By Attorney Toby Cole.
Like anything in life, the best way to be successful is to prepare. I’ve always been partial to the quote, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.” Well, when it comes to traveling in a wheelchair or with someone in a chair, that work is essential.
There’ve been dozens of laws passed and company policies around the world that pertain to people with disabilities, however, if we rely on other folks to follow them without knowing what they are, we travel at our own risk. Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned on the road, most of them the hard way.
Make a Checklist
I have to admit my memory isn’t what it used to be. I used to be able to remember everything I’d need before leaving. Then it got to be a game for me to try to figure out what I was likely to forget. And finally, I gave in and started making lists. Some things are just impossible to do without. This way I know I won’t land in some city and have to try to figure out how to get my medication filled at 11 o’clock at night. I’ve also found it helps me pack in a fraction of the time.
Free Medical Bag
Most airlines allow a “medical” bag at no extra charge. I no longer sacrifice any supplies I need because I don’t want to pay the extra $50 or $75 baggage fee. I pack a medical bag and make sure the airline knows ahead of time that I’m bringing it. You can check the airline website to make sure this policy exists, but I always tell the ticketing agent when I check in. *Although they aren’t supposed to ask personal questions, sometimes you’ll have to justify why you need the extra bag. Be prepared.
Call the Disability Desk Before Your Flight
Most airlines have a disability desk. This is a knowledgeable group of people that can answer questions about how the airline can help you. They can also make sure you get the right seats on the plane and put notes on your account for any special requirements you might have. When I fly, I call the disability desk to let them know what seats I need, that I’m bringing a medical bag and that I’ll need an aisle chair and assistance to get on the plane. This can be your best resource.
Getting the Right Seat
Getting the right seat on the plane makes a huge difference when traveling. I prefer sitting in a bulkhead seat. Even though the seats in this row usually require transferring over a non-movable armrest, it gives me more legroom. Another option is sitting one or two rows behind where the armrest can be moved out of the way. Either way, seats with the most legroom are premium seats so some airlines charge extra for them. However, upon request, they will not charge a fee for the disabled. If you require an attendant for travel, they will not charge extra for the second seat either. Simply call after you book and ask if the airline will provide the seats. Sometimes they are locked and you have to wait until you get to the gate on the day of the flight. Make sure you get to the airport early and talk to the ticketing agent and gate agent to get the right seats.
Plan to Get There Early
Plan to get there early but actually get there even earlier than that. I get to the airport early. I mean really early, usually two hours before my flight. I know I’ll need to spend some time with the ticketing agent at the gate to make sure we’re in the bulkhead seats and to get gate check tags for my chair. (Don’t let me forget to mention that you will want to check your chair at the gate. You do not want to arrive at your destination and find that your chair was sent to baggage.) In short, I get there really early, go through security (this always takes a little while longer because chair-users have to get “frisked”), get to the gate, let the gate agents know what I need and then find a place to grab a meal. It’s a lot less stressful to kill time on the other side of security.
The Airport “Wheelchair” Attendant
Being in a wheelchair can often get you through the security lines faster than regular passengers. Additionally, some airports offer escorts that are officially assigned to you! They can come in real handy too if you need help navigating a large airport you’ve never been to or when going through customs. All airports will provide someone if you ask, so plan ahead if you are going to be needing an attendant.
The Power of No
Always be polite, but don’t feel like you have to be over-accommodating. I learned the power of “no” when going on trips. When going through security, I don’t take off my jacket or my shoes. I politely tell them I cannot do it. Again, be polite but realize saying no sometimes makes the trip easier on everyone.
Know Your Rights and Bring Your Documentation
Educate yourself regarding your travel rights. Make sure you know them well and bring documentation. You’d be amazed at how many professionals don’t know the rights of the disabled. Go to the airlines website and download the information, and be prepared to show them their own rules and regulations.
Transportation When You Get There
Accessible transportation at your destination usually requires advance planning, especially if you’re renting a vehicle. There are accessible taxi cabs, but if you wait until you roll out to the curb, there’s no guarantee that one will be nearby. Make sure you call ahead to have the taxi, car service or shuttle transportation ready. You’ll often hear that once you get to the airport, “You can just call for a ride.” This is rarely accurate and not worth the risk. Make sure you know who is picking you up and that you have their contact info. *It will take you about thirty minutes or longer to de-board the plane. Make sure your driver knows this so he will be on time.
Getting the Right People to Get You on the Plane
The airlines provide people to assist, in my case lift, you onto your seat. Unfortunately, many of these people are either not well trained or not physically capable of doing this, or both. When you show up to the gate, make sure you ask for assistance if you need it, and what kind. If they send people you know won’t be able to handle it, speak up. If you don’t feel secure about the person who will be assisting you, tell them they need to send someone else to help you on the plane. It’s not worth falling, and if you’ve ever been on an aisle chair you know what I mean.
I love to travel. I enjoy going on vacation and visiting new places, and I learned a long time ago that it’s much more enjoyable when you plan ahead.