By Jessie Joseph
How do I start explaining my travel experiences at, and within, an airport? Well….
I think I find the whole thought of traveling abroad again such an overwhelming experience I need to start with a bit of humour.
I think the first recollection I have of an aeroplane is from an upside down perspective. Actually I’m not sure that I can recall the shape of the craft, but the metal steps, my mother perspiring and my sister hidden from any view under my frames, equipment and hand luggage. No boarding provision had been made by the travel agent, neither assistance nor pre-boarding. They were totally aware of my disability, as I had been into the travel agents to discuss the booking and destination. At the airport my mother, ever stoic, had soldiered on regardless through the normal boarding channels with the wheelchair, not wanting her girls to know she was struggling or to tarnish the start of a holiday!
With one and all, we arrived at the planes location by transit bus, on which I was being held within my wheelchair with one of my mother’s hands, and the other gripping for dear life onto the hanging movable ceiling attachments, my frame loaded on my wheelchair and my sister once again consumed in her luggage haven. My sister is 4’ 10” a year older and like all good things that come in small packages a ‘gift’ to me that has been a constant and unwavering help and support all my life.
So onwards and literally upwards we went. Firstly to the bottom of the steps where my Amazonian Mother lifted me out of my chair over her shoulder, in her cave-like determined way to board that plane! No offer of help was made by crew or passenger. I always find this strange, as are people afraid of the disabled person? Or do we give off an ora of unapproachability in these situations when we are so focused on negotiating the same minefield of an access path as others, but of course this was in fact not a choice! So resembling a piece of large uncut ham leg, or a sack of potatoes I am carried upside down into the embrace of the plane. How exciting I thought until we reached the top when I was placed inside the door on the floor whilst my Mother pouring with sweat, not wanting to hold up the happy holiday makers tried to retrieve the abandoned wheelchair and my sister buckling finally under the weight of my frame and other burdens. Of course, humans are strange and sometimes seem so unaware, minus any empathy, as I was stepped over, within the planes door way ,thus allowing for continuation of the eager happy flow of travellers competing for seats.
Were seats not allocated prior to boarding? Was it a race I was unaware of? Was there a set time for entry? I didn’t hear the gun for the start of the race?
Lifted from the floor and carried along the inside, almost as a baby is carried with a strapped creation and allowed to face forward for stimulation, I eventually arrived at my seat. Halfway down the cabin of a plane is always the best location for a disabled person. I had was a little perturbed by then, what would happen should I need the ladies during the flight? Come on Jessie, this is an exciting new holiday experience, why are you wasting thought on those kind of everyday needs☺. My sister as always lightened the mood, I could imagine the aisle to be a ‘catwalk’ if the occasion arose.
Of course, during the flight we laughed and joked about our new experiences and proactively planned a strategic exit. No alternative for our exit on landing was offered. We decided to wait for the happy hordes to start disembarking, of course on ‘the gun shot’, we were not entering the exit race. So in a calmer fashion we reversed the procedure of entrance. The transit bus was more exciting, as maybe the driver in this different country was rally trained, as even with my breaks on the wheelchair, I was sliding around in the transit bus roller coaster style, with my Mother air bound still gripping on!
Since this traumatic insight into the world of travel, I have significant other incidents and memories. Further holiday booking were made with ‘assistance’ at both airports of arrival and departure. The first experience of being boarded in a totally segregated way was interesting. The security check route was with the rest of the holiday traffic, but as we waited at the departure gate our names were called out on the tannoy and we were duly collected and escorted away from the excited holidaying masses. Multitudes of ramps and lifts were the treat ahead. Finally to what felt like the ends of the airport we boarded a square like cabin. This then uniquely thundered into movement. We were driven to the appropriate aeroplane in the distance, holding on with dear live just to feel remotely secure. Then the first part of this onwards and upwards journey, the cabin began to move upwards with the heaviest creaking movement, as if gravity was forcing us back downwards. Then forward to ‘suck’ onto the side of the plane. After numerous amounts of literal hammering on the door, it miraculously opened for us to be greeted with indifference and irritation. Boarding passes of the happy adventurers had to be torn and checked, this was a deviation from the ‘plane plan’. Amazonian mother had to take over here from our escort and the cabin baby carrying experience was of course repeated. My sister said we should wait for all to be seated and take that discussed cat walk opportunity, or take part in the emergency procedure hostess performance drill and pretend I was a front parachute.
When I left my safety of the wheelchair our escort assured us that it would be safe, put in the hold and would be there ready at arrivals for us as soon as the plane landed. This as you might guess failed to happen. My Mother who I have to add here, has always lifted weights and run to keep in shape for my transport needs, had to carbon copy the leg of ham lift and whisk me away to regain my wheels from the luggage reclaim. Well, I made for an interesting visual at 13 years old being carried in the Fireman style with my ‘gift’ of a sister as the usual pack horse trotting up the rear.
Anxiety, anger and frustration
I could write endlessly about traveling. Of which the three of us have done a lot. Once a specially arranged vehicle for the needs of my equipment, all prearranged, that was due to pick us up at 4.00 in the morning from our hotel, actually failed to pick us up at all. A dash in a taxi appropriate for the disabled, wheelchairs and my equipment got us there as the check- in was closing in 5minutes. I have felt a huge amount of anxiety, anger and frustration, on many an occasion whilst traveling and within airports. The levels of segregation, the mistakes, miscommunications and disorganisation between travel agents and flight operators I have experience has made flying an uncomfortable experience in the boarder sense of the word. Security checks have been done in the areas that staff would use for example and some of the boarding routines have been exceptionally segregating and not assessable or differentiated. I don’t know what I would have done if my first experience had been one of traveling alone as a disabled person.
So, a large ham joint, sack of potatoes, human barricade for others, differing experiences of ‘upward’, my ‘c’ Trojan-like pack horse sister, my air-lifted Amazonian stoic mother, the ‘ladies’ so near – but so far, my cabin cat walk aisle, have all given me some interesting, frustrating, unacceptable experiences, but also some hilarious ones……..humour is a tonic.
As for the hotels and accommodation on arrival….5th floor, end block, no lift (but it has a kitchen)….really!? But that’s another story……..
I would love to hear some of your experiences! Please share some with us and take our quick survey on the quality of assistance and services for disabled people at the airport.