There are stories I could tell, this is just the latest one
Recently, I flew for the first time since 2018. Went to North Carolina to visit my recently-widowed mother and bring her something she needed.
I have traveled since I was nine years old. By car, bus, train and plane. Mostly by plane. I’ve lost count of the number of airlines I’ve flown. I have traveled in coach, business and first class. I have flown to Jamestown, North Dakota and Dunedin, New Zealand. I have taken 14-hour flights and 25-minute flights. I have caught the red-eye and been on the 6 AM to Chicago. I have flown charter flights and been caught in a snowstorm at O’Hare, with no food and 13 planes ahead of us. I’ve flown airlines that don’t exist anymore.
For the past 25 years, I flew United and other Star Alliance carriers. Due to my Paralympic participation. Now, at nearly 64, I am mostly retired from that life, but I’m still a member in good standing with my Mileage Plus Account.
However, traveling by plane as a disabled passenger, even for someone like myself, is an ordeal. It is embarrassing, sometime humiliating and often fraught with indifference and belligerence. Broken wheelchairs, untrained crew personnel, people who look at you like a freak. I once had a flight attendant try and kick me off a flight because I was traveling by myself. I can’t begin to count the number of parts of old wheelchairs that never made it to their final destination.
Here’s the rub: In the original version of the Americans With Disabilities Act, airlines were required to widen their aisles and allow passengers with disabilities to stay in their chairs. There was one problem: It would have been in First Class — and heaven forbid the ‘pretty people’ would have to sit in the same section with “those people.”
Those of us with visible, lifelong disabilities — Cerebral Palsy, Muscular Dystrophy, Multiple Sclerosis, paraplegia, quadriplegia, amputees — continue to be treated like modern-day leapers by the airlines. We are a burden to be dealt with and forgotten.
The New York Times recently documented the challenges of flying while disabled. As I noted, lost parts are just the tip of the spear when it comes to damaged wheelchairs. In 2021, a down year for flying, over 7,000 chairs were lost, stolen, damaged or delayed at airports.