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Welcome Home

Tips for accessible travel

_WELLNESS / ACCESSIBLE TRAVEL

One of my favorite phrases is “Welcome Home!” At Sydney Airport, it’s written on a huge sign heralding the last few steps before your family and friends rush forward to hug you and say it themselves. Many of them clutch colorful bouquets of flowers and shiny balloons featuring that very phrase. What always strikes me at this point is the noise - a cacophony of joy and excitement as the crowds of people spot their loved ones exiting the walkway from Customs. It’s the accents, too, the one I can’t hear on myself but immediately pick up on others. A warm breeze drifting through open doors, bringing the scent of eucalyptus, which undeniably means home.

I’ve done the JFK-SYD trip many times in the last six years, and it never gets old to look into that crowd and see my family waiting for me. I always spot my dad first, because of his 6’3 height. My mum is always the first to hug me, and my sister always brings me a Diet Coke. My brother and his fiancé keep my niece entertained while my brother-in- law grabs the luggage trolley. It’s hugs and kisses all round, with happiness and laughter. It’s always the most wonderful feeling, and I’ve been counting down the days until December, when I can experience it again.

Except now there is COVID-19, and what we’ve always done is no longer possible. I’ve been trying to imagine a socially distanced “Welcome Home!”. Will Sydney Airport have two-meter (6 feet) intervals marked out for the people eagerly awaiting their loved ones? When we exit that walkway, do we wave politely at our friends and family from a distance? Do we quarantine in a bland hotel room for 14 days, before hoping for a negative test that will allow us back outside?

The reality of life as a physically disabled person is that I often cannot keep six feet of distance.

Whatever measures are currently being taken may remain in place, relax, or increase over the coming months. There really is no way to know. I have to consider each step of the journey - getting from my Manhattan apartment to JFK, checking in, going through security, waiting to board, the boarding process. I think of all the precautions I can take - gloves, a face mask, and copious amounts of hand sanitizer. But, is that enough to keep me safe on a 22-hour flight with hundreds of people, not to mention the thousands in each of the airports I’ll pass through?

There’s a couple of added complications - I’m high risk for COVID-19, and I’m a wheelchair user. I don’t go through the scanner at security, I get an up close and personal pat down. To get to my seat on the plane, I have to transfer into a narrow aisle chair and be pushed onto the plane and down the aisle to my seat. It’s how I get to the bathroom during the flight as well, with flight attendants in front and behind me as I brush by every person in an aisle seat. The reality of life as a physically disabled person is that I often cannot keep six feet of distance.

Even so, six feet is easy compared to the ten thousand miles that separate me from the place I grew up in, and my family and friends who live there. I so badly want to be welcomed home once more, but I’m starting to realize it would take nothing short of a Christmas miracle to make it happen.

TIPS FOR WHEELCHAIR USERS READY TO FLY

Information is key. Sometimes airline staff will ask for certain information about your wheelchair and related equipment, especially if they are unfamiliar with your equipment. Gather all the information you might need before flying and put it together in a printed/ written note that you provide as needed. Depending on your type of equipment, you may want to include the measurements and/or weight, the brand and model, and the type of battery. Check the manufacturer’s website or the paperwork from when you got your chair for these details. Some manufacturers even have an IATA (International Air Transport Association) Certificate available for download from their website, which includes all of this information. You may need to provide some of this information before travelling – check with your airline.

Prepare, prepare, prepare. If you haven’t travelled by air before, prepare yourself for the journey. Practice transferring onto a narrow chair at home (or the gym, physical therapy, a friend’s house), to know what it will be like to transfer onto the aisle chair. Check out videos, photos, and blogs of travelling wheelchair users to see how they do it. If you need to remove parts of your wheelchair, practice doing that, too. Look at the airport’s map online, so you know exactly where you need to go.

Separation. Your wheelchair will be stored in the cargo hold, along with everyone’s suitcases. Baggage handlers will not know the right way to handle and store your wheelchair unless you tell them! Ask who is the person that will be doing this and be very clear in the instructions you give when you transfer out of your wheelchair at the plane door. If you need to, prepare clear written labels/notes that you attach to your chair. If any components may come loose (such as side guards), you may want to take them on board with you. You can bring your cushion on board to place on your seat.

Know your rights. In the USA, the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) and ACAA (Air Carrier Access Act) cover your rights as a disabled traveler. Airline/airport staff are often unfamiliar with these rules or expect you to be unfamiliar with them. Commonly violated rights include the right to remain in your own wheelchair up until the plane entrance, the right to board first (before VIPs, before First Class, before Frequent Flyers, before families), and the right to request assistance for security and boarding. Become familiar with these before you travel, and don’t be afraid to ‘stand’ up for yourself! If they lose, damage, or break your wheelchair, there are avenues for complaints.

Personal needs. Decide in advance how you will manage your bathroom needs – will you be using a leg bag, wearing pads/underwear, restricting fluids/food? Depending on the flight length, you may want to adjust your routine to get in one last bathroom break before leaving home or before boarding the plan. Also consider your medications and medical devices, and if possible bring extras on board with you in your carry-on luggage (it’s always best to have it with you in case anything happens to your checked luggage).

COVID-19 Protection.

Once seated on the plane, use sanitizing wipes to clean down the surfaces around you. Make sure you have plenty of hand sanitizer, and wear a mask!




Resources
Wheelchair Travel. John Morris is a triple amputee and power wheelchair user since 2012, who has taken hundreds of trips. His site has plenty of helpful information. https://wheelchairtravel.org/

Wheels No Heels. UK-based Gem Hubbard shares her experiences, including international travel, via YouTube videos. https://wheelsnoheels.co.uk/

Curb Free with Cory Lee. Cory has been a power wheelchair user and avid traveller since the age of 4, sharing his experiences and plentiful advice on his website. http://www.curbfreewithcorylee.com/

About the Air Carrier Access Act 
https://www.transportation.gov/airconsumer/passengers-disabilities

US Department of Transportation Air Travel Service Complaint https://airconsumer.dot.gov/escomplaint/ConsumerForm.cfm
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