Why United Airlines Abusing a Passenger Doesn't Surprise Me as a Disabled Traveler

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Along with the rest of the world, I watched the recent video of a doctor being dragged from a United Airlines flight with horror. Horror, but not surprise. While the physical violence in this incident was egregious and unusual, similar incidents occur regularly at airports and on flights around the country. They happen to people with disabilities who just want to travel by air like everyone else, but face discrimination due to antiquated laws and poorly trained staff.

As a travel blogger who uses a wheelchair, I have experienced and heard about numerous instances of people with disabilities being mistreated on airplanes. Just two weeks ago, Mark E. Smith, a manager at Pride Mobility Products and well-known disability advocate, was forcibly removed from an American Airlines flight with no explanation. He was then abandoned in an aisle chair on a jetway for half an hour before his power wheelchair was returned to him, improperly assembled. He wrote about being “discarded as a human being” and humiliated in front of other passengers on his blog. American Airlines has still not satisfactorily resolved the situation, claiming his wheelchair wouldn’t fit in the cargo hold even though it is smaller than the dimensions of the door.

Unfortunately, incidents like this are far too common. In 2015, D’Arcee Neal, who has cerebral palsy, needed to use the restroom after a long United Airlines flight. After waiting over 30 minutes for an aisle chair, he had no choice but to crawl off the airplane as flight personnel watched and did nothing to help. In March 2017, Sue Martin got on an American Airlines flight and discovered the bulkhead seating she reserved was too cramped for her guide dog. When she requested a different seat, another passenger gave her his first class seat and all seemed resolved. But just before takeoff, she was forced off the airplane after being told the captain didn’t want her guide dog on board and that service animals weren’t allowed in first class seating, which is false. And Army veteran Lisa McCombs filed a lawsuit against American Airlines after they denied her right to fly with her service dog.

There have been violent incidents, too. In 2016, a girl with cancer, vision and hearing disabilities was beaten bloody by TSA agents at a security checkpoint. In March 2017, a boy with sensory processing disorder was subjected to a groping pat-down by a TSA officer. And these are just the stories that make the news. There are many more. Travelers with disabilities routinely deal with broken power wheelchairs, being stranded in cabins while waiting for an aisle chair, invasive questioning about medications and mobility devices and airline staff treating us like potential criminals or burdens. But it took abuse happening to a person without a disability to truly get the world’s attention.

I must admit I find that frustrating, but now that you’re all listening, we people with disabilities could use your support. United CEO’s comments aside, the unfortunate gentleman who was beaten will most likely get justice. He’ll get numerous apologies and the big settlement check he deserves. But what about the rest of us? I fear after all the outrage dies down, not much will change with how airplane passengers with disabilities are treated. We’ll still be subjected to bullying from staff who aren’t quite evil enough to beat us, but make travel a nightmare nonetheless. And we still won’t have a strong enough law to fix the problems with air travel accessibility.

Many people don’t know that the Americans With Disabilities Act doesn’t apply to airlines. They are covered by a more limited law, the Air Carrier Access Act, which predates the ADA and offers far less protection for disabled passengers. For example, unlike other forms of transportation such as buses and trains, people who use wheelchairs cannot sit in them in the airplane cabin. Some larger airplanes provide space for a folding wheelchair to be stored at the front, but the majority of wheelchairs are placed in cargo, where they are at risk of being damaged during handling or by other baggage. It can require three or more baggage handlers to carry a 300-pound power wheelchair into the cargo hold, as most airlines don’t have a device to lift them. I once had the terrifying experience of watching them drop my wheelchair. I then had to wait through a four-hour flight to find out if it would work when I arrived.

While their wheelchair faces an uncertain fate in cargo, people with disabilities must sit in a standard airplane seat. Although they can bring extra padding or supports, it’s difficult to use them in cramped plane seats. Standard seats can be painful and even unsafe for individuals who have scoliosis or are prone to pressure sores or blood clots. And no, airplane bathrooms aren’t accessible either. A person with a disability who is usually continent may be forced to wear a diaper simply because they can’t get to the bathroom during a long flight.

These issues could all be resolved if airplanes were subject to the same rules as buses — if wheelchairs had to be accommodated in the cabin. There’s proof it can work — All Wheels Up recently crash tested a tie-down system for airplane cabins — but airlines would have to install removable seats and slightly reduce capacity on flights with wheelchairs in the cabin. Since airlines seem to be bent on cramming as many humans into a tin can as possible, legislation would most likely be needed, but in the long run, it would be worthwhile. The cumbersome process of loading mobility equipment into cargo and lifting disabled passengers into seats contributes to flight delays, and the cost of repairing damaged mobility equipment reduces airlines’ profits and contributes to higher ticket prices.

When staff are properly trained in helping people with disabilities, it reduces delays and makes flying a more peaceful experience. I don’t fly anymore due to wheelchair damage and other bad experiences, but before that, I had many good experiences. When I think about what distinguished the good experiences from the bad ones, it wasn’t about whether anything went wrong. It was how staff handled the situation. In the past, even with limited laws and protections, I was treated with kindness and respect. Pilots would stop by my seat to say hello and smile at my service dog. If my wheelchair sustained minor damage, it was fixed on the spot by an airline mechanic. Where there is kindness and genuine caring, we can make the best of a difficult situation as travelers. What happened to that kind of customer service? It seems notably absent from United Airlines and American Airlines, the carriers cited in each of the incidents listed above.

We need to start holding airlines accountable for how they treat all passengers, regardless of race, ethnicity, disability, gender or any other “difference.” If you witness abuse or discrimination, stand up for your fellow passenger, or if you feel unsafe doing so, take video of the incident. The more we expose abusive airline practices, the safer it will be for everyone who travels by air. Let’s make the skies friendly again.

Follow this journey on Free Wheelin’.

Image via Pixabay.

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When People Say 'I Don't See Your Wheelchair'

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This might surprise a lot of people, but it bothers me when someone says they don’t “see my wheelchair” or my disability. It’s taken me a number of years to figure out why this bothers me so much. Of course, I want people to recognize my humanity first, right? Of course, I want my friends and family to see me – the weird, “Lord of the Rings” loving, occasionally overly-emotional, funny, theology nerd they’ve known for 30 years — first, right? Right!

Lisa Hefferman.
Lisa Hefferman.

But here’s the thing: having been born with spina bifida and being a full-time wheelchair user has shaped me and who I am in the world. The fact that I have a disability is a part of my reality I want others to see! That’s because, along with the wheelchair, they will see a young woman whose father’s death due to complications of multiple sclerosis has driven her to continue his work of advocating for people with disabilities. They will see a sister and daughter who would not have completed college or seminary without the encouragement, pushing, and support of her mother and brother. They will see a disability theologian and pastor who would not have been open to the work of the Holy Spirit in her life without friends who said, “You’ll become a pastor. Just wait.” or “the Church needs to hear your voice.”

In the end, “the thing” is that I would not be the person I am without my disability. Sure, I have bad or “down” days (sometimes weeks) because of the physical and relational struggles that have come along with it. It would be foolish or dishonest to say that I don’t sometimes wish I hadn’t been born with spina bifida when I have one of those bad days. As I get older and have begun to own who I am and all I’ve been through, though, those days don’t come as often as they did when I was a child. Today’s struggles are like those of a lot of women who are my age: trying to discern what comes next in my early 30’s as I hope to take a new direction in my vocation, and figuring out where future relationships and family fit into that. I just get to navigate those things sitting down, rather than standing up!

As I navigate this life from my wheelchair, my hope and prayer is that the “-abled” world around me can understand this: When you tell me (and perhaps others like me) that you don’t see my disability, we may hear it in a way other than you intend. For my part, I hear you saying: “Having a disability is bad, and something to be pitied or unwanted. You’re more than this negative thing in your life.” The message that comes across is that others believe I hate my disability, so I must want it to be forgotten about so I can be viewed as a whole person by others.

Newsflash: I am a whole person. All persons with disabilities are “whole.” Our realities don’t match up with a world that looks to ridiculous standards of beauty, wealth, and physical and mental perfection in order to be seen as a whole person — as fully human. And you know what? That’s OK! People with disabilities have the same range of emotions, desires, and aspirations as those without disabilities. The problem is that attitudes and structures exist which limit how we can participate in the world. That is maddening and heartbreaking for me, not just because of my own life experiences, but because I know so many people with disabilities who could live into the fullness of who I believe God created them to be if the “-abled” world would open up even just a little bit more.

Great strides have been made with that since the ADA was passed, but we are still far, far from true equality and inclusion in this world. I don’t know how to fix it or make it better, but I feel called to help do that someday. I’ve made a start or two to “get my wheel in the door,” so to speak, but I’ve got a long way to go. So, when you see me or someone like me, please don’t assume I need you to validate my humanity by downplaying my disability. Nor do I need you to start believing the negative stereotypes that make people with disabilities seem helpless. Just get to know me — spina bifida, wheelchair, nerdiness, and all — and see that my life is not to be pitied – or something “inspiring” either! It’s just my life, one I want to live as freely and interdependently as I can. It hasn’t all been bad so far, and it wouldn’t be what it has been or will be down the road, if it weren’t for this speedster that helps me down that road — my wheelchair.

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My Experience Learning to Drive With a Physical Disability

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For many people their 17th birthday means more independence, and learning to drive is at the top of the list. For someone with a physical disability this is no different. For many people with physical disabilities, independence feels even more important; perhaps this is why I crave independence and strive to achieve my very best.
To learn to drive, the first thing I had to do was to apply for my provisional driving license. I filled in the form as usual, the only extra thing I had to do was visit my general practitioner who the driving license agency contacted for information about my condition.
When I got my provisional driving license I was advised by the driving license agency to have a driving assessment at one of their assessment centers. I knew that if I was told I couldn’t drive I would have to accept it, and as my condition doesn’t change, a no would be a permanent no. I remember feeling nervous but trying so hard to keep calm. A driving instructor and occupational therapist carried out the assessment, which included them talking to me about my disability, what movement I had, a startle reaction test and if I had any driving experience. I had some experience thanks to me dad letting me drive his car around a field.
After this, I was allowed to go for a drive; it was both even exciting and scary. I had a driving instructor, an occupational therapist and I asked my dad to come with me. I drove around the industrial estate; I had thought it would be an off road but no, I actually drove on a road. After some static practice of changing gears it was time to drive. I was told what to do by the instructor with the occupational therapist assessing if I could safety control the vehicle. I drove around, did some steering around posts, then it was time to go back for the debrief. I remember them staying that I should book some lessons. The recommendations were that I should try a few lessons to see how I managed. They also suggested an easy-release hand brake and a seat belt extension, although in my own car I do not have these as when nobody is watching me I can do the seat belt, and only have a problem with the hand brake if someone borrows my car.
As soon as the report arrived I booked my first lesson. The report recommended driving instructors; I chose one and stayed with the same person. To be honest, I didn’t really enjoy my first few driving lessons. There seemed to be so much to remember and do all at the same time. Some lessons I really enjoyed and felt like I was making progress; others I felt like I was never going to get it. However, the more lessons I had, the more I enjoyed them and the more confident I became.
After about a year or so I decided to buy my own car so I could get more practice. This really helped, although it can be difficult switching between two cars. After failing my second test and discussion with my instructor I decided to just drive my own car for all my lessons. I passed my test fourth time around on March 14, 2011. I don’t remember the whole test route. I had the option of having my instructor sit in the car; I didn’t do this on my first two test, but the next two I did. I think it’s good to have your instructor in the car, as if you don’t pass your driving instructor will know the areas you need to practice. The one thing I did differently was most instructors recommend a two-hour driving lesson first, but as my cerebral palsy means I use two to three times more energy, it was better to have a short practice and break before taking my test.
After passing my test I drove on my own as soon as possible. I started with short familiar routes, gradually building up my confidence. After about a year I changed my car. When I bought both of my cars, the most important aspect was the driving position. For me personally, I like to sit high. Only you can decide the best driving position for you, so try options until you feel comfortable. It’s difficult when you’re learning in an instructor’s car; you have to change the seat, steering wheel and mirrors. It can take a while to find the best setup, but remember when your have your own can you won’t have to keep changing it.
If you use a wheelchair or other walking aid, ensure you can easily fit your chair or walking aid in your vehicle. I bought the car then tried to find a chair to fit the car. I found one in the end, but I would carefully consider the size of the car if you use a walking aid or wheelchair. If you are in the U.K. and receive Disability Living Allowance or Personal Independence Payment, you can use part of your allowance to lease a car. For me it worked out better to buy my car and use my allowance to run the car.
I have now been driving for six years and I love the independence driving has given me. If you are reading this and have a physical disability, I would encourage you to take the first steps to getting on the road.

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Thinkstock photo by Wavebreak Media.
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Alto Creates First Advantage Club for People With Disabilities

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Military veterans have advantage clubs, senior citizens get discounts through membership-based programs, so why not offer something similar to people with disabilities, Moshe Gaon asked himself when founding Alto, the first advantage club for people with disabilities and their families. Before launching Alto, Gaon founded yoocan, an American-Israeli company designed to educate and motivate people with disabilities and their families.

Now, Gaon has taken the company’s mission to empower those with disabilities one step further by creating a membership-based program that provides exclusive discounts on products designed for people living with a disability. “There are many products and services people would love to get advantages on,” Gaon said. “But everything is scattered and hard to find.”

Both yoocan and Alto were inspired by Gaon’s family’s experience, after his nephew was born with a rare disease. “Families with disabilities spend more money than other families,” Gaon told The Mighty. “We have special needs, need special insurances.”

Alto works by aggregating services that already exist for people with disabilities – like free wheelchair rentals at popular attractions – as well as offering exclusive discounts on products geared towards people with disabilities. Alto works with vendors to negotiate special discounts on products for its members.

Services aggregated by Alto can be viewed for free by anyone accessing the site. Those interested in buying products will have to become a member. Membership is offered on a trial basis of $4.95 for 30 days or $59.90 per year ($4.99 a month).

Products currently available include sensory-friendly toys for kids and adaptive living products. “Usually the savings on one or two items justifies the cost of membership,” Gaon said. Average discounts range from 5 to 20 percent off.

“There’s nothing like this for the disability community in the U.S.,” Gaon said. “There should be a solution that will allow people to be empowered and get the amazing benefits and discounts they deserve as a community.”

Anyone in the world can become a member, Gaon said. However, Alto only works with American vendors at this time, meaning those outside of the U.S. would need to check that the item could be shipped internationally.

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When Disability Gets Left Out of Conversations About Privilege

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Recently I saw an article about privilege. This article used a list asking people to step forwards and backwards, according to instructions, to visually represent the privilege and disadvantages they face.

Do not get me wrong: I think that pieces like this are important, and I think this one is effective, but I do have one problem with it. Despite a total of 35 instructions, not a single one said anything about disability.

Most of the points included related to gender, religion, race, sexuality, or socioeconomic status. Disability or illness did not even rate a mention.

I think most of us who have experienced illness or disability would agree that it is often a huge societal disadvantage. Having a disability can often impact our ability to work, or our chance of getting a job when compared to other applicants. It can limit our access to certain places or events, and result in judgment and ridicule. For those of us with invisible disabilities, it can also cause us to be verbally attacked for use of facilities such as disability toilets or parking spaces. Disability often results in marginalization and disadvantage.

Articles like this one, and there are many like it, give us a good insight into the disadvantage and privilege in people’s lives, and are important in sparking the beginnings of social change. But disability remains a point of such disadvantage that it is often not included, even when it is disadvantage we are talking about.

I want to be included. I want to see people like me represented in media, in toys, in television and film, and in articles, surveys, and social experiments that center around disadvantage. Disability is a disadvantage in society, and by not talking about it, it becomes even more so.

I appreciate articles like this one because they matter, but I would like more of them to acknowledge that I and others with disabilities matter too. Include us in that which affects us just as much as the other groups targeted.

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5 Intersections of Being Queer and Disabled

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I came out as a lesbian when I was 13 years old. I have also had cerebral palsy for my entire life. When I first realized I was queer, I wondered how on Earth I could possibly have two marginalized identities like that at the same time. “Is it really possible to be both gay and disabled? What are the odds? There must be no one else who is both of these things.” I was genuinely baffled that such an intersection could exist – in part because I knew few examples of anyone else who was even gay at the time – let alone anyone who also had a disability.

Over the past few years, I have learned about the intersections between having a physical disability and being queer. These two identities connect with one another in ways I would not have expected. I have labeled these intersections into five categories.

Isolation

Both of these identities are generally not ones you have in common with your family members. You will most likely be the only one in your family with your disability or who is gay (with some exceptions of course!) This is noteworthy for a couple of reasons. First, for many other marginalized identities, such as race, class and religion, people often share them with their family. This can help young people immediately have a community as they grow into their identities, and as they are forced to navigate the ways society stigmatizes and discriminates against them because of those identities.

But when I came out as queer, no one else in my family identified as such. No one in my family has a disability – let alone cerebral palsy. If I could have asked my dad about how to navigate coming out to my classmates, or if I could have asked my mom how to navigate puberty growing pains while having cerebral palsy, and they could have responded from firsthand experience, that would have helped me so much. While my family always supported me, they did not understand how I felt or the experiences I had. This made it very lonely and isolating to possess both identities. It took me years to find friends who share these identities – and I still don’t know anyone who is both queer and who has CP. When I realized I was gay, it felt like one more identity I did not share with my family.

Dating

The second way these two identities intersect for me is in the world of dating. As a queer woman who was trying to find a girlfriend before apps like Tinder and OkCupid existed, I felt compelled to occupy spaces like gay bars and clubs in order to find someone to date. Not only that, but in order to impress anyone in these spaces I felt like I needed to dance in some type of “hot” or “sexy” way. The music was always too loud to engage anyone in conversation, so you had to use your body to get their attention. Not only was it hard if not impossible for me to dance, but oftentimes I could not even access gay bars because stairs and a ton of standing were required, which is too painful with my CP. For many years, I felt like my disability was isolating me from the only queer spaces I had access to.

Fashion

My fashion and gender presentation are another thing my disability and sexuality have both impacted in interesting ways. As someone who has cerebral palsy, it is very difficult to wear dresses because the straps fall off of my shoulder due to my posture impairments. Bras are also difficult to put on and wear for this same reason. I cannot wear heels or flats because of how much they hurt the already tight muscles in my legs. This forces me to wear formal lace up shoes and suit jackets and blazers when I need to dress professionally. When I am going out, I wear button up shirts and pants instead of dresses. It is also hard for me to put on makeup or to shave by myself – two more feminine traits.

Combined with my queer identity, these fashion choices often cause me to be labeled as “butch,” or a more masculine presenting woman (versus “lipstick,” which is a more
feminine presenting woman). Within the lesbian dating community, people oftentimes have preferences over whether or not they prefer to date butches or lipsticks. These gender labels have a surprising impact on who pays attention to you and how other queer women perceive you.

Many queer women feel pressure (especially when they first come out) to align with one of these labels. When I came out, I felt like I should cut my hair and present even more masculine to fit this butch stereotype. I feel like the limitations of my disability automatically categorize me into certain gender roles within the queer community.

Coming Out / Disclosing

My particular type of cerebral palsy is not visible to a stranger. This means that both my disability and my queer sexuality involve some process of me coming out. I choose when and how people know about my disability and sexuality. Though they both often meet with very different reactions. Interestingly enough, when I was a child and teenager, I feared coming out as a lesbian way more than I did coming out as someone with a disability. But now as an adult, those roles have reversed, and I am much more anxious about coming out as someone with a disability.

Pride and Acceptance

Society teaches us to hate both our queer sexualities and our disabilities because they are not seen as what is “normal” for bodies and minds. Life is harder with either of these identities simply because they are often marginalized and discriminated against. But both identities are an innate part of you – within your body and within your mind and heart. For both of them, you eventually learn to accept yourself as someone with a disability and as someone who is queer. You learn to advocate for yourself, and over time you learn how to love yourself. And as you become more involved within your community, you learn how to have pride in yourself.

Both of these identities give me strength and courage. Both of these identities caused me to face bullying, and therefore allowed me to grow resilience. Both of these identities helped me become extremely empathetic. Both of these identities forced me to redefine what support and love means. Both of these identities have instilled a passion for equity and social justice into my life. Both of these identities are aspects of myself I would not give up, and have pushed me to become a better version of myself. And both of these identities inevitably make me who I am.

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