I love going on holiday, preferably somewhere sunny, warm and quiet where I can read, relax, snooze and swim. But in order to indulge myself I have to fly. Vic Finkelstein wrote about the various models of disability and the other day at the airport we were confronted with a modern day version of the administrative model. Previously we’ve turned up, logged ourselves with whatever company is providing the assistance then gone to the check-in desk for a round of badgering and harassment about how heavy my chair is, what’s in the batteries, and why they want me to get out of it ( which I would refuse) an hour before we’re due to board. You’d almost have thought they didn’t want you to fly. On one famous occasion the exchange got to the point where an officious airport staff member was threatening to not put me on the plane.
But I digress: the other day our first task at the airport was to book the assistance, all well and good, they even recognised me from previous flights. Then to the check-in desk where we were dealt with by a trainee. This is fine, everyone has to learn, it was quiet and we were early. As well as the usual questions about who packed and are there any liquids, a wheelchair user is asked the weight of the chair and what kind of batteries it has. And that used to be it: but now . . . After we got our luggage receipts but before my chair was ticketed we were sent across to Customer Support where we answered the same questions and were given a small form which was then tied to my chair and then we were directed back to the check-in desk where of course we had to wait in a new queue. It seems only when you present with the small form tied to your chair can they label and ticket the wheelchair. But they don’t do the form until you’ve been to the check-in desk.
So your average flyer can get out of the taxi, check in, go through security and trot off to the shops in the time it takes a wheelchair user to say ‘dry cell batteries’, while we have to go through four separate face to face transactions before you can say ‘frequent flyer’.
And security? Ah yes, we can’t go through those body sensors in a wheelchair and so we have the delights of being ‘frisked’. Usually by sensitive and good humoured women I’m pleased to say. I usually have a warm hot water bottle in the small of my back and security staff have become practiced at emptying it for me and advising me to ask at a coffee shop to refill it. I often wonder what security are sniffing for as they empty it!
Just to complete the picture, we then have to board of course: if you’re a non-walking wheelchair user like me your designation is ‘wheelchair Charlie’. No, honestly.
We’re asked to go to the gate as soon as it opens and wait there for assistance: sometimes it comes on time and you get boarded ahead of the other passengers, sometimes it all goes awry and you end up being ‘boarded’ after all the other passengers, providing them with some early in-flight entertainment. This entails being manhandled onto an ‘aisle chair’ which is only half as wide as you are and has no sides to it so if you have no balance like me you’re constantly on the brink of falling off, and they use this ‘chair’ to lift you onto the plane. Then you are further manhandled into your window seat: now I like a window seat but I also can’t get past the notion that the airline prefer you to be there so you don’t get in the way of other passengers should there be an emergency. The same thinking means you’re not allowed to book a bulkhead seat.
As for the ‘manhandling’, well really, an airplane is so inaccessible it’s hard to see how else it would work and so it’s advisable to build camaraderie with the assistance staff from the word ‘go’. Usually they’re put-upon but good for a laugh – my only real complaint is if or when I get what I call the equal opps team’, meaning you get a slender teenager who’s just about managed puberty and still has muscle to come, and a rather elderly, perhaps portly guy who is gamely pushing back retirement. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all in favour of equality, and I’m really not ageist, but if I’m going to be lifted three or four times in a row without injury then I’d rather have someone strong and hunky – they could be male or female, I don’t mind.
On the plane is pretty tame, and preferably consists of a lot of sleep. Just don’t drink too much (which is against all the advice of course) because you’ll never get to the loo if you can’t walk. How and why they get away with putting an access symbol on the loo I really don’t know, so it’s crossed legs all the way south.
When you land it’s all the boarding hooha in reverse, except . . . . If you’re lucky your chair will have been loaded onto the plane when you were and it will be brought to the aircraft door after you land. If you’re unlucky it may have been left behind (Paris circa 2003), leaving you without a chair, or it may have been sent to the carousel while they expect you to sit in a rubbish airport wheelchair, or it may have had the battery dismantled by some over zealous handler. The sense of relief when you sit once again in your own chair, and it’s working as it should, is almost tangible.
And I do this for enjoyment, honestly I do, it’s called a holiday.
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