Friday, November 1, 2013

Flying around.

At the Congress in Munich I met a young man with my disability. He has just published a book of poems he decided to call "Love on Wheels" that was presented next to my booklet. As faith would have it, we met again when we both boarded the same flight for Philadelphia. He had his friend or perhaps a family member with him and was in awe that I travel alone. Yet, at the same time he insisted to do most things by himself- when disability services personnel came to put him and then get him off the plane he firmly stated that he will transfer himself in and out and doesn't need help. And it reminded me that many years ago I used to be like that as well.  I have since decided that manifesting against the odds that I'm capable of doing everything by myself is simply not practical. I have just been on a plane for seven hours. My legs are numb and my tailbone is in pain. On a flight my options to find comfortable positions is limited. If I pull myself up into a wheelchair, yes I may have a temporary feeling of satisfaction that I did it by myself, but I also risk pulling my pants down, showing underwear or flesh, that my clothing will shift or turn or get caught or turn. It's simply not worth it. If they lift me and do a two person transfer it's faster, I struggle less and my pants stay on. At the same time he was comfortable having his companion and a flight attendant assist him in the lavatory. I simply can't use those facilities. I was on three flights on my way back to America, they were long and with significant waiting times between them, yet I didn't mind- I was able to comfortably locate a restroom and a diner at every stop. One thing I really wanted to comment on was the professionalism of people assisting individuals with disabilities, particularly in Philadelphia. God knows how many lifting, often heavy lifting I might add they do in the day. And then push passengers in wheelchairs from one side of the terminal to another. They must see their clients often in very compromising positions. Some of them may not be able to adjust their clothing by themselves properly, perhaps there are parts of body uncovered. After so many hours in the air some may have personal hygiene problems. Body odor. Yet all I've seen is the disability agents treating them with utmost respect,  perhaps in an effort to return some level of control over their own circumstance. I have never had anyone addressing me "Sir" in every sentence. And then they were considerate enough to ask me if I needed to use the restroom almost every time we passed one. In the meantime I've heard many reasons why I simply must return to Philadelphia some other time and explore. In a way I  depended on them to get me from one gate to the next and I simply would not have been able to do it myself, but they did not let me feel that. What I felt like was a valued customer, a professional adult who's being assisted with something trivial like picking out a jacket in a bigger size at a men's department store. Was my hair in a mess? Was my shoe undone? Did I stain my shirt with ketchup? They didn't seem to notice. I have to say, it's not like this at every airport. I've seen agents with attitudes, fighting with each other about who's turn it is to take a person across (and not because they both want to do it). I guess after you do the job for so long it gets harder to not see people in wheelchairs as burdens. They stop being humans, they turn into loading and unloading like a sack of potatoes. A statistic. A quota. Something you have to do instead of taking that cigarette break. It's nice when it's not like that. When you're surrounded by kindness, respect and consideration. And a twenty minute interaction with somebody actually makes your day although you're half asleep in your wheelchair and just trying to get home, bracing for yet another painful, uncomfortable flight.

1 comment:

  1. Ralph, it is good to read this. I hope some of the people who do this job at airports read your posting too and realise how important those transfer times are to people with disability. I have travelled often with wheelchair users and like you I have had some good, and some bad, experiences. I have forgotten most of the bad ones although I doubt that my travelling partner has, but the good experiences, like those in Canada, are with me still. At the Canadian airports and at all our tourist destinations the compassion and expert care that our helpers showed us made some days rather more special for both of us. It is important that these people hear what an important job they do and how much they can influence the whole holiday and travelling experiences for those who depend on their services.
    Thank you!