Sunday, July 01, 2001

Alive and well


Disabled face adventures in flying

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        Summer is vacation time, and more of us are flying than ever. For the traveler with a disability, planning the logistics of getting there can be more troublesome than the vacation itself.

        Although the Air Carriers Access Act was passed by Congress in 1986 and its regulations written four years later, the airline industry has far to go before customers with disabilities can feel confident that they will be afforded the same dignity — not to mention value — for their flying dollars as their nondisabled peers.

        On a direct flight from Cincinnati to Laguardia a few weeks ago, I was suddenly interrupted from making notes on my laptop by a flight attendant with a mission.

        “When we land,” she says, “just wait until everyone is off, and I'll come get you.”

TIPS FOR TRAVELING
    • Ask for a seat near the front of the plane. A shorter distance in a narrow aisle is easier with a wheelchair, cane or walker, or with a guide dog.
    • Be sure you carry adequate insurance in the event that wheelchair or other costly assistive devices are damaged in flight.
    • Arrive at the airport 90 minutes before departure time.
    • At security, be prepared to be scanned with a hand-held wand if your chair or metal on your service animal sets off the alarm. There is no requirement that you must relinquish your cane, guide dog or other mobility device before walking through security.
    • Pre-boarding is an option for people with disabilities. Inform the gate agent that you want to pre-board. Getting on the plane before it's full is much more convenient for passengers who need time to transfer from wheelchair to airplane seat or who need to get a service animal settled on the floor.
    • Stay in your own wheelchair until boarding.
    • Protect all loose wires, joy sticks, etc., on your wheelchair with bubble wrap, and tape to your chair clear instructions (preferably in both English and Spanish) for disassembling and assembling.
    • If you can afford it, wheelchair containers can be purchased (from $700 to $800) from Haseltine Corp., www.haseltine.com.
    • If you need assistance getting off the plane, inform the flight attendant as early as possible.
    • If help is offered that you don't happen to need, remember that every passenger with a disability is unique. The next person might need what you don't. Smile. Thank the would-be assistant for offering — and enjoy your flight.
        “No thanks,” I said. “I won't need any help.”

        “But that's what I'm supposed to do,” she said a bit testily.

        “It's OK,” I assured her. “I fly all the time. I'll need help finding the way out to where the taxis are, but I don't need any help getting off the plane.”

        “But if you don't wait,” she said, voice now rising in exasperation, “How will I get you off the plane?”

        “I'll get myself off the airplane,” I told her.

        It was not a charmed moment. She was frustrated. I was humiliated. How many other passengers, I wondered, had heard her speaking to me as though I were a child or a package?

Wheelchair damage

        Inconsistent interactions with airline personnel are the norm for people with disabilities. Sometimes, you encounter gate agents, baggage checkers, flight attendants who know that, basically, the right thing to do is ask you what sort of assistance you need. But going to the airport is a game of chance. I never know if I'll be treated like a celebrity, an undesirable, or, best of all, just another passenger who needs a little extra time.

        Carl R. Augusto, president of the American foundation for the Blind, was once running with an assistant — swinging his white cane and racing toward the escalator — when an airport employee, shouted: “Wait! Stay right there! I'll get a wheelchair!”

        But outrage and insult are just the tip of the iceberg.

        For passengers with wheelchairs, ill-informed airline staff can lead to injury or costly wheelchair damage. Being carried on board an airplane because the on-board chair can't be located is degrading.

        Having your wheelchair damaged because it wasn't stowed properly in the cargo hold can ruin your vacation or interrupt your job.

        Heidi Van Arnem, president and CEO of ICan (an online source for services, information and products for people with disabilities) reports that her $20,000 motorized wheelchair has been damaged and even destroyed by mishandling in airports. She is not alone.

        If disability is new to you or you haven't flown before, don't worry. None of this means that you should stay home. Airline personnel has some growing to do in across-the-board awareness. Meanwhile, being prepared can prevent many of the most common pitfalls.

       Contact Deborah Kendrick by phone: 673-4474; fax: 321-6430; e-mail: dkkendrick@earthlink.net.
       

       



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