Why is airline travel so brutal for disabled people?

Here’s a little bit about my day today and then some thoughts on airports and disability. But my short answer to the question in my title is that U.S. airlines do not even try to comply with the U.S. 1986 ACAA or Air Carrier Access Act, likely because the ACAA is not enforced.

Anyway, my day. I crutched all over the place today for the first time in weeks maybe a couple of months. WHEW. I am tired and exhausted and my leg won’t swing forward all the way now. It was a great day though. I worked from bed all morning, dropped Oblomovka off at work and then worked for a few hours from a really nice open air cafe and ran into Jeremy and Bryan.

Then I went to this awesome ping pong club full of gleeful amazing middle school kids having complex after-school chaos with ramen noodle cups, candy bars, wearing gym clothes and pajama pants and flirting and yelling at each other. If I taught or worked with kids again that is my favorite age – when they are still kid-like and especially squirrelly but almost grown up.

On the drive there I was feeling grumpy and gloomy, like, “ugh, the crowded, trafficky, tourist part of town, hilly, I won’t be able to park”. I worried that I had been stupid, I should have tried to get Oblomovka to go with me, and I thought of back up plans in case I was not able to get into the store (calling their number, asking them to bring the stuff out to me and I could just hand them the money; stopping a random stranger and giving them the money and asking them to get it for me.) The table tennis club turned out to be a tiny and beautiful shop on a flat bit of the street with a semi-legal parking spot right in front, so I crutched into it instead of getting the wheelchair out of the car. The drive back was trafficky and my leg hurt like hell. I played my obnoxious punk rock music and my Gangstagrass CD very loud and enjoyed the weather and the free feeling of driving where I pleased.

I then crutched into the EFF which was probably too much for me and then into a store and another store — feeling extremely tough. I screamed “Fuck off!” at a car which did not stop rolling towards me as I slowly crossed the street at a crosswalk on crutches with a child hanging off my arm. If the kid had not been with me I might have beat that woman’s SUV’s headlights in with a crutch just to make a point. Stop your cars, people, don’t just keep coming, tapping the brakes to “totally pause” is not enough. It was terrifying.

Home and then we all made party decorations. I have now become one with a beer and a vicodin.

I just got back from a trip and had some more negative airport experiences to add to all the others. Airports are some of the most stressful places for me to be in. They are unusually full of people trying to push me around, take my chair from me, I become an obstacle, a problem, a worry, certainly not a person. A person pushing a stroller poses about the same level of mechanical assistance and possible lack of grace in dealing with the security and airline boarding and yet a stroller-pusher is not pounced on like a soul-sucking inconvenience in their day or a dangerous animal in need of being taken out by a tranquilizer dart, the way that airport and airline people treat me when I’m in a wheelchair.

Tonight I read about Dave Hingsberger’s experience with an airport guard telling him that he didn’t exist.

He looked at me, annoyed and said, “Luggage can’t be left unattended.”

“I AM attending it,” I said incredulous.

“You don’t understand, SOME BODY needs to be in possession of the luggage,” he said and I didn’t get his implication, not yet, I was still too startled.

“I am in possession of this luggage, it is MINE,” my voice is rising.

He looks at me with exaggerated patience, “SOME BODY (long pause) needs to be attending the luggage.”

I got it then, I wasn’t SOME BODY, “Are you suggesting that I can’t supervise my own luggage because I’m in a wheelchair?”

“You need to settle down, sir.”

“What are you going to TAZER me? You are stealing my luggage,” I’m almost screaming now.

In the comments there is some support and then an influx of trolling and stupid comments. Even some of the “helpful” comments struck me as quite ignorant, for example the one that suggests that the “slightest hint of the ADA” makes people fall all over themselves to get in compliance and be helpful. I have never seen THAT to be true. Maybe in some alternate universe, asking for better access or pointing out someone’s insensitivity, rudeness, wrong-headedness regarding access and disability, doesn’t result in a bunch of petty officials becoming hostile. People become hostile if I don’t kiss their asses for offering me help that I don’t need and thus refuse and they certainly get angry and show it if I offer feedback on improving access. Show me some ADA cases that resulted in anything without actual political action. Who seriously thinks that ANYONE… especially anything to do with air transport… lifts a finger to change things because they might get sued? Wake up, folks! The idea of lawsuits does not magically fix all sociopolitical problems and it reeks of privilege and ignorance to go “Oh, well just SUE THEM”… with what energy, time, and resources? With what lawyer who’s going to take that case?

While reading the comments thread I realized Laura Hershey has a blog! I only knew about her old web site of archived articles and columns! I am very excited to read back through her blog posts! It’s like the most beautiful present! Y’all know how much I love airports, right? Laura wrote a poem about her own feelings about airports. I’m not alone. I also read andabusers’ posts on her airport experiences. Did you know that British Airways makes disabled people sit next to the window, in case there’s an emergency, so that they won’t get in the way of other passengers? NICE. I’m going to be writing an interesting letter to BA. What do you think that will do? Magic lawsuit fairies will sprinkle their pixie dust and BA will re-educate all its employees? At best it will result in a form letter, at worst I earn a flag on some list for being an annoying, difficult airline passenger.

Part of my theory about airports and airlines is that they tend to see travellers like they are all possibly dangerous animals in need of control and a disabled person is likely to be not only personally inconvenient to them as they try to do their job AND because they are not invisible in some hospital or institution and are out in the world, are likely to be uppity cripples who are about to cause some trouble. So they treat us with special rudeness, they single us out as targets of their anger, as people they CAN push around and not suffer any consequences for doing so because the disabled person is ASSUMED by anyone else who comes onto a bad scene to be the obstacle and the difficulty.

I read a great quote tonight from Wheelchair Dancer:

Pain is disabling, but disability is more than than hurt, the impairment, and more even than the attempts to overcome the hurt. Dare I go so far as to say — *disability* is the wind in your hair, the sun on your back, the fuck y
ou, the acceptance, the culture, the art, the humour, the rebellion, the work, the pleasure, and, yes, the living in pain; this is living unbounded.