Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Oh the Trials and Tribulations, and the Rewards, of Disabled Travel: Part One

Southwest Airlines ramp operations at William ...
Image via Wikipedia

lo·gis·tics [loh-jis-tiks, luh-]  the planning, implementation, and coordination of the details of a business or other operation.

Disabled travel is all about logistics.  When I’m at home, it takes planning, implementation and coordination of details just to get through the day. But home is a relatively static and predictable environment.  On the road, every activity is untested, untried, and fraught with logistical challenges. 

With disabled travel, there are the macro-logistics, such as flying in an airplane, and there are the micro-logistics, such as getting close enough to the hotel’s bathroom sink to brush your teeth. Each travel day is filled with planning, creativity, persistence, and most of all – patience.

It’s so much easier to just stay home.  But hey, where’s the challenge in that?

aisle-chair-2I knew from previous experience that the best place for me to sit on a Southwest Airlines plane was in the front aisle seat, on the right-hand side. This seat selection has served me well because it is easy to transfer from the special aisle wheelchair (pictured to the left) into this airplane seat, and because this seat is nearest the fore bathroom. In the past, if I was close enough to the bathroom I could manage to get there in a pinch.


However, on my most recent plane trip, due to another year’s worth of disease progression, there would be no hope of getting to the bathroom unassisted, even in a pinch.

So I plopped into my customary seat at the front of the plane, and shortly after takeoff I asked Kim to check out both the fore and aft bathrooms for me.  They each had a handicapped symbol on the door, but they were both as tiny as could be. So what qualified them as handicapped accessible? I guess it was the handrail beside the toilet.

I quizzed the flight attendant. “What if I need to use that bathroom?" I asked, pointing to the front of the plane. 

"We have an onboard aisle wheelchair that we can transfer you to, and then we we'll wheel you to the door of the bathroom, and you will have to transfer in.” Note that the aisle wheelchair would not fit into the bathroom at all. 

I think this may have been logistically possible, but in my mind it was highly undesirable, as the other 150 passengers on the flight would be gawking at me the entire time.  Kim might even have to stand at the open door and help me with my trousers.  I just didn’t know.  Maybe it would be slick.  Maybe it would be a fiasco.  I’m not typically self-conscious about being disabled in public, but I have my limits.


As a precaution, I had refrained from drinking any fluids on the morning of my flight.  On our two hour flight from Manchester, New Hampshire to Chicago, I made it okay. In the Chicago airport I used the bathroom, and again refrained from drinking liquids in anticipation of my four hour flight to Las Vegas. Again, it worked. On the return flights I was once again able to manage my bladder accordingly. 

Don't get me wrong; I love Southwest Airlines. In all other respects they take great care of me when I travel. I seriously doubt whether any airplanes actually have real wheelchair accessible bathrooms. Readers, do you know of any?

10 24The entire service industry is woefully unprepared to discuss individual access issues with disabled people or their caregivers. I spoke with two separate Southwest customer service personnel in the weeks leading up to the flight, but they both had it wrong.  Each of them assured me that at least one bathroom on every plane was truly wheelchair accessible.  This is a common overgeneralization.  The term “wheelchair accessible” has as many shades and colors as the leaves in this photo.   

For example, I will sometimes call a restaurant that I've never been to and ask them if they are wheelchair accessible.  If they say yes, I ask for details.  I try to engage them in a conversation about how I would get from the street to my table, and from my table to the bathroom. I don't know how many times I've been somewhat satisfied by the discussion, only to encounter a surprise when I get there. Maybe there is a hallway that is too narrow, or maybe there is a bathroom stall door that opens in instead of out. It can be quite frustrating, but not so frustrating that I vow to “just stay home next time.” 

I appreciate how difficult it must be for customer service personnel to put themselves in the mindset of a disabled person.  But I wish they would do a better job of it, if not for everyone, then at least for me J


To be continued…click here

Enhanced by Zemanta


  1. I read your bio - wow - how life can change. I so appreciate your comment about staying home easier at times but we keep getting 'out there'. Look forward to following your journey.

  2. Sometimes I adopt that stance of "Oh, I'm just staying home!" More often though, I've been accepting the call for adventure, and like you, have learned the hard way, that accessible has varied definitions. Good for you on your latest Odyssey -- keep us informed.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Right there with you, buddy. It's amazing what able-bodied folks think of as "accessible". Last week I showed up for an appointment at a new doctor's office, after having been assured when making the appointment that the office was wheelchair accessible. When I arrived, I discovered a 6 inch step that needed to be traversed in order to get into the office. Since I don't have an ibot, that 6 inch step might as well have been Mount Everest. WTF?

    To the doctor's credit, he actually built a wheelchair ramp out of plywood, so I was able to visit him later that week. So at least the story has a happy ending…

  5. It's interesting...seriously, I'm starting to notice how bathrooms are put together. (or not, rather...) As well as other types of settings such as "quirky, out of the way places". Those places are not HC accessible for the most part!

  6. We all struggle with the accessibility. I was to take the Amtrak to Chicago from Detroit. I even purchased "disabled" vouchers and the wole enchilada. When the train showed up they dropped down a few small stairs and looked at me like I was a circus freak. "We cant get you up in this" the girl said eloquently...ended up driving...I give you a lot of credit for traveling. I havent traveled since wheelchair bound...

  7. I give you a lot of credit for taking to the travel world. I havent left the area since I went wheelchair bound. I tried to take the Amtrak and they looked at me like a circus freak when it pulled up and there wasnt a ramp to load me up...good for you brother!