I’ve been in a wheelchair for the last 19 years of my life, but I would not consider myself an expert by any stretch of the imagination. I don’t usually feel I have a lot to offer in the way of new information to others with disabilities, because honestly I’m still figuring it out as I go.
One thing I feel pretty confident writing about, though, is traveling as a person with a mobility disability. Maybe it’s because we didn’t even know enough to be worried but even as a very young child my family never considered not traveling, just because of my wheelchair. As a result, I’ve got a few travel tips pertaining to flying, because I know this is something a lot of people who use wheelchairs (electric wheelchairs in particular) never do!
Bear in mind, I’m not an actual expert. This is all based on my own experiences. I’d love to hear tips from any other wheelies!
1. ASK FOR WHAT YOU NEED
Frankly, this is always the case. When I was younger, I was always scared to tell people what I needed because I was afraid I was inconveniencing them. As I get older, I’m realizing that as a general rule, people really don’t mind helping!
Don’t be afraid to ask the flight attendants for another pillow for positioning, or a blanket, or even help moving your feet or arms to where you need them. I’ve flown many different airlines, but by far my best experience was with JetBlue. While my dad was reassembling my chair (see #3), the flight attendant held me so that I didn’t have to wait alone on the plane while my dad was preparing my seat. I mean, really? That is some serious service.
2. MAINTAIN A POSITIVE ATTITUDE
I have heard about a lot of negative experiences with the TSA but in the 15+ times that I’ve gone through a security checkpoint I have never had one problem. I attribute this to the fact that I have never gone into it expecting something bad to happen. I always make it very clear what parts of my body are sore or shouldn’t be touched, as well as what ways my body can and can not bend. As a result, my pat downs are always quick, painless, and generally pretty chatty. Instead of looking at it as a chore or an inconvenience, I look at it as them doing their jobs and am always sure to say thank you. I’m going on 18 years of traveling and I have never met a TSA agent who wasn’t pleasantly surprised by my upbeat attitude!
3. ASK TO GATE CHECK YOUR WHEELCHAIR
When you’re checking in, ask the ticketing agent if you can remain in your own wheelchair until you get to the plane door. This will allow you the freedom to get around the airport yourself, as well as to remain more comfortable than you will be in a standard sized manual chair. Due to the configuration of some airports, particularly the smaller ones, this isn’t always possible – but it never hurts to ask! If you do gate check your check, they’ll likely bring it back up to the plane door to meet you after your flight.
It helps to have a working knowledge of your chair. For example, I know that my wheelchair batteries are sealed gel cell batteries, which means they don’t pose any problems regarding safety. If you’re traveling alone, ensure that you know how to explain to a handler how to switch your wheelchair into manual mode, which is how it will need to be for them to navigate it to the cargo hold.
4. ARRIVE TO THE AIRPORT EARLY
Airlines always recommend getting to the airport 2 hours early, but if we’re being real nobody does that. Well, YOU should. One time I arrived early and still almost missed my flight because they detected uranium on my hands when they swabbed them…what? Apparently sometimes bananas can do this (pro tip – don’t eat bananas if you don’t want to be labeled a terrorist). Generally I end up with a ton of extra time on my hands after I get through security, but it is much better than having to rush to explain all of my unique needs. Rushing tends to cause problems, so it’s best to be able to take your time.
5. BRACE YOURSELF FOR LANDING
This really only applies to people like myself who have very weak trunk strength – but it’s an important one. Even the smoothest landing comes to a very abrupt stop and will send you flying forward. I have never traveled alone so I have always had either a parent or a friend to “soccer mom” me and hold their arm across my chest to make sure I don’t hit the seat in front of me. If you’re traveling alone, you may want to ask about either a harness seat belt instead of just the lap belt, or befriend your seat neighbor! Most people are glad to help with things like this – even if it’s a little awkward. It’s something that a lot of people don’t prepare themselves for and you could be asking for trouble!
Hopefully these tips helped. Like I said, I’m not an expert! However, I have done a ton of both domestic and international travel and have been doing all of these things my whole life without any problems!