Air travel can be challenging for people regardless of Ability. But things are changing to make the friendly skies more disability friendly.
Regardless of whether you are a person with a disability, the friendly skies are not as friendly as they used to be.
As with everything else these days, the cost of travel is up significantly. According to the US Travel Association, the price of a domestic plane ticket has increased 17.7 percent over last year’s prices. Travel by air is faster in most instances compared to transportation by train, bus, or automobile, provided they are not delayed or canceled.
Then, of course, this is a universal experience: enduring disruptive and boorish behavior from fellow travelers. According to the FAA, there were almost 2,500 unruly passenger reports last year. While that number is down from the 2021 high of nearly 6,000 reports, it is still well above the numbers of previous years.
I fear that inappropriate behavior from fellow travelers will not change much. Still, I can only assume post-COVID masking practices (and the altercations resulting from them) have diminished thanks to controlling the virus. But frustrations are bound to escalate as airlines deal with strikes, weather conditions, aging software programs, and overbooking to rebound from the financial strains caused by global circumstances.
Still, as challenging as traveling can be for the general public, it’s even more so for those of us who happen to have a disability.
Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) agents’ abilities to address the needs of travelers with disabilities have been so bad that Congress demanded the agency fix things in its reauthorization bill. The treatment goes beyond embarrassing and inconvenient things that travelers without disabilities endure; it sometimes rises to life-threatening circumstances. Yes, the TSA must keep the flying public safe; still, there is much more that they can do in the way of training agents to make flying less treacherous for travelers with disabilities.
Generally, airports aren’t disability friendly, physically accessible, or navigable. Some airport layouts are so complex that they would make a D&D Dungeon Master squeal in delight over any quest they send their players on. Information kiosks in most airports don’t provide usable and accessible information to people with disabilities, let alone people who are “temporarily able.”
Then there are the issues for individuals traveling with wheelchairs. Guided assistance at airports can be challenging and demeaning at times. Those of us who don’t have a mobility issue, i.e., we can walk confidently and independently, are often told we must move about the airport in a wheelchair.
Then those reliant on wheelchairs can’t always be assured that their wheelchairs, some worth thousands of dollars, will be at their final destination. If they make it to the destination, it’s up in the air (pun intended) whether they will be in the same condition as when the traveler entrusted it to the airlines.
Airports should be especially mindful when handling powered or standard wheelchairs. They must ensure they care for their passengers with disabilities as they care for their “temporarily able” passengers. If not for the respect and comfort of their valued consumers, given the options for air travel, then to avoid the negative press associated with losing or destroying a traveler’s wheelchair.
All one needs to do is Google the term “wheelchair and airlines” to learn about the high number of incidents involving damaged, lost, stolen, or delayed delivery of wheelchairs. But if you cannot do that on your own: Spoiler alert! It’s about 29 wheelchairs not arriving at their destinations, getting lost, or being destroyed daily. If we do the math, that is no less than 10,585 wheelchair users affected yearly due to airlines and cargo staff not managing these critically necessary mobility aides with care.
If you don’t know my story, I have a personal well-publicized reason why traveling as a person with a disability can be, to be polite, problematic. In November 2013, US Airways kicked me off a flight allegedly because my service dog, Doxy, and/or I was unruly, out of control, and disruptive to our fellow passengers. Nothing of the sort was even close to the truth.
In fact, all my fellow passengers, nearly 40 people, refused to fly without me and my guide dog because the flight attendant had a hair up her proverbial ass and was ill-prepared and unfit for her responsibilities.
My story was in the media all around the world. From what I am told, it’s still very popular on Reddit. Here is that link.
Here is that tale as told on NPR.
The silver lining from my experience was that, in response, many airlines reviewed their policies regarding people traveling with service animals. However, many people with disabilities continue to suffer similar indignities from uneducated airline staff and fellow travelers.
Please, believe me, I am not trying to pick on the airlines and airports. I am pointing out problems that are begging for solutions. To their credit, some airlines and airports are trying to fix challenges that negatively impact those with disabilities. They are partnering with organizations and advocates, exploring solutions, and, hooray, even implementing them.
Some airports provide tours for people with disabilities so that before their flight, they can become familiar with the layout and other services to help them safely and conveniently be on their way. Many airports are also signing on to the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower program. This program provides people with hidden disabilities to self-identify by wearing a specially designed sunflower on a lanyard so that airport and airline personnel can discreetly be on notice that they might need special or more help while traveling. When I learn about efforts like these, I give credit where credit is due and offer kudos.
But you know, regardless of Ability, there are air travel challenges that happen before anyone with a disability even enters an airport or transportation hub to begin their journey. People with disabilities routinely face digital barriers when attempting to book flights online or through a mobile app. As reservation systems are mostly online, leveraging usable and functional digital platforms is nearly impossible.
Today over 80% of websites and mobile apps violate federal and international laws governing usability, functionality, and accessibility for people with disabilities. This should be different in the 21st century. Engineers, designers, and developers alike need to learn how to code correctly and in a manner that meets the WCAG standards to ensure assistive devices and tech used by people with disabilities to traverse the digital world are usable and functional.
My Blind Spot is working with enlightened airline companies to draw attention to the needs of travelers with a disability. One such partnership I have nurtured is with Jet Blue. Along with some fellow inclusion evangelists representing individuals across the Ability spectrum, I am on an advisory council charged with being a part of the “traveling with a disability” solution and not just a voice crying out about the problem.
To that end, remember what they say, “Nothing About Us Without Us.” I invite you to be a part of the solution instead of being a voice crying out about the problem. If you have any lived experience navigating digital platforms, positive or negative, share them with me as we hope to celebrate those doing it right, like JetBlue. This way, we can inform the disability community and all consumers about those disability-friendly airlines that want people of all abilities to feel valued and understood.
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and share your stories so we can fly confidently, knowing that we can book our flights and know that our wheelchairs and assistive devices will arrive safely and timely, just like our bodies do. Please help me understand the depth and breadth of the problem so that we can be the solution and the change we need to see in this world.