Travel for individuals with disabilities is easier than you might think, and with the proper amount of advance planning, can be as smooth as silk!
Since my injury almost 19 years ago, I have traveled extensively in the air and at sea. I’ve found that the best way to be assured of the service that I need is to actually know what I need, and how people can help me. In this article, I will focus on some tips for travel by air.
I book most of my flights online. Many of the major air carriers give you the opportunity to list special needs (like needing a wheelchair, etc.) on their website. I always do this, but don’t stop there. I will always place a follow-up call to the airline to reinforce my needs, as well as to talk about my seating needs/assignments. A lot of times you can not access the best seats at the front of the plane without actually talking with someone live.
I always arrive at the airport in plenty of time to be able to check in, pass through security, and get to the gate with time to spare. Once the representatives that will be working my flight arrive, I will approach them to remind them that I need an aisle wheelchair to get me from the jet way to my seat, and also that I need to “gate check” my chair. This gets a special tag on my chair so that once we arrive, it will be delivered to the gate for me when I depart the plane. I also make sure that I am assigned to a seat that will work best for me. The gate agents know the plane the best, plus they have the ability to access any seat on the plane (something that can’t be done over the phone or when you check in at the curb.) Sometimes, they might even upgrade you to first class!
Always use the bathroom before you board the plane. Once you are in your seat, you will not be able to move around (if you require a wheelchair to do this.) Know how long your flight will be so that you can monitor your fluid intake, since you won’t be able to use a bathroom until you arrive. On very long flights (to Europe, for example) occasionally I have put a blanket over my lap to allow me to cath while in my seat. This is only on very long flights (9 hours or so.)
You will be the first on the plane, and the last off of the plane. This way you will be able to make transfers without holding others up. Always advocate for yourself and your needs. Be clear with the people who are there to assist you on how much help you require. Do you need them to actually lift you in to the seat, or can you transfer yourself? Try to ask for a seat where the armrest lifts up to ease this transfer, or if you are in the first row (“bulkhead” as it is called,) ask if the aisle chair be angled in for an easy transfer. YOU have to direct the show, as most of the time, the people there to help you will want you to tell them how they can help.
I also make sure to take my cushion on board and sit on it in the plane. Doing weight shifts while flying is just as important as it is on land! I also remember to take my side guards out, so that they do not come loose during the flight and get lost down below. The last thing I do is take my pouch off from under my chair and put that in my carry on. This way, my wallet, money, medicine, and other items I want to keep with me are safe in my possession during the flight.
Once you arrive at your destination, sit tight while the plane empties. When you see a flight attendant, just remind them that you need a wheelchair and assistance to get off the plane. Most of the time you will find that they are prepared for you already, but it never hurts to ask. When the team arrives to help get you off of the plane, again, you must take the lead and let them know how they can help you. Once in your wheelchair, let them know if you need help up the ramp, or with a bag that you might have. They can also help you to find your connecting gate, if you have one.
I will honestly tell you that despite the few bad stories that you may have heard, taking a flight somewhere is really an easy thing to do. I will also remind you though that a smile and a positive, helpful attitude makes the whole experience much better for everyone involved! Say thanks, and let them know you appreciated the help that they provided. That helps them appreciate the work that they do, and makes them that much more willing to help the next passenger with a disability that needs their assistance.
Get out there and enjoy the friendly skies. There are so many great places to see in the world, and we should never let our disability keep us from traveling.