I am 34 years old with a PhD in Biomedical Engineering. I have MD and use a motorized wheelchair. There have been multiple issues in common with every flight I have been on. The airplane seat height was a significant challenge as I have muscle contractures and transfers are difficult, often requiring 2 to 3 people to lift me. Lavatory access was impossible and no alternatives were offered. The time required to board and for airline staff to load/unload my wheelchair in the cargo hold was also substantial.
During my time in academia, I was severely limited by distance when attending scientific research conferences. The longest distance I traveled by plane was New Mexico to Seattle on a nonstop flight with Southwest airline lasting 3 hours. Once the plane landed, the staff brought my chair to the boarding gate after what seemed like an hour of anxiously awaiting an opportunity to get to the airport bathroom. My wheelchair had to be manually pushed all the way from the bottom of the plane to my location. Keep in mind power wheelchairs can weigh 300+ pounds and cost $30,000+. Somehow my wheelchair technician back in New Mexico helped us reset the wheelchair.
On a spontaneous weekend trip to Los Angeles, I flew on a smaller United jet. Unlike the Southwest crew allowing me to load/unload directly from my wheelchair, United brought out what they termed an “aisle chair“ which looked to me like a chair for a 10 year old weighing 50 pounds. I was 21+ years old and about 200 pounds! In order to keep me secure in this tiny chair, I was strapped down head to toe which I have to admit made me extremely anxious and a bit claustrophobic (à la straight jacket). After going through this process again to exit the plane, I found out my joystick was broken off the armrest of my chair. The staff found two screws and somehow reattached the pieces. I then once again motored quickly to the nearest airport bathroom.
The bottom line from these stories (like so many others involving people who use motorized wheelchairs) is that is an exhausting and demoralizing experience. I haven’t traveled by plane since 2012 because of these issues and my disease progression. This means that I have to get someone to drive me out of state to attend any disability summit, research symposium, or visit my new nephew (a 20 hour drive!). Why do people with motorized wheelchairs have to be forced into avoiding flying altogether because they are afraid of injury or wheelchair damage? Airline companies must do better!
#MuscularDystrophy #Wheelchair #Disability