Weekly Reading List: Air Travel Edition

Illustration of a two-engine airliner viewed face-on in flight, with a blue sky background and a few wispy white clouds

Games They Play
Athena Stevens, Center for Disability Rights - June 10, 2016

The Others: The Disabled and United Airlines
Brian Rivera, Medium - June 6, 2016

Get Wheelchair Travel Tips on Airports and Plane Flights: check-in, security, aisle chairs and more!
Wheelchair Traveling - October 25, 2012

All Wheels Up, Inc.

I recently started watching YouTube videos of high-end air travel experiences. There’s something almost obsessively indulgent about vicariously enjoying a luxury flight from London to Los Angeles, or flying to New Zealand with a couple of fun, carefree young travelers lucky enough to to get a Business Class upgrade. The only thing I’d like better would be videos of disabled people traveling this way, with this kind of pampering and enjoyment. I've seen wheelchair travel videos on YouTube that are basically "how to" guides, like the video linked above, but none that show either really good wheelchair flying experiences, or any that document how badly things can and often do go wrong.

Of all the consumer service businesses, airlines may be the worst when it comes to accommodating customers with disabilities, especially significant mobility impairments. The only wheelchair users I have met who haven’t had at least one spectacularly bad experience with air travel are those who have never flown.

There are probably several reasons for this.

Airlines aren't known for flawless service as it is, at least for passengers flying Coach. While the industry does manage to move millions of people a week over miraculous distances, with just a tiny number of catastrophic failures, most fliers with or without disabilities have stories about being treated like cattle, or worse.

It’s also undeniably true that the way airliners are designed makes real, independent accessibility extremely difficult, at least from the airlines’ perspective. Aircraft aisles are narrow, and the only way to accommodate peoples own wheelchairs in-flight would be to remove seats, which is something airlines simply can’t fathom ever doing … except for the notable fact that First Class sections are comfortable precisely because they put in fewer seats.

Finally, based on the articles linked above, it appears that airlines cope with the accessibility and accommodation requirements that are imposed on them by dividing responsibility among several adjunct service providers. Flight attendants aren’t responsible for getting disabled passengers on and off planes. Wheelchairs are handled by baggage people who have no contact with the wheelchair users themselves, or even the airlines. There are probably mundane business reasons to run things this way, but intentionally or not, it also everyone involved with deniability. Everyone is responsible and nobody is responsible.

The upshot is that disabled people, especially those with wheelchairs, almost have to expect to be treated terribly, and possibly suffer significant physical and financial harm, if they attempt to fly as freely as everyone else does. It seems like no amount of advance preparation and perfect self-advocacy has much effect at all on outcomes. Sometimes everything works our fine. Sometimes everything goes wrong. It’s a crap shoot with at best even odds.

Aside from the physical failures, disabled people also end up feeling that they are simply not wanted. By and large, it just seems like airlines would rather that disabled people didn’t fly at all. They certainly don't seem to try very hard to make disabled passengers feel welcomed, or to feel that anything but absolutely essential air travel is ever a good idea. And for what it's worth, I think a lot of non-disabled frequent fliers feel the same way. Read an article on the perils of flying with a disability, and if there's a comment section, someone will post something to the effect that people who can't hack flying shouldn't fly.

When a restaurant has steps to get in or an accessible restroom blocked by delivery boxes and highchairs, it’s still possible to believe that the staff do want you as a customer, but are just too ignorant or apathetic to make it work when it counts.

But when these enormous airline businesses with massively expensive, highly complex systems, and a remarkable record of moving millions of people all over the globe, in the air, at hundreds of miles per hour, safely … when they can’t manage to get a wheelchair off a plane without breaking it … it sure seems like they fundamentally would prefer you’d just stay home.

This is where we run into the hard limits of civil rights laws. If you can force or partially coerce a restaurant to be accessible, chances are the people running the place will then at least go ahead and make a personal effort to give you a good dining experience. But when you force an airline to provide accommodations they basically believe are infeasible, they’re going to do it in the most grudging and negligent way they can get away with. It’s their conscious or unconscious way of doing it under protest and sending the signal that you’re not wanted.

If that makes it all sound hopeless, I don’t mean it to be. Affordable air travel is a miracle. I, personally, have never had a really bad flying experience because of my disabilities. But I can walk. I can fend for myself with just a tiny bit of extra help. As far as the airlines are concerned, I'm not really disabled ... just a bit high maintenance. I have traveled with wheelchair users though, and the callousness, stupidity, and low-tech-ness involved astounded me.

It seems to me the best answer is some combination of creating more space so wheelchair users can fly in their wheelchairs, and making all airline personnel directly responsible for ensuring positive outcomes with disabled travelers … passing the buck absolutely not allowed.

We Alone Are Not Enough

Twitter logo, white bird silhouette against a light blue background
I caught a glimpse yesterday of something going on with well-known disability activist and scholar Mia Mingus, something about having to do with air travel. I didn’t dig into it though until this afternoon.

It takes a lot really of nasty ableism to truly piss me off. This is partly because I’ve had disabilities all of my life, partly because of 20+ years in the Independent Living Movement, and partly from my more recent blogging on the subject.

It takes something really outrageous to shock me, and that sort of blunts my outrage.

But this kind of thing cuts through all the world-weary cynicism. It’s so stupid, so humiliating, and so unnecessary. Read all about what happened in this collection of Tweets, assembled by Alice Wong of the Disability Visibility Project. I’ll have a bit more to say at the bottom.

There’s a lot in these Tweets that goes beyond disability issues into even more fundamental issues of racism and state power. I feel a little less qualified to comment on those aspects, thought they are definitely there, and the incident itself carries all of the key hallmarks of ableism.

First there's the institutionalized stupidity of a system that probably has safeguards to prevent this kind of discriminatory targeting, but either can’t or won’t actually implement them. I suspect the individuals involved have far too much power and discretion to act on their personal views of disability, (or whatever else bugs them in the moment), and not enough oversight.

Second, there is the fact that people who must meet far more disabled people than most people do in their jobs still think a gel seat cushion in a wheelchair is some kind of weird, mysterious, unknown thing. This is an airport in Oakland, California, associated with one of the most disability-aware metropolitan areas in the United States. You’d think they would have met travelers in wheelchairs with gel cushions before. They are pretty standard components of wheelchairs for people who use them long-term.

Third, I really think a big part of this is what Mia mentioned about experiencing much less hassle when she travels with others. People in wheelchairs especially, are informally required to have someone else there to sort of “vouch” for them, in any situation where authorities are involved or observing. This is a fundamental part of ableism … we alone are not sufficient. We can be admirable, inspiring, plucky, resourceful … but someone’s always wondering where our keeper is, you know?

Now, I have never experienced anything like this, and I travel almost exclusively alone. However, I only fly about once a year, maybe. And for the last ten years or so, I have packed my ventilator … a medium-sized box of of indeterminate purpose with electronics involved … in a suitcase. I check it as luggage. I usually find one of those TSA slips in the case that says someone has opened it and snooped around, but it's never caused a problem. But a gel cushion seems pretty harmless to me, too. Why did they pick on that?

And why didn’t they just accept Mia’s explanation? Again, we go back to the fundamental issue … we alone are not enough.

Who is with you? Is there someone here who can help you? If you're this dependent on your equipment, wouldn't it be smarter to travel with someone? It's not our job to solve your problems you know!

I hope the TSA is forced to give a public explanation for how they treated Mia and what they did to her property. I hope they reimbursed her very quickly for her substantial financial loss. An unequivocal directive that wheelchair cushions are fine would be good, too. And, sad to say, a firing or two may be in order. Institutional ableism aside, sometimes it really does come down to an individual with too much power, who just won't budge in their thinking.


Why (Wheelchair Users) Can't Have Nice Things

Black line drawing image of a bus
Kristen V. Brown, San Francisco Chronicle - April 18, 2015

There are probably people who understand the value of accessibility, but don't realize just how galling this particular story is for wheelchair users. It’s annoying enough when a new business “forgets" to factor in accessibility, then begs forgiveness because they’re new, just starting out, struggling, whatever. But this is an intentionally high-end company that actually bought some wheelchair accessible buses, then intentionally removed the accessibility features. I don’t think they did so because they didn’t want wheelchair users to ride their buses. I suspect it really was all about space. Where else were they supposed to put those juice bars?

I think there’s also some unconscious ableism at work here. Underneath whatever legal calculations the company might have made, gambling on their interpretation of the ADA, I’ll bet there were at least a few thoughts along the lines of: “How many wheelchair users are going to want to take an expensive, luxury bus to work anyway?” Because disabled people don't get cool, high-salary jobs, and we don’t really care about nice things, even if they do reek a bit of embarrassing hipsterism.

Of course, it’s also entirely possible that at least one person at the company thought, maybe for a few seconds: “Wheelchairs take up too much space anyway …” Seriously, don’t you think that thought went through somebody’s mind, even if they never put it into words?

I usually don’t wish failure on startup businesses. However, I hope for the sake of precedent that what the company did is found to be an ADA violation, and that this sets off a chain reaction leading the whole enterprise to go bust. I’m sure the resulting damage to the Bay Area economy will be quite … limited.


"20 States On Wheels" Update

I decided to check in on the 20 States On Wheels project … four college students, one of whom uses a wheelchair, traveling from San Francisco to Boston and blogging about the accessibility they find, or don’t find, along the way. Today they are in Denver!

It looks like they have found a fair amount of full accessibility so far, with the biggest problems being when promised accessibility and accommodations fail to materialize. This seems most notable with car rental and hotel reservations. Restaurants and tourist attractions seem to be mostly accessible and accommodating.

That all sounds familiar to me, and highlights one of the best aspects of architectural accessibility. For the most part, a physically accessible feature can't disappoint. People frequently do, as do their policies and practices.

Browse the blog. The group has posted lots of great photos, along with descriptions of their accessibility experiences.

Handicapped Parking

handicapped parking sign
Chelsea Rarrick, WTVR Channel 6 Richmond, VA - July 9, 2014

This looks like a fairly typical local news story about disabled / handicapped parking … maybe a bit better than usual. It seems like it covers two sides of the same coin … people who misuse handicapped parking permits, and people who wrongly assume that any driver who walks away from a car parked in a handicapped spot must be misusing a handicapped parking permit.

One thing I think is missing from discussions about handicapped parking is that there are several distinct ways it benefits disabled people.

The most obvious is that it allows us to park closer to the entrance of the place we are visiting, so we don’t have to wheel or walk as far as we would if we had to park further away. For some, it is important because the way we move is harder than walking. For others, it’s that we are limited by pain or endurance in how far we can walk without a significant rest.

A somewhat different benefit is that when handicapped spaces are present, it reduces the chance that we won’t find anywhere at all to park. For many of us, just going out is big production that consumes a lot of physical and mental energy. It’s hard to explain to non-disabled people how demoralizing it is to get yourself out to your car, drive to the place you need to visit, and then find that because there is no parking available of any kind, you will have to go home again empty handed. And, your will probably have to do it all over again soon, because you still have those errands to finish. This is less likely to happen if the right number of handicapped spaces are properly placed and marked.

Knowing that handicapped parking spaces are available gives us added assurance that we can go out and successfully complete our errands, without becoming so exhausted that we can’t move for days. By extension then, if handicapped parking were to be eliminated somehow, or if a disabled person lost their permit for some reason, it would cause us to go out less, and be more “home bound” than necessary.

Put another way, handicapped parking gives both practical and theoretical benefits. It makes a more active life physically possible, and psychologically a little less scary.

So, yes, we REALLY DO need disabled parking.

Accessibility Road Trip Followup

About a month ago, I did a blog post about a cross-country trip some college students were planning for this summer, the purpose of which is to document accessibility at hotels and restaurants they encounter on their trip. The group appears to be led by Kunho Kim, who is a paraplegic wheelchair user. All of the group are Harvard students.

I just checked back with the project’s beautiful website, and it appears that they are close to raising their $6,000 goal to pay for the trip. They have also posted their first accessibility review … of a local bed & breakfast. It looks like they will be posting some practice reviews before leaving for their trip.

It is all very nicely done, and the website is very pleasant to visit and browse. I hope that they develop a bit more of a strict rating system, so that it is easier to compare the places they review. Also, I hope they review a variety of different places, with different styles and price levels, including both chain establishments and independently owned motels and restaurants. I do like that their B&B review included aspects of how the staff responded to their accessibility needs.

It seems like a fun and worthwhile project, and definitely worth checking up on over the course of the summer. Plus, imagine how great it would be if this became a trend ... disabled college students road-tripping to document accessibility!

The website is: 20 States On Wheels.

Best Summer Vacation Plan

This is a great idea. Four college students … at least one of whom is a wheelchair user ... driving across the United States, coast to coast, documenting accessibility in 20 cities. I can’t wait to read more about their plans. How are they going to decide what facilities to check? Are they going to use an accessibility mapping app, like AbleRoad or AXSMap? What sort of vehicle will they be driving?

Here is a brief video describing the trip, also posted on the project website.

I willl be following their progress!

Air Travel Tips

AmputeeOT's video this week is about traveling by air as an amputee. As usual, she has a very optimistic outlook on things. Travel for people with physical disabilities doesn't always go smoothly, even when you do plan ahead. At the same time, she's pretty realistic, and everything she says makes good sense. And anyway, this blog sometimes gets a bit bleak, so I like to balance it out with some lighter stuff once in awhile.