The Very Unaccommodating Skies: Travel for the Disabled Is One Bumpy Ride

People always associate summertime with travel. For many travelers with disabilities, and for my husband Jim Fisher and I as parents of an autistic teenager, travel tends to be associated with headaches or rather with something more like migraines. With TSA, airlines packing in the econo-passengers and civility and patience in short supply, the skies, the roads, etc., all seem to be decidedly less friendly. Individuals who need wheelchairs and other accommodations have really been getting short shrift while flying in Europe, as Reuters notes, and the situation doesn’t look like it will be changing anytime, or anywhere (including in the US), soon.

Last week, European Union officials met with representatives of the European Disability Forum, which represents about 80 million Europeans with disabilities, to discuss the challenges of flying. Unfortunately, the meeting yielded few results about enforcing existing laws about passengers rights with airlines, over such issues as making sure that airline staff handle equipment such as wheelchairs properly. A 2006 EU law requires airports and airlines to “board passengers with reduced mobility” but, as the following examples illustrate, compliance has been at best “shaky”:

The meeting was called after complaints about several European airlines reached the European Commission, including one from the U.N.’s disability representative, who was prevented from boarding a European flight on Swiss International Airlines in April.

Ryanair (RYA.I) lost a lawsuit in Britain earlier this year in a case over a wheelchair-bound woman who was stuck on the runway when a requested hydraulic ambulance lift to raise her to the plane’s door was not available.

The woman’s husband carried her onto the plane on his shoulders and the court found that employees gave no help. Air Europa, EasyJet (EZJ.L) and Air Berlin (AB1.DE) have also been the subjects of recent complaints to the Commission.

Passengers do have rights. In the US, passengers with disabilities can learn about their rights via the Association for Airline Passenger Rights:

The Air Carrier Access Act prohibits discrimination in air transportation by domestic and foreign air carriers against qualified individuals with physical or mental impairments

TSA has a program for screening of persons with disabilities and their associated equipment, mobility aids, and devices. A section on children with disabilities is primarily about children with physical disabilities, but does note that you should “inform the Security Officer if you think the child may become upset during the screening process as a result of their disability” and “offer suggestions on how to best accomplish the screening to minimize any confusion or outburst for the child.” How agents might respond, or if they will respond at all, to a parent’s suggestions is not mentioned.

As I recently wrote in regard to some passengers’ calls for child-free flights, air travel is currently out of the question for our son Charlie. His disability is “invisible” in the sense that he does not have physical disabilities but he does need accommodations.

A seasoned air traveler on cross-country flights of 6 and 7 hours to California until a few years ago, our now-teenage-son Charlie is currently not able to handle airplane travel. Charlie is extremely sensitive to sound and would probably not fare too well if a baby were crying in the cabin of a cross-continental flight. Physical activity is the best way to help Charlie deal with anxiety and stress (which he often struggles to explain he feels, as he has speech and communication disabilities). Obviously, you can’t run or even really stretch when you’re smashed with other weary passengers in econo-class, and I have a feeling business- and first-class travelers would not take kindly to Charlie, who does have “different” (“weird” and “annoying” to some, I have a feeling) behaviors. He can be noisy himself and talk (not always in recognizable words) endlessly; this is often a way for him to de-stress and getting a dirty look for not “just shutting up” would only exacerbate his anxiety.

But frankly, it’s not just air travel that has become a huge hurdle. Airport security — yes, TSA — is a challenge in and of itself for Charlie. When he was little, people nodded or even shrugged when we mentioned he’s autistic as the reason he didn’t follow directions to walk through the metal director till after a minute or more had passed. Things change when your little autistic kid is a strapping, dark-haired teenager who perpetually has a bit of a five o’clock shadow as (those sensory issues again!) shaving, done by Jim, is a bit of a challenge. Charlie’s “odd” behavior now qualifies as “suspicious-looking” (especially when you’re going through security checks, with agents looking for “anything unusual”). He knows when he is being reprimanded for not (for instance) walking fast enough through the metal detector, or answering a question fast enough.

Charlie is very attuned to non-verbal communication and readily picks up on frustration and stress, two emotions that a lot of people standing in a long line at a security check-in — not to mention stuck on a runway-stranded airplane waiting to take off — are most likely experiencing. When we did travel, Charlie never had to undergo a full-body search; we’d prefer not to know how he might have felt about that. He can go from seemingly calm to “all-out full behavioral storm mode in the blink of an eye, not exactly the kind of thing airports would be glad to see.  We did have a few harrowing waits with an-about-to-explode-child when our plane was stuck on the runway without air conditioning: Might it not be possible to create provisions for individuals with disabilities to be able to deplane for medical reasons at such times? (Believe me, the whole plane would appreciate it!).

Of course, we’re all for safety and security. Mostly we miss Charlie being able to see his grandparents, aunt, cousins and many others in California; we do plan to drive cross-country with Charlie some day, but that’s not something we can do too often.

Increasingly, travel seems to be the preserve of the able-bodied. One day all of us is more than likely to be disabled and need a helping hand. Have we become so preoccupied with our own comfort and concerns, that we are tacitly relegating those with disabilities or “special needs” to a distinctly second-, or third-, class experience and even sending the message “just stay at home where you belong”?

Related Care2 Coverage

Airline Bans Babies in 1st Class: In Search of Cry-Free Skies

UPDATE: TSA Denies Asking Passenger To Remove Adult Diaper

Detroit TSA Harasses Man with Intellectual Disabilities

Photo on an airline doing the right thing and accommodating a passenger in a wheelchair by goosmurf

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Ivy Taylor
Yvonne Taylor2 years ago

continued as was not enough space- Sometimes you have to re pack your carry on and luggage because the rules of weight are different at an airport, all I can say is make sure you have a lot of time between flights! Then there is American Airlines, I missed an entire day and half because they could not find a crew to fly the flight, the head stewardess seemed drunk, singing (BADLY) and screaming Yeee HAW, spent day in Dallas Airport, hundreds of others on American flights in same boat because of delays. Thankfully an extra day was scheduled for the boat I was to board or would have missed my entire trip. Only thing offered me by the American Airlines for my troubles was a free hotel but not until 3 in the morning where there was a long line to get into hotel because of all the other passengers of American who also did not have a plane. However, Quantas, which is an affiliate of American but owned by Australia is very good.

Ivy Taylor
Yvonne Taylor2 years ago

I can just imagine how much more frustrating it would be if I were handicapped. My last trip I was so sleep deprived I could literally not think straight when trying to fill out customs forms, and went through so much I cried several times and I am not one who cries easily. Having been through so many airports in USA, Jordan, Egypt, Australia and New Zealand my body should be glowing by now. Not to mention that in Jordan and Egypt you go through scanners to go into your hotels, the big malls, any tourist area as well. The scanners they "say" are in safe levels for you, but if you are traveling a lot those statistics are raised. The worst airport staff throughout is in New York airport, and the most redundant checking (not sure why if I go through three checks, not too far away from each other, they sent me 10 feet away for another personal check?) Not a single employee there ever smiled either. In Australia I had to talk to 7 security officers before I found one that would let me go outside to have a smoke, even though I had a re entry visa, and had to go through the many checks to get back in, including quarantine where my boots were washed and bags re checked, but at least they were friendly. The airports are so crowded and you go through soooo many checkpoints, and at each airport, even in the same countries, they may take an item even though it has gone through a ton of checks already at different airports or even the same airport and same airline company. Sometime

Angela Burrow
Angela Burrow3 years ago


I asked one of the hotel receptionists why Thai people were so understanding and was told it was part of their religion. All acts of kindness help in their reincarnation, and helping a disabled person is one of the acts that earns the most brownie points.

I've not travelled to or in the USA, so I can't comment on there.

Angela Burrow
Angela Burrow3 years ago

Eva Airways is brilliant for disabled travellers. I flew with them from London to Thailand in 2007. Travelling from Heathrow to Suvarnabhumi, a team was waiting for me at the boarding gate. Travelling home the service was even better: a member of staff was waiting for me at the check-in desk, and his sole purpose was to push me anywhere I wanted to go until I was taken to the boarding gate. He brought an airport wheelchair in case I wanted to put mine in the hold, took me shopping in duty free, sat with me while I had a drink and tried chatting to me in pidgin English while waiting for the boarding gate to open. I was taken on board before other passenger, given 2 seats so I could lay down when I went dizzy and every hour during the flight an air steward came to check on me, telling me I could ask for anything I wanted. They really couldn't do enough to help me.

Having said that, I found Thai people extremely helpful when they saw me out and about in my wheelchair. Even time my taxi stopped and people saw the driver lift out my chair, a crowd would run to the taxi to offer their help. When I was hailing a taxi, I had taxi drivers stopping for me, even some who had finished their shift and were on their way home. The hotel staff were adorable: I was not allowed to carry anything in the hotel grounds. There was one room on every floor where guests filled their kettles and the cleaners came and did that for me several times a day. I asked one of the receptionists why Thai peo

Sheri Schongold
Sheri Schongold3 years ago

The TSA doesn't care what rules they are "supposed" to follow, just to do what they want.

David L.
David L.3 years ago

Air travel has gone the way of bus travel, in terms of civility, service, comfort, and accessibility. Much as though we all would be better off with taking trains, the speeds necessary for competition with airlines have not yet been achieved, especially in the US where they are most needed. The airline industry today is facing the the same operating challenges as US passenger rail did in the 1970s, they also have the burden of America's paranoid security regime scarring away and/or aggravating passengers. Between the incessant desire to overfill every airplane, ridiculous surcharges to deal with airline bankruptcy, and the absence of efficient, passenger friendly airplanes, the airline industry has grown into the least friendly industry in passenger transport. The situation is appealing, and there is no improvement in sight. We must force modernization upon transportation or we will continue to suffer as we are now.

Jez wildmoon
jayne turner3 years ago

As a disabled person, I do not travel on aeroplanes because it's just not worth the stress. Ryanair are the worst, on a flight to Ireland, a stewardess actually took my walking aid away, meaning that I could not use the toilet for the entire flight! Also customs staff in the US are so damn rude that I won't put up with it. I'm not paying good money to be treated like a criminal by people who clearly enjoy intimidating passengers, especially those coming into the country.

Sheri Schongold
Sheri Schongold3 years ago

People today are very sensitized to only themselves. If it is different from them or what they want, there is a problem. People have a very, very diffiult time accepting what they can not see. Autism is not always visible in people and the others can't understand and don't want to be bothered seeing that their view of the world is selfish, egotistical, smug and biased against all that is different from them. The airlines don't take very good care of the able-bodied people let alone the dis-abled. They are only concerned with packing the sardine can fuller than it should be. The TSA as a whole doesn't care about people, matter of fact, I think they enjoy upsetting people and this is a way to do it legally.

I do hope that Charlie will one day be able to see his West Coast family. I applaud you for knowing what he can or can't do and tailoring your life to him, rather than throw him aside because it's too much trouble.

River Grace D.
Kathryn D.3 years ago

Though I generally despise airline travel for some of the same reasons Charlie does, noise, crowded conditions, strange people asking me to do strange things, wailing babies, etc,, ad nauseum, when I sprained my ankle the day before I returned home, the airline staff were fore the most part extremely accommodating. The only problem I had was when they parked me in a wheelchair too far away from, and with my back turned to the podium. I couldn't get anyone's attention except a friendly passenger's when I needed the restroom, or hadn't eaten all day. When people learned it was "only" a sprained ankle they became very helpful--all of them could relate to it. I believe most people are afraid to relate to physical, and even more-so to mental handicaps because IT COULD HAPPEN TO THEM OR THEIR FAMILY. Our society that grew up on Barbie and G.I. Joe does not like imperfection. As a majority we fear it. And what we fear we become angry with. When will we grow up as a society? I believe some of the Gen-X crowd and their children are making a start? I sure don't want to grow old and have those as uncaring as my generation responsible for my care.

Jess D.
Jess D.4 years ago

It's really easy for people to suggest greener methods of travel like trains, but a train from the east coast to the west takes 5 days or more for the first leg of the trip. It would be really nice to just "take the time, don't be in such a hurry", but for people with full time jobs, and kids to boot, this is not always a possibility.

Kristina, have you looked into some of the "elite" clubs that some airlines offer? They often come with special boarding privileges, and quieter, less crowded lounges in the actual airports. The memberships can be a bit costly, but it might help keep Charlie a little calmer during trips.