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