Wheelchair vs airplane
Before the wheelchair, arriving at the airport was exciting. Now it’s stressful
There’s life before the wheelchair and life after the wheelchair. The wheelchair changes your life. When I started writing this column, I thought about topics. Air travel was one of them. But I hesitated, telling myself that air travel was a luxury.
In my third column, I wrote about planning and how life became more regimented after the wheelchair. You can’t just hop in or out of bed if you’re dependent on someone to assist you. You have to plan how you’re going to get to work, or to the shop. All of this planning can be tiring and sometimes you feel like you just need a break. To escape from the planning and the reliance on others. To hop in the car and go for a drive. To get away for a night. But it’s difficult to do any of these things if you’re dependent on others, and dependent on aids and appliances that don’t exist in too many places outside your own home. The wheelchair doesn’t leave much room for spontaneity.
Sometimes I imagine hopping on a plane and getting away for a few days, but the reality is, if you need someone to help you get up in the morning, you’re still going to need them when you’re away. We all feel the need to get away sometimes. Since acquiring a disability, I have felt this more. The need to get away is stronger when you’re dependant on others for everyday life, but the funny thing is that getting away and planning that trip away highlights those dependencies more.
I still think air travel is a privilege. However, it can also be a necessity. When I qualified in 2010, many of friends had to board planes to New York or London, because there were no jobs here. Two of my sisters moved to London. When I was undergoing investigations before my diagnosis, I flew to London for medical services that weren’t available in Ireland.
I use an electric wheelchair. Apart from “how fast does it go?”, “how do you bring your wheelchair on to a plane?” has to be one of the questions I get asked most frequently. Here is the answer. Ten years ago the policy was to lift me from my electric wheelchair into a manual one and to wheel me outside to the steps of the plane. I’d then be lifted into a narrow aisle seat, strapped in and carried by two staff members up the steps of the plane. On one occasion I fell out of the wheelchair on the way to the steps and ended up with two black eyes. Not the best start to a holiday. That was a real fall. But every time, I was carried up those steps, unbalanced, I imagined that fall.
It is widely accepted that the safest, most efficient and most comfortable means of transferring disabled people on to aircraft is by using an airbridge. An airbridge means that I can drive my own wheelchair along the bridge and up to the door of the plane. Unfortunately, not all airlines use airbridges. It’s hit and miss.
Next comes the transfer on to the plane. Maybe wheelchair users are seen as simply that. People using wheelchairs who need to be transferred into airplane seats. Every time I board a plane, two or three staff members arrive to physically lift me from my wheelchair on to an aisle seat and from there into the plane seat. Most of the time, I am last to board, so there’s an urgency which adds to the stress. The aisle seats are narrow with small straps. I try my best to keep my balance, but it’s impossible.
It’s uncomfortable being physically lifted on to the plane, with people looking at you. The people in the seats in front and behind have to move to allow you be lifted on to your seat. On the last occasion, I twisted my ankle during one of these lifts.
I told myself I wasn’t going to fly again – there must be a solution.
I have found myself discussing this issue with other disabled people over the past year or so. One of my friends is over 6ft with a spinal injury. He told me that the aisle seat for him is like trying to balance on an A4 sheet of paper. He has given up flying for this reason. It’s uncomfortable, stressful, embarrassing, unsafe and often results in injury. Not just for wheelchair users, but for the staff also.
Sometimes, there are no solutions. There are solutions to this issue, however. In Norway, in 2013, new regulations were introduced on universal design of airports and disabled people’s rights in air transport. The legislation bans physical carriage of passengers with reduced mobility and makes it compulsory for airport operators to use hoists to help passengers with mobility limitations to board.
We all feel the need to get away sometimes. Since acquiring a disability, I have felt this more
The Eagle Lift for example was designed years ago to safely transfer passengers requiring full assistance and it exists in many airports around the world. Being carried up the steps of a plane 10 years ago was unacceptable.
There are solutions in using airbridges and safe lifting equipment so as to ensure that disabled people are treated with the same respect and dignity as other travellers.
Before the wheelchair, I remember the excitement of arriving at the airport. That feeling of relaxation after walking through security and stepping into the duty free. Now, after the wheelchair, this is when the real stress kicks in.
Hopefully, the solutions identified will be put into practice so that I and others disabled people can arrive at the airport and look forward to taking off.
■ There are solutions to the problem of boarduing an aircraft when in a wheel chair.