This week I’m recovering from a recent trip to Oregon. I went out there to visit with family, attend an important event, and spend some time on the coast enjoying the vacation. This trip was unique to any others that I have taken in at least the last five years, because I didn’t have my husband, J, or any other family members with me to act as my personal disability assistance/pack mule (whatever you want to call it) while traveling. He usually takes care of ALL of our luggage so that I can walk, because he’s sweet like that. I realized when considering that the length of my trip (from Ohio to Oregon), and the fact that I would have a connection – and not much time to make it in, that I would need some help in order to make it safely to my destination in one piece. I decided to learn more about and seek out disability assistance based on the the above info, and the following: My head and neck pain have been increasing lately, and it’s impossible to predict whether the day I am scheduled to travel will be a good day. I’ve also been having more falls. Falling in familiar places isn’t fun, but absolutely no one wants to fall in public. It’s the worst – just take my word for it, and don’t do it.
Once I decided to look into what assistance was available, I began to research. I only looked at domestic travel (In the US) in my research because I wasn’t planning to travel internationally although I know the laws vary from country when international travel is involved. I was surprised to learn that in the US, air travel is not regulated by The Americans with Disabilities Act, but rather the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA). The act prohibits air carriers from discriminating against people with disabilities, and requires that they provide reasonable accommodations. The act also ensures that terminals are accessible, passengers are provided with assistance through the airport and with boarding if needed, and service dogs are accommodated free of charge. Some important points that I learned about the ACAA are that disabled passengers generally cannot be required to provide “proof” of their disability. They may be asked to provide clearance to travel from a physician if the crew is concerned that they are not healthy enough to fly. Advance notice of your plans to travel and request assistance is not required in most cases (but is probably a good idea to make sure that you get what you need). Some exceptions include when: ten or more passengers with a disability are traveling together, transporting an electric wheelchair or scooter, the passenger will be bringing a service dog on a flight longer than 8 hrs in duration, or the passenger will be traveling with an emotional/psychiatric support animal.
After reading up, I decided to talk with friends in my local EDS support group in order to get practical information and pointers from people who have used wheelchair assistance and other accommodations while traveling. Here is some of the best advice they gave!
- Call ahead to each airport to make sure that a wheelchair will be available in each location. Even though it’s not legally required, this will help prevent mix ups and ensure that you get what you need in a timely fashion. Because I flew Southwest, I was able to request accommodations online when I booked my flights, but I still went ahead and followed up with a phone call.
- Pack snacks and an empty water bottle in your carry-on. This will come in handy if you are running short on time. I also just like having familiar food that I know is “safe” when it comes to my dietary limitations on hand. The water bottle can be filled once you get through security.
- The airlines cannot count a medical device (such as a CPAP, bipap, oxygen etc..) as a carry-on. If you pack a bag that is only medications and/or medical supplies, this also cannot be counted. They also cannot charge you to check these items.
- Bring small bills to tip your wheelchair attendants. This is NOT required by any means, but is appreciated.
When I got to the airport for my trip, I arrived early to allow for plenty of time navigating a system that I’m not yet accustomed to. I checked in and the desk to find that my boarding pass was labeled for pre-boarding and wheelchair assistance, and everything was in order. An attendant took me through security, and to my gate. At each connection a destination a wheelchair was also waiting for me. All in all, I had a really good experience. I do not think I would have made my connection on the way there without the help. Airline and airport employees were nice, although one of the attendants on the way home did ask, “What happened to you?” I laughed and told her that “I was born” and then explained a little about EDS. I know that she should not have asked, but I also know that most younger people who use wheelchair assistance probably did have some sort of accident or injury.
If you have traveled using disability accommodations in the US (or elsewhere) and have tips, tricks, or comments about your experience, please feel free to share! Also feel free to share if you have experience using accommodations for a different disability or need.
When I first booked the travel, I felt a little defeated. Once I got to my destination without any hiccups and with much less pain than traveling usually causes me, I felt nothing but gratitude. I realized that the assistance was helping me to be more independent, and it got me to the beach, so It was definitely worth it.
United States, Department of Transportation. (2009, August). New Horizons: Information for the Air Traveler with a Disability. Retrieved July 31, 2017, from https://www.transportation.gov/sites/dot.gov/files/docs/Horizons_2009_Final_0.pdf