To whom it may concern at TSA and within the broader air travel industry:
My name is Wesley Hamilton, and I’m advocating for action to improve the travel experiences of those with disabilities. I have a spinal cord injury, but I refuse to be defined by that. My recent travel experiences have enlightened me to the lack of knowledge your industry has about spinal cord injuries and the basic rights individuals with disabilities deserve while traveling. I want to offer some insight on how you can improve the experience in the future.
Here’s a quick briefing. A spinal cord injury (SCI) is damage to the spinal cord that results in a loss of function, such as mobility and/or feeling. Again, my SCI certainly has changed my life, but I have worked hard to overcome my limitations and consider myself pretty capable of anything I set my mind to. That isn’t always the case for all with an SCI.
I am writing you today because I feel extremely limited when I enter an airport. Let me rephrase that—the moment I enter the airport, my process all the way up to the plane is 100% of the time ridiculous and frustrating.
There are many aspects that I’d like to draw attention to, but below are a few of my thoughts.
TSA agents and security checkpoints
For those who don’t know the security checkpoint process for someone in a wheelchair, let me explain. The TSA agents have to check me and my chair for illegal things. During the pat down, a request to lift your body up (raise your butt off the cushion), so they can feel under you is also part of the process. They can ask this up to 2 or 3 times. After that, it’s time to check my shoes, chair, and cushion. This too can consist of lifting my body up 1 or 2 more times.
All airports check me differently, but NONE have been comfortable. I try my best to make the job easy by lifting and holding as needed. But geez. That gets tiring! Imagine people asking you to lift up your butt constantly while you’re sitting.
Here are my issues with the security process.
- I have little control of my bladder. Constant up and down movement can cause me to leak. (I have to wear protection for this reason, and it’s uncomfortable.)
- The security process can be exhausting, making my arms weak.
- It takes entirely too long and makes me have to rush to my gate and hope I can catch my flight.
- At random times, my shoes set things off, and I’m forced to remove them. (All things I cannot remove myself, someone can assist with. But taking a shoe off my foot isn’t the same. And not everyone is trained for that.)
Since a security checkpoint is the first part of a journey, you can imagine how agitated you can get. Do you really want to set a tone like that for a whole trip?
At the gate check
Besides the fact I have to get an extra tag for my wheelchair and notify the attendants I’m there, normally this part is fine. Thank goodness there is one part that is somewhat easy.
Now, I would say if there were tables in airport waiting areas that were for wheelchair users, then maybe we could get some work done too. It would be especially helpful when you have long layovers or delays. Some airports do have this accommodation but not all. I think it would be an easy feature to add.
Aisle chairs. Do you know what they are? If you’re in a wheelchair, you have to be transferred to an “aisle chair” that fits in the narrow aisles on the plane. They are NOT comfortable.
There are so many reasons a wheelchair user should not be transferred over to another chair, especially one that really requires someone random and untrained to assist you. First, you have to tell someone your level of injury. Then you have them assist you over to the aisle chair. Thing is—they do not know your body like you do. This transfer process makes everyone nervous.
Me being transferred to an aisle chair
I remember one specific time I got into an aisle chair. Because I have a lower level injury, my balance is okay, so I transferred myself and was able to control my balance. But it was a different story once I got onto the plane. Since the seat had an arm rest that didn’t raise, the assistants had to lift me into my seat. They did it so fast. I heard bones popping! I even tweeted the airline a personal message telling them because I was afraid something may have broken. (Luckily, nothing did.) But again, what if I had to use the restroom or just randomly enough air gives in, and I have a bowel movement? Yes, that has happened. I’m trapped in that chair unless the assistants help me out.
And while the process of getting on the plane is dangerous, just imagine what happens to wheelchairs being thrown around like the rest of the luggage. How are people in wheelchairs supposed to travel with confidence if their wheelchair could be broken when they arrive at their destination?
On the plane
Oh man. Just like the world, there was no way these planes were being thoughtful about everyone. Narrow aisles, small seats, and little bathrooms. Nah. But just because they weren’t originally designed for all doesn’t mean they can’t be.
Better accessibility accommodations matter. They always have. But we’re in 2020 now. Things HAVE to change.
First, there are people like myself who cannot walk and cannot get into a seat on the plane if the arm rest doesn’t move. Like I mentioned earlier, even if I were assisted into a seat, it can be uncomfortable and possibly cause an injury.
Bathrooms on a plane are a problem for everyone. But if the President’s plane can have rooms and private planes can have lounges, then regular commercial planes should accommodate those with limitations. I self-cath, which means every 3 to 5 hours I have to use the restroom. I don’t wear a leg bag because its connected to a condom catheter, and that isn’t sanitary. I refuse to risk infection doing so just because the airplanes are inaccessible.
So, how do we solve these issues, TSA / industry?
Well, as for the seating on the plane, Southwest is one of the best when it comes to giving people the ability to choose their own seat. That has always put me in the front, and for the most part, it’s convenient. I think other airlines should take note of that.
Now for all airlines, I think if a person can prove their limitations and those are SCI limitations or something similar, the airlines should upgrade us to business class. That would be the most convenient and comfortable. There should also be some type of option for those like myself who may need to use the restroom on long flights.
There are so many things that could and should be changed. But I can only write so much. This was just the beginning to make you aware of how the system could accommodate people like myself.
I am a motivational speaker and would welcome the opportunity to speak on diversity and inclusion advocacy and initiatives for airports and airplanes. If you would like to book me, please email email@example.com.
Luggage photo courtesy of Chalabala
Edited by Writing Help KC