Sunday, July 29, 2001

Alive and well

Airline passengers tell of struggles

By Deborah Kendrick
Enquirer contributor

        When I wrote about challenges faced by passengers with disabilities (July 1), I knew there would be reader feedback. What I wasn't prepared for, however, was the common theme of much of the mail and phone calls the column generated.

        In addition to a sometimes failure to understand the importance of handling costly wheelchairs and other assistive equipment, there seems to be more than a bit of confusion regarding what constitutes a disability and who has one.

        In all fairness to airlines, some stories were positive reports of the kindness and courtesy extended by airport and airline personnel, particularly when visible trappings of disability were present.

        Others, however, without visible badges of disabling conditions, were more troubling.

Only wheelchairs

        Enquirer reader Carolyn Byron, for example, relates the tale of flying to New Zealand to spend Christmas with her grandchildren. She had incurred a back injury shortly before the trip, and phoned ahead to ask if there would be assistance in carrying a heavy bag of “Santa Claus things” for her family. She was assured there would be no problem, that she need only ask the flight attendant for any help required. But when she asked, the flight attendant responded with rudeness, and other passengers came to her rescue.

        At a layover point in California, she noticed an office for passengers with disabilities and went in to ask for help.

        “They said the only help they could give me was a wheelchair,” she says, “and sitting was the worst thing I could do for my back. When I explained that I just needed help carrying heavy bags, I was told "We don't have anything except for disabled people' which, in their mind, was equated to someone unable to walk.'

        I have experienced this confusion myself. I was once left standing in the middle of Chicago's O'Hare Airport, with only minutes to catch a late-night flight, because I refused to get into the wheelchair brought for me. “My disability is vision, not walking,” I explained. What I needed was for someone to show me the route to my gate — not a ride. But nothing doing.

        If I wasn't getting into the wheelchair, he wasn't there to help me, and he went away.

Invisible disabilities

        There are 54 million Americans with disabilities, and only about 2 million of them use wheelchairs. In other words, while there are many passengers with disabilities who have visible identification as such — wheelchairs, crutches, walkers, guide dogs, electronic communications devices — there are at least as many who don't look disabled.

        You can't see a heart condition. You can't see a collapsed lung. You can't see that a person has the fatigue often accompanying multiple sclerosis, lupus or a host of autoimmune disorders. People with dyslexia, hearing impairments or brain injuries don't wear signs announcing these facts.

        That doesn't mean that they might not need additional assistance or accommodation in the airport or anywhere else. It does mean that they are legitimate members of the 54 million citizens with disabilities.

        A disability, as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act and elsewhere, is a condition limiting an essential life function. Walking is certainly one such function. So is hearing, seeing, breathing and remembering. People who can move without difficulty on flat surfaces might well have invisible disabilities that are aggravated when climbing stairs, carrying heavy objects or being required to stand for long periods of time.

        People who can hear you at close range might find it impossible when you are 20 feet away, and people who can read a magazine might find it impossible to read the departure times on the airport monitors.

        All of these needs are just as legitimate as the need to be pushed in your wheelchair from arrival gate to baggage claim. This sort of confusion is by no means limited to airports, but it's as good a place as any to begin expanding our understanding. Rather than training personnel about such specifics as handling wheelchairs or communicating in sign language, airlines would accomplish more with universally applicable training in listening skills. And we could all benefit from listening in.

        Contact Deborah Kendrick by phone: 673-4474; fax: 321-6430; e-mail:


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