Getting on the plane ain’t easy

My family has a fear of flying, and it has very little to do with the flying part. It’s because taking my son Joe on a flight is a gigantic logistical hassle, requiring physics-defying calisthenics that are almost beyond the reach of normal, healthy middle-aged parents. He uses a wheelchair. That’s not the airline’s problem, that’s our problem. But it shouldn’t even be a problem.

The subject came up recently when my wife shared a MoveOn.org petition on the Book of Face. As of this morning, about 28,000 people have signed the petition, pushing Federal Aviation Association to require airlines to provide designated wheelchair accessible spaces on every commercial aircraft, which would allow passengers to remain safely and comfortably (or, more comfortably than the alternative) seated in their personal wheelchairs.

An old friend of mine weighed in, trying to be a voice of reason. She acknowledged that navigating a flight with a boy like Joe is “very hard,” but she “found that most airlines are very sympathetic to special needs.” I love this person and I know she meant well, and would be the first person to give up her seat for someone else in need … but, for the sake of accuracy, let’s turn “very hard” into “backbreaking and not worth the effort,” and “very sympathetic” to “mostly apathetic.”

Here’s what I mean. Let’s start with parking the van. Ours has a wheelchair lift that extends out about three and a half feet from the passenger side when fully deployed. Subsequently, we need a handicap parking space next to one of those neutral X-marks-the-spot spaces, which basically exist for vans like ours. Good luck finding one of those. Often, I let the wife and kid out as close to our destination as possible, then park the van and catch up with them.

Now we reach pack mule mode. We have the wheelchair, usually two pieces of luggage to check in, two pieces of carry-on. And the car seat, a big heavy one. We check our luggage and slog off toward our next stage of the gauntlet, the security checkpoint.

Dismantling ourselves to get through security is one thing. Dismantling and reassembling Joe’s stuff is another thing entirely. TSS has to do their job, so they take Joe’s stuff apart. They rifle through his various emergency bags, make sure his medicine is medicine, and not a liquid explosive. We’ve all been through security, right? But this requires big top quality juggling, because there are so many moving parts to the process, and a boy who gets as antsy as any other boy. Anyway, it always takes us a long time to get through security.

Let’s hurry off to the gate now, because the extra time it took to park and get through security has left us a little rushed, because in addition to those delays that we should have planned for, one of us is still lugging that car seat, which has the portability of a small sofa bed. And don’t forget the two carry-on bags. They start the boarding process and you get to the plane and now you have to separate the boy from the wheelchair and give the chair to the crew, who will stow it in the cargo hold (you hope), if there is no place on the plane for it, and there usually isn’t because my son’s wheelchair isn’t the light, easier to stow folding kind.

Now you get to be a contortionist, because now you’re carrying a boy who doesn’t bend very well because of the nature of his spastic-quad cerebral palsy, which can make him stiff as a surfboard, through a tight space. You weave your way through the narrow row between seats on the plane, dodging people, apologizing every time Joe’s foot hits one of them. By now your back is aching – whether you’ve got the kid or the car seat.

Oh yeah, the car seat. It wasn’t made for an airplane seat. One of you must install it, though, because that’s the rule, so you figure it out, cram it in and somehow maneuver the kid into it, bending him like a pretzel. The scene I’ve just described was from a time when Joe could fit into his car seat, a few years back when we flew to Seattle. We haven’t taken him on a flight since. And he can’t sit in an airplane seat by himself. He can’t hold himself up. He can do so much cool stuff, but sitting up by himself under his own power in an airplane seat isn’t one of them.

I guess the bottom line is, no amount of sympathy from the airlines makes this situation easy, and it will never be easy as long as our society tolerates the status quo when it comes to people with disabilities and accessibility challenges. It will change, eventually, I’ve no doubt. But since the work of changing the world to fit my son is a long, drawn-out task, I’m left imagining how cool it will be to just wheel him onto the plane, as easily as I can walk onto a plane, and how cool it will be to fly again with my family.

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