Wheel­chair vs air­plane

Be­fore the wheel­chair, ar­riv­ing at the air­port was ex­cit­ing. Now it’s stress­ful

The Irish Times - Tuesday - Health - - Front Page - Ais­ling Glynn

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.

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