The sad truth is that, even in this day and age, it’s hard for disabled people to travel.
I recently had ankle surgery to stimulate tissue regrowth in an 8mm “hole” in my ankle (talus chondroplasty), where bone and cartilage should have been. The surgery went fine – the challenge began once the surgery was over, and I began the arduous (and long) path to recovery, starting with 8 weeks on crutches, ensuring that my left ankle remains non-weight-bearing.
8 weeks doesn’t seem like a long time. But a long can happen, and has to happen in 8 weeks. Life goes on, in other words. And being the independent and famously strong-willed individual I am, I figured that the world would just adapt to my injury.
It was more the other way around – me adapting to face the world with my new handicap. And it proved more challenging than I could have ever anticipated.
I had the surgery on a Thursday, had the wound bound on Friday, and got on a plane from Boston Logan (BOS) on Sunday for a business trip to Denver (DIA). And that wasn’t even the half of it. First I had to make it from the doctor’s office to the front door via wheelchair (which took an hour for Mt. Auburn hospital to procure – should have just used the crutches!), then I had to call a taxi to take me home, THEN I had to make it up to my 3rd floor walk-up (no elevator). And this was all on Friday! By the time Sunday came for my trip, I was feeling good, having finally had two pain-free nights of sleep, and 3 days in to developing Arnold Schwartzenegger-like “the beach is over there” arm-strength.
I found some luggage that I could strap on my back, and I packed as light as I could – 4 fulls days of clothing. Oh, but how do I get down 3 flights of stairs with luggage strapped to my back you ask? My plan was to drop the luggage through the stairwell opening and hope no one would be in the process of walking by. But fortunately for any hapless passerbys, my roommate carried my bag outside to the taxi for me. Phew!
Down the stairs, in the taxi, to the airport. No problem. Exit cab. Now what?
There’s no wheel chair stations in site. No phones. No curb-side people to ask for assistance. Seriously, how do disabled people manage this? I had to strap my luggage to my back and slowly maneuver my way, straining and hobbling on crutches, to the United check-in counter and beg for help once I got there, utterly exhausted. And I was lucky. In many airports, the ticketing desks are quite far from the curb – at least not so at Boston Logan! Note to self – include where to get wheelchairs in the airport information provided in the one of the upcoming releases of the tripchi app!
The folks at United were really helpful. As soon as they saw me coming they invited me to take a seat and immediately called for wheelchair assistance. Within 5 minutes, a nice young woman helped situate my luggage (carry-on), my crutches, and me in the wheelchair and we set off to my gate. I should also note that I had called United about a week in advance of my flight and they were kind enough to accommodate my request for a window seat and extra-legroom in Premium Economy – since the doctor’s orders was to keep my leg elevated and stretched out to avoid blood clots.
Security wasn’t even so bad. I used my TSA Pre-check to bypass the long lines and get wheeled right up to the front. The TSA agents asked me if I could needed my crutches to walk/stand (which was a yes), so they screen my bag and my crutches as they wheeled me around the X-ray machine and called for a female assist for the grope and swab. I stood up (in the open, I might add) leaning haphazardly on my crutches and a female agent *thoroughly* patted me down after explaining to me exactly where she was going to be touching, how, and why. Kind of awkward. It was all very professional, really, but I couldn’t imagine having to go through this every single time I traveled.
After having cleared security, I got back in the wheelchair. I really wanted to sit in a restaurant and have lunch (of course making use of tripchi). I had a hankering for Legal Sea Foods. But since I had someone rolling me (and was using her time and energy), I felt bad asking for help with this, so decided to pass. I did muster up the courage to ask her to stop at a Hudson News and buy a Vitamin Water so that I could take my aspirin. Of course she was very accommodating, but I still felt badly. Ugh, not being independent sucks! So much for taking advantage of what the airport has to offer, which is my typical style….
The wheelchair assistant deposited me at my gate, where I would be waiting, stuck, for the next hour. After about 45 minutes and finishing my Vitamin Water, I thought to myself that it would have been really nice to make a bathroom stop before getting on the plane. But, I was stuck, alas.
As the gate attendants made the announcement that boarding would begin shortly, I alerted them that I would need help boarding – they called for a wheelchair again, and it arrived promptly. The good news is from here on out it was very easy, since I was first to board, was able to use the restroom, get situated, store my crutches in the closet upfront, and get in to my window cocoon before my fellow seatmates got into position. Plenty of room to stretch out my leg in Premium Economy, and even elevate it by putting it on top of my bag.
Finally I could rest easy. But first I needed to scarf down a buy-on-board sandwich. $8.99 for the tiniest chicken wrap you’d never see again. Then I promptly passed out. Being disabled is exhausting. Seriously, handicapped folks deserve all the extra help we as a society can muster (which sadly isn’t very much). My empathy level is way up right now – mad props to these folks who do this *every time* they travel.
The folks at United really made this leg of the journey easy, all the way around – from reservations, to check-in, to gate, to flight. When I landed in Denver, a wheelchair was waiting for me on the ramp. The Ethiopian wheelchair attendant wheeled me to a central point, where he had to do a hand-off with another Ethiopian fellow to take me on to the train, and to ground transportation where I would catch a taxi (how do I know they were Ethiopian, you may wonder? Here’s how.). This all went off seamlessly, quickly, and painlessly (other than my bad foot being jammed in the elevator by accident when he was wheeling me around). That was not fun.
The only slightly annoying parts of this one-way journey were:
- Finding a wheelchair in the first place (Logan should world on this)
- Security (can’t be helped)
- Not being able to do what I wanted in the airport (I should work on this)
- Feeling helpless (I should work on this)
I’ll report back about the return journey in the second installment.