99 Problems

The daily struggles of urban living as a quadriplegic explained one by one. It's so much more than not being able to find a parking space.

99 Problems — #10 Disabled Traveling Is No Easy Feat (Part: 1)

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ADA TravelingI’m often asked what happens to my wheelchair upon boarding an airplane. The answer is: like luggage, it is tagged and shoved into the bottom of the airplane–and I do mean shoved. While everyone else looks for places overhead to stow their over-sized travel bags, I wait for the thud that is my wheelchair being dropped into the plane from some kind of elevated machinery or crane. Then I wait and listen for the sound of metal scratching metal, which is the sound of my wheelchair chair being dragged along the plane’s belly. After these two things happen I am elated–it means my wheelchair has at least made it on board and will arrive at my destination. Will it arrive in one piece? That’s a concern for later on. There are plenty of other things to worry about in between take-off and departure, like water in-take, how to go to the bathroom and when the Ativan kicks in.

Traveling in a wheelchair can be difficult, but it’s still possible. Since I love seeing new sites I put in the effort. But it’s no easy feat. Here’s why:

8 MORE REASONS TO HATE FLYING (If You’re In A Wheelchair)

1. LONG CHECK INS  Upon checking in any airline I’m always asked what kind of battery fuels my electric wheelchair, wet or dry? I say dry because I know it’s what gets me to the gate faster. I once made the mistake of saying, “I’m not sure.” This led to a 20-minute delay at the counter and much confusion. Eventually, after a discussion between five airline employees, it was decided that a maintenance guy would come dissect my wheelchair. He came to this conclusion, “I think it’s a dry cell.” His response allowed me to complete check-in and move on to the gate, which is where I was asked the same question again by a different employee. And then again by two other employees. Lesson learned: Just say dry, always dry.

2. AISLE CHAIRS An aisle chair is a tiny straight back chair with a ton of velcro straps, usually located at the end of every boarding walkway and right before the airplane boarding entrance. Never noticed it before? That’s because it’s something not worthy of any attention. At 5’2” and 115 pounds and my butt barely fits on the seat, like literally I hang off of each side. That’s why someone is required to strap me to the chair like I’m in a psycho-ward, or worse a child’s car seat. Once tied down like Hannibal Lector I’m then asked to keep my arms crossed to prevent injury while being rolled back to my seat, which sadly is not in first class. Thanks to the airplane’s narrow aisle, on the way to my seat, even with my arms crossed, my shoulders rub and bounce off each first class seat back like I’m training to be a defensive lineman. How do larger people wheelchairs travel? By car I imagine. Lesson learned: Find a man to carry you on board, aka a husband.

This is an aisle chair. Scary, right?

This is an aisle chair. Scary, right?

3. LONG PLANE RIDES Of anyone on the plane, minus maybe the flight attendants, my flight is always the longest. Because it takes some time for my wheelchair to get from the top of the gate to the plane’s belly, I usually have the opportunity to board first. This is a perk. Because it takes just as long (and sometimes longer) for the chair to travel from the belly to the gate, I also depart last. This is frustrating. I, too, want to scramble to grab my things and race off the plane upon arriving at my destination. However, instead I must wait at least twenty more minutes and then meet up with everyone at luggage pick up. Lesson learned: Relax. The luggage is never there anyway.   

4. DANGLING FEET I always take my seat cushion with me when traveling. One reason is so that I know it doesn’t get lost in pursuit and the other reason is to make the trip as comfortable as possible. Weight shifts (or pressure reliefs) are hard to do in an airplane seats thanks to neighbors and metal square arm rests. So the cushion is kind of necessary. Unfortunately, it comes at the price of sitting three inches higher than normal. Thus my feet dangle above the floor, which again makes me feel like a child strapped in a car seat. In the past I’ve used books, my purse, an airline blanket and pillow or whatever is available to stabilize my feet. The problem comes when the flight attendant asks me to remove the stuff under my feet for take-off and landing.  While I understand the reasoning behind the request– people in the window seat need a clear get away path in case of emergency– I don’t care. 1. As a quadriplegic and someone with no trunk control, it seems more dangerous to have my legs swinging freely upon take off or landing (without any emergency). 2. If there is an emergency, I doubt it will be my foot rest that is the problem. And I’m going to block the aisle anyway. No one is leaving that plane without me.  Lesson Learned: Nod your head yes and always respect your flight attendants. Eventually, they stop asking questions and making requests.

5. NO BATHROOM ACCESS It’s cute when flight attendants say they have a stow away aisle chair in case of a bathroom emergency. At least they’re trying to be thoughtful. No wheelchair person, at least not me, ever uses the tiny bathroom in an airplane. The transferring alone would cause a scene, let alone maneuvering an aisle chair through the aisle and bathroom door and finally to the toilette. Like really, I wonder if this has ever been done. It seems impossible. Lesson Learned: Don’t drink very much before flights.

6. BATHROOM ACCESS (for neighbors) Non-wheelchair passengers can visit the bathroom easily. Thus they drink freely and in excess, which obviously makes me envious. The even more fun part is that since I cannot stand up and must be lifted into my assigned seating, I am forced to use aisle seats. I can only hope those sitting next to me saw my wheelchair pre-boarding. If not, it becomes quite difficult to explain to a strangers why they must straddle me in order to get to their seat. And then straddle me again when they go to the bathroom. Lesson learned: Pray for an empty seat or someone not wearing a dress.

7. ASKING FOR HELP I’ll admit I am a diva when traveling alone but it’s only because I cant do anything for myself. So I’m all, “Can you grab my bag?” and “Will you plug my headphones in?” and “Can you switch the channel?” Bless the strangers who are assigned to sit next to me, especially upon landing. Since I have no torso control and pilots must slam on the brakes, I have to ask, “Can you hold me while we land?” Lesson Learned: Have no pride.

8. FINAL INSPECTION I have trained myself to have anxiety upon any landing. Besides all the factors listed above, I can’t help but think, Did my wheelchair make it? It doesn’t matter if I sensed its boarding or even if the flight attendant tells me my chair was successfully boarded, for the first few minutes after landing I will worry about what to do if it didn’t. I will visualize myself wheelchair-less and mentally paralyzed in this new place to the point of panic. And then my chair will arrive. The aisle chair process begins again, but in reverse, until finally I am reunited with my chair. The joy of being paired with my machinery washes away the anxiety for a second, until I must inspect for damages. Only once have I lost a footplate. Scratches are no big deal. Connected wires are. My battery will sometimes come separately, boxed and bagged, even though I said ‘dry.’ Lesson Learned: Expect problems. It’s nice to be pleasantly surprised by perfection.

After arriving at my destination, the anxiety continues. I will have needed to arrange accessible transportation and accommodations. But that’s a whole different blog altogether. I have learned to expect the unexpected. It’s what traveling is all about–thrills and new experiences.

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Missing one problem? At ease waringis.com soldier. They’re here.
99 Problems #1 The Attack of the Flying Pens
99 Problems #2 My Kitty Has Super Powers
99 Problems #3 Los Angeles Sidewalks Are Cracked Out
99 Problems #4 Strangers Touch Me
99 Problems #5 I Once Offended a Woman With Lupus.
99 Problems #6 I Hate Parking Garage Ticket Dispensers
99 Problems #7 House Wars
99 Problems #8 I Have Beef With Matt Lauer
99 Problems #9 I’m Having An Identity Crisis


4 Responses to “99 Problems — #10 Disabled Traveling Is No Easy Feat (Part: 1)”

  1. Shawnté says:

    A) I really, really, really love your writing.
    B) If we ever travel together, I will totally hold you while we land.

  2. Jana, thank you so much for writing this. I love reading your blog. My mom was in a wheelchair for the last 15 years of her life and your blog is helping me understand what it must have been like for her (I was too young to really understand a lot or think beyond my own little world.) I love your writing and appreciate your honesty.

  3. kathy kiely says:

    hey jana, another good one! what i like about your explanations is that everyone is curious when they see a disabled person getting around, and we wonder “how does he/she do it?” “how is it different from my experience?” but it’s not good form to ask, so we remain ignorant until someone like you lays it all out. with enlightenment come both understanding and empathy, and that’s a very good thing!
    i must say, the patience you have learned is something i can learn from too.

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