Flying with a Disability

Posted by Kristin Beale in Life After Paralysis on May 13, 2021 # Travel, Lifestyle

I’ve had the opportunity to travel a lot since I got in an accident at age 14, that left me in a wheelchair; I’ve gone out of the county numerous times, and I’ve flown in an airplane to even more domestic work trips and vacations. I recognize that I’m coming from a position of privilege when I say that the more, I fly in an airplane, the more comfortable I became. Trial and error have brought me to some tips surrounding flying with a disability, a wheelchair, that I’d like to share and hopefully save some grief.

  1. Arrive a little early. In ninety percent of your air travel, a disability works like a Fast Pass to the front of lines and early boarding, but going through security does take a bit longer. Allow some extra time so you won’t feel stressed, and there’s time to get on the plane first. If you want to be a VIP, you have to show up like a VIP.
  2. Check your big bags. If you’re like me, trying to push your suitcase and push your wheelchair at the same time will look absolutely loony. Avoid that hassle by getting those bags checked and out of your way.
  3. Let them escort you. For whatever reason, airport staff love to push my wheelchair and “walk me to my gate.” Whether or not you accept the help with pushing is your call, but don’t turn down an offer to escort you through the airport. Sometimes they either know a shortcut or can get you through the lines faster. Smile big and say “thank you” -- it’s good to be friendly with someone in authority.
  4. When you get to security, make yourself known. This seems like an obnoxious tip, but it’s crucial. Wheelchairs and similar medical equipment can’t go through a typical security scanner, so airport personnel must assist with the security check. Once your ticket is checked, make eye contact with a security agent, then wait toward the front to be helped.
  5. As soon as you get to your gate, be sure to check in. In my case, I need an aisle chair to board the airplane. I also need to get on before everyone and get off after everyone, so I like to confirm all those details when I arrive. Nine times out of ten, they’re already aware, but I’ve experienced that one time out of ten enough times to make me double-check.
  6. Hang close to the gate. If you’re loading onto the airplane early, there’s no telling how early they’re going to want you on there. If you go off to buy cashews from a nearby gift store and they can’t find you, you’ll miss your opportunity. This is spoken from experience.
  7. Make sure your wheelchair is tagged, and that you have the tag number for reference. I’ve never experienced an airline leaving my wheelchair behind or misplacing it, but I know people who have. Nightmare. The airport staff is able to track down your chair with that identifying tag, so hang on to it.
  8. When you transfer out of your wheelchair, take your cushion, fold your seat back down, and lock your brakes. The easier and more compact you make your chair, the better. Also, if the brakes aren’t locked, it’s likely to spend the whole trip slamming into other people’s bags under the plane. Let’s avoid those dents.
  9. Sit on your cushion. I’m the queen of pressure sores on my ischium so, since my wheelchair seat was made with my sensitive hiney in mind, there’s no point risking a breakdown on the hard (and dirty!) airplane seats.
  10. Drink water, relax and buckle up. Once you’re on the plane, your work is done! Relax and make sure you hydrate and do pressure reliefs – the worst things to deal with on vacation are bladder infections and pressure sores. That goes without saying, but I get to take a motherly position in this. Drink your water, people!

I used to be hesitant about flying alone because there are so many things to remember, and a high price to pay if I don’t. The first time I did, I jumped into the metaphoric deep end and flew across the country to a week-long fencing clinic at the Olympic Training Center. The fencing part was very fun, and the flying part was a lot easier than I thought it would be – for the most part, people are very nice and very willing to help.

Last month, my husband and I flew to our honeymoon in Boston, MA. With the line advances and early boarding time, it felt like we were getting special treatment for our espousal, but those are just [one of the many] perks of having a disability. Enjoy it! Your disability shouldn’t limit you from seeing the world.

Kristin Beale is a native of Richmond, Virginia. She is the author of two books, Greater Things and A Million Suns, and a comic book, Date Me. Check them out and read an excerpt at https://kristinbeale.com/. Her comics can be found on Instagram @Greater.Things.Comics.

This project was supported, in part, by grant number 90PRRC0002, from the U.S. Administration for Community Living, Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, D.C. 20201. Grantees undertaking projects under government sponsorship are encouraged to express freely their findings and conclusions. Points of view or opinions do not, therefore, necessarily represent official Administration for Community Living policy.