Improvements for Wheelchair Accessible Travel

I find it surreal that I can charge my phone and have WiFi access on an airplane ✈️ ... the times they are changing. Aside from the drastic change in attitude from the first team I flew with when I started my trip to the team today that I am ending the trip with, Saudia Arabia Airline provides pretty great service. There’s plenty of entertainment onboard (i.e. movies, t.v. shows, music, etc.), they provide you with several complimentary meals with these long flights and snacks are available in between meals, and the blankets seem to be of higher quality as well. I’ve noticed a lot of the Middle Eastern airlines provide complimentary full meals even if the flight is less than an hour long! They really try to make it an luxurious experience. Anyways, through all my years of flying and with the constant progress in technology, here are some changes I would like to see implemented in order for travelers with disabilities to be able to board a flight and travel in a way that maximizes their independence and treasures their dignity.

First, the aisle chairs/cabin chairs used to assist wheelchair users from the aircraft gate to their seat or from their seat to the bathroom needs to be improved in a way that could be self-functioning for people who have mobility disabilities. With our current technological advancement and the wealth generated from the increasing number of travelers, I think we have the capability to create an amazing travel experience for people of all disabilities and diversities.

I had to use the restroom a moment ago and the female flight attendant asked if she could just carry me in there. I said no because she was not much bigger than me and the weight would’ve been too heavy for her. I later saw that she didn’t know how to assemble the inflight aisle chair and had to call one of her male counterparts to help her. Unlike the flight attendants during the beginning of my Middle East journey, these flight attendants seemed very annoyed that they had to go through the hassle of pushing me to the restroom after ten plus hours of flying. If there was a self-functioning aisle chair available, I don’t think I would be at the mercy of their moods.

Secondly, there needs to be a more streamlined and efficient way for wheelchair users to go through security. They should not have to be patted down every. single. time. and endure the hassle just because they have a disability. Perhaps it is not as cumbersome or invasive for those who don’t fly as frequently, but I feel that with each pat-down they are getting more and more invasive. I prefer these pat-downs to be done in public where everyone can see me so that they don’t become even more invasive. Although, traveling in these Middle Eastern countries where the divide and separation between the two genders is more enforced, I have no choice but go into enclosed spaces where I sometimes can only see the other person’s eye 👁 balls who’s touching me up and down my body. It sounds as odd as it feels. I am often very reluctant to go into these enclosed spaces, but I know that if I do not go in, there will be my fair share of hassle ahead. With that said, I understand that this latter part is a cultural difference so I respect that, but the mandatory pat downs for each time we travel needs to change. Perhaps some of you already have some solution plans for me? How does TSA pre-check work? Is it going well for wheelchair users who utilize this service?

Thirdly, the other point I want to see improved is getting an aisle chair and assistant to help wheelchair users get on a flight. This part is smooth sailing ⛵️ for the most part, but once in a while there will be a glitch. For instance, I recently missed my flight from Bahrain to Abu Dhabi because when I checked in, the individual checking me in forgot to order assistance for my layover flight. The manager of the flight attendants was yelling at me for not notifying them even though when I was booking my flight, I checked the box that clearly showed I cannot walk and needed assistance to my seat. When I checked in at the airport, I also told them I needed an aisle chair to assist me on the plane and they could also clearly see that I had my own personal wheelchair and had a major mobility disability. The airlines are pretty good about making the necessary arrangements for these kinds of accommodations most of the time, but these kinds of miscommunications or lack of planning is not as rare as I would like either.

Fourthly, I have had a lot of amazing experiences on this trip, but also some challenges. One of my biggest fears on a trip is getting a major wheelchair malfunction I cannot fix and have to go back home or struggling to find the mobility devices to get me back to my home country. I came close to encountering this problem on this trip. The backrest of my wheelchair was misshapen and the notches on the left side is warped and cracked. Someone must’ve tried to take the back off and didn’t know to just tug at the strings directly below the handle bars or the backrest had came out of the notches and they were trying to force it back in place instead of looking closely to align the backrest with the notches. Now my backrest fits crookedly on my wheelchair and I get backaches from sitting too long in that position. I told Persian Airlines about this, but they said I needed to talk to some other person/department about this issue and never gave me much details. I’ve encountered airlines damaging my wheelchair before, but didn’t know how to make them be accountable for it. If friends have advice for me on what to do or have had similar experiences, please let me know how you’ve handled it. It would be much appreciated because getting it fixed myself will probably be costing me thousands of dollars.

Fifthly, enabling wheelchair users to gate check their wheelchairs so that they can use their personal wheelchair at soon as they land should not be a battle, and yet, it often is. This is especially true for international flights where they do not see as many individuals in wheelchairs traveling. I think having a global standard procedure for this would be very much welcomed. Just to give you a vivid comparison, not having my personal wheelchair at the gate when I land and have to go retrieve it at the baggage carousel is like telling an able-bodied they cannot use their perfectly functioning legs until they get to baggage claim. How are they supposed to do that? The solution is right there, but bureaucracy is the hangup. This may not be the best comparison, so wheelchair user travelers help a sister out in explaining this to people who have the luxury to not ever experience these frustrations.

Lastly, global standard procedures should also be established to allow wheelchair users to bring their repair kit both in carry-ons and check-on bags. I am lucky to still have my wheelchair repair kit with me, but that’s just the problem, it was mostly because of luck. The fickleness of the rules and the variations of the moods of people in charge determine if my repair kit will go through security or not at any given flight check-in. I’ve come close to missing my flight on this trip because I was advocating for tools that will allow me to be mobile while abroad in case any malfunctions occur.

These are all important issues to think about and resolve for the near future. If any of you work for the airlines, TSA, or do work related to aviation policies, please consider coming up solutions to these seemingly small issues that have big impacts on wheelchair users who are looking to travel with just as much ease as able-bodied folks. I hope this blogpost has informed the relevant folks on how to work out these kinks. The future can be bright, inclusive, kind, and amazing if we strive for the best together! ✨

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