with their willingness to help me. My experience with United through IAH has been very hit-or-miss. Usually it’s average, sometimes it’s very good, I’ve also had utterly terrible experiences. My husband still insists on flying IAH/United because that’s where he has the frequent flyer miles.

  2. I can usually stand/walk okay but I have joint issues and back pain that are only made worse by hours standing in long lines and then sitting in a cramped seat. I recently shelled out for Global Entry cause I fly internationally a lot (it includes expedited customs and TSA PreCheck) and that’s been a great help in reducing the amount of time I spend in line (and therefore the amount of stress on my joints/back). It’s kind of pricey ($120 or so) but lasts for 5 years. PreCheck on its own is $85 for 3 years and if you’re a frequent flier and can afford it I strongly recommend it.
    I also have so many food allergies/dietary restrictions that I usually just end up bringing food from home (which sometimes causes problems at customs if I don’t finish it on the plane, but it’s better than having my digestive system nope out at 30000 feet with only a tiny airplane bathroom). I love traveling but flying is absolutely awful.

  3. I’ve traveled extensively all my life, and until I was an adult traveling solo I didn’t realize how much extra time it took to do the airline thing due to my mom’s disability. Mind you, until I was an adult I never really considered that my mom was disabled–she has Type 1 Diabetes, and it just kind of was what it was, I guess. But she had an insulin pump for a long ass time for lots of reasons, and so after 9/11 it was always such a production going through security. Every single time they treated her like she absolutely must have been packing some kind of dangerous weapon somewhere on her body, and they were just super hostile about it. And, my mom is a super anxious person, and very socially anxious, which just made everything sooooo much worse for her and the people soooo much bitchier somehow. Meanwhile, when I travel now I almost always get put into that “precheck” thing where you’re not deemed a security threat and you don’t have to take your shoes off or your coat, it’s all very casual. When I was younger, we’d have to show up at the airport something like three hours early. Now I’m safe with 45 minutes. Privilege, man. I honestly didn’t realize until I was on my own.

  4. SouthWest Airlines removed me from my exit seat (never reimbursed), as the stewardess, who had very obviously had been having a bad day, thought my speech was “not fluent enough to give commands in an authoritative manner”. (I had been peloton leader in boot camp, by the way). I had been transitioning from male to female for a year at that stage, and was showing breast development, which I believe was the real reason.
    I tried to argue the point with her and she tried to turn the other passengers against me and I was literally shouted down.
    She then replaced me with an old man who required help in getting his luggage up to the bin level. I kid you not.

  5. Thank you for writing this.

    I haven’t flown since I’ve become disabled and before reading this I wouldn’t have thought to think about things until like, I got to the airport and went “wait shit I can’t do this shit” (which has been a recurring theme with re-learning how to navigate the world as a disabled person), especially the sitting in the airplane seat (long car rides are already Hell and that’s with having all the space I can get in a car, which is like 5x the space I’d get in an airplane seat).

  6. Thank you for this article. I’m a white poor queer trans person with physical and emotional disabilities. I’m also in my 30s and despite braces on joints and looking exhausted and miserable at the airport, people assume I’m too young to be sick. Then add all of the gendered issues with going through scanners while trans. So when I try to get help it’s even more difficult.

    Accessing flights is so difficult and terrible and costs more despite the reality of disabled people being poorer or average. And no matter how hard you try you can never feel secure that you’ll have what you need. I don’t travel much at all because of these factors unless I can drive and even then I have to break up long trips with costly hotel stays.

    I hope articles like this inspire someone who isn’t careless to do better in travel sectors with accessibility.

  7. This was really informative. As a cis, white, able-bodied person, air travel already is so horrible to me that I avoid it if at all possible (I’ll always take a seven hour train ride over a 1.5 hour plane ride – I feel like the time spent kind of evens out anyway basically) that I’m so sorry people have to experience so much worse.

  8. Ok I’m aspie and sometimes get the wrong end of the stick. What did the steward mean when she talked to Alyssa on the plane? Cos I interpret it as ‘you’re too much of a burden so if there’s an emergency and the planes going to crash, stay there and we’ll leave you’. But part of me is thinking that can’t be what she meant as that’s absolutely awful & Alyssa didn’t comment on someone telling her they were prepared to leave her to die.

    I can’t do airports. It used to just be that plane food’s smell made me feel sick so I had to be the only one who never got a meal and feel sick at the smell all around me. (I could handle that) But my eyes have got worse with light sensitivity, airports are so bright (I tried googling why and it won’t tell me) and, of course, there are so many checks. For which you’re not allowed to have anything obscuring your eyes. Makes sense but I really can’t not wear black glasses in somewhere with such strong lighting, not even just take them off, as it makes me feel like my eyes are literally burning. So I don’t fly and my mum doesn’t like it as it means we can only holiday where we can take a train/car/boat. (she doesn’t seem to get that the typical holiday resorts are off limits to me cos of the sun anyway or that I’m more able to be left at home than just before my breakdown so I could cope with them leaving me for a week while they went)

    Even euro star and boats and ID are made difficult as you have to have passport photos without any tinting, my usual glasses have a slight tint. Fortunately I found a photographer who could take a picture of me without glasses without it hurting. And fortunately train stations aren’t excessively lit, so I can wear my usual glasses and they can see my eyes in them.

  9. As a Deaf individual (and also someone who is a Little Person), I felt like the (incredibly valuable) perspectives offered by this article were limited to those with chronic pain, mobility challenges and “invisible”/ psychological disabilities. Where are the voices in our community that are blind or Deaf? Imagine not being able to hear the overhead announcements that your flight has been delayed, or that the departure time has been unexpectedly moved up (yep, I have missed flights because of this, despite requesting that I be flagged in person down for any schedule changes), or gripping the armrests in terror during a bumpy ride when your fellow passengers have been warned of the “minor” turbulence ahead, or remaining mystified about why the aircraft has been sitting on the runway for 90 minutes (even if the overhead announcement is some BS like “mechanical issues”), or skipping out on the in-flight entertainment because it is, incredibly, still, in 2017, not closed captioned.

    • As someone who helps a Deaf person with train travel, thanks for your perspective. I agree, more visual communication is needed as well. Maybe a signer amongst the stewards who could (for extra pay/instead of serving drinks) also sign what the messages from the captain were? And more visual information in airports too.
      Do you use the screens? When we’ve been in airports, we’ve made use of those, they should in theory say this information. Of course that requires you to be in the same place as the screen, I don’t get why they can’t communicate that via phones (text or app) these days but they didn’t last time we flew.

  10. The last time I flew, I used a wheelchair in the airport and my cane when boarding. I had to give up my emergency exit seat too and I have aviaphobia as it is. I started having a panic attack that we’d have a water landing and I’d be unable to escape.

    Working in healthcare, we were always trained to value patient lives more than our own. Even if danger was imminent and we needed to evacuate, we were told to keep evacuating people. Everywhere I worked was always very vague on when to finally abandon patients, when to prioritize personal safety, etc.

    I’ve always wondered why can’t flight attendants do the same thing? If you’ve got a vulnerable passenger who’d be at greater risk of dying because they’d be a “burden”, then shouldn’t that person become a greater responsibility to the staff at least?

    • You’d think so wouldn’t you? Maybe it’s only us (past nurses and other health care folks) who were socialised so throughly to put patients before ourselves. Maybe too, the history of air travel and the old fashioned “glamour ” that used to surround the job, attracted/s a different sort of person.

      I have a lousy time at airports and inflight too and there are so many times that I wish I could just get out and walk home. Pity I have a hard time walking anywhere now.

      I do wish though, that the airlines and associated staff would get over themselves, These day’s planes are not much more than glorified buses.

  11. I’m Autistic and struggled with flying, sensory overload was terrible in airports and on flights – I genuinely feared not finding my way so missing my flight or having a meltdown that could have saw me assaulted by staff. I can become non-verbal and so struggle to get attention of staff on the flight, for example when needing a drink. I need an isle seat at the back of the plane but I couldn’t find any way of ensuring this outside of waiting to reserve a seat and hoping one was still available.

    I found it *impossible* to find any information on ways I could be accommodated, and when I asked about online I just received a load of abuse from people thinking that I wanted special treatment.

    Autism and ADHD includes executive dysfunction so due to lack of sleep routine I can’t risk attempting to sleep before my flight, I also can’t sleep on flights, lack of sleep makes everything worse but also causes leg spasms and cramps due to RLS. On my first trip I wasn’t expecting this ad it was so severe I could barely walk, no help from staff getting about (including on a bus where they expected me to stand) and at one point I literally had to crawl up the ramp to the airplane…no one batted an eye.

    Obviously my situation is nothing compared to some people’s, but it frustrates me so little is done when it comes to access and general issues of discrimination or prejudice via air travel.

    • Your issues are just as important as anyone else. You don’t have to apologize for the fact that something is important to you. You deserve just like everyone else accommodation.

    • I’ve just read this article again and I wonder if it would be worth writing to the most senior executive officers of the airlines that we use most regularly and actually detail the full spectrum of the issues raised here by us all.

      Also I don’t know about the US but I think many places have Govt Consumer representatives or organisations so maybe we can also contact them and list our grievances there too.
      Just a thought, since although legislation is in place it’s obviously not being followed.

  12. I have always had fairly positive experiences with traveling, although I haven’t traveled alone in many years. The seats are extremely painful and I always have to bring a bag full of pillows and fold out foot stools and braces, but the staff has almost always been helpful. They fill my ice packs with ice when I ask, they help with my wheelchair, and I have never been asked to prove my disability. Even the TSA (at Denver particularly) have been very helpful. That said, I think a lot of that comes from the fact that I look very young and almost always travel with my father. Perhaps that is a form of discrimination in itself.

  13. Too real! To add to the pile of nonsense everybody has entered, I have been abandoned – twice – at IAH at the point where you get dropped by one of the motor carts to wait for a wheelchair pickup to transfer to another terminal. Once was probably just one of the (many many many) cases of being left to wait for a long time before a wheelchair shows up, but I was nervous due to a short connection time. The other was definitely a cart driver who thought I was “faking” because I didn’t have my cane with me that day, and drove away without calling the wheelchair folks. He drove away saying, “I’ll call it in,” without reaching for the radio. Because I couldn’t walk far enough to reach a gate agent, I had to sit until another cart happened to drop another transfer passenger, and when the wheelchair for *them* showed up I got them to call for another. Infuriating.

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