Fight or flight? A wheelchair is just a wheelchair… or is it?

13th December 2023

My recent trip to Disneyland Paris with my family was severely disrupted when my wheelchair was irreparably damaged during our flight.

Air France handled the matter efficiently and I was supplied with what they termed a ‘like for like’ wheelchair for my trip.  There was a sense that having arranged this new chair so promptly, Air France had gone ‘above and beyond’ to rectify the problem.  However the attitude of the staff and the fact that they had such efficient arrangements in place leads me to suspect that this must happen fairly frequently.  It also misses the key point that had the staff been trained to handle my wheelchair correctly in the first place, this issue would not have arisen at all.  It begs the question why not fix the problem rather than stick a very expensive Elastoplast on it?!

In addition it isn’t actually possible to easily replace my wheelchair as my wheelchair is unique to me and has been designed very specifically to meet my exact requirements in terms of providing ergonomic comfort and support.

To many people it may seem that a wheelchair is just a wheelchair.  But imagine being told to wear someone else’s clothes and shoes, drive someone else’s car… sleep in someone else’s bed.  To an extent clothes are clothes… shoes are shoes… a car is a car… a bed is a bed.  But when they are not yours it can make you feel not yourself.  And this is exactly how I felt that whole weekend.  Not only was the replacement wheelchair uncomfortable, but I look at photos of myself on that trip and I don’t look like me at all.

This whole situation also raises the significant issue around perceptions of disability.  There is very little education, understanding or empathy for what my wheelchair actually represents to me.  My wheelchair is my freedom, my independence and my way of accessing the world and participating in society.  It is an essential part of my life and to a certain extent my identity – without it I can’t be who I am.

Unfortunately, this is not a rare occurrence and has been highlighted by Sophie Morgan as part of her #rightsonflights campaign.

The charity Scope joined her at Westminster in September 2023, where she launched a charter to protect disabled people on flights. Disabled influencers campaigners, MPs and journalists and MPs attended the event and are supporting the campaign.
Sophie said:

“Society can no longer accept the disregard with which some disabled travellers are being treated when they fly. I’ve been ignored, left on planes, and had expensive wheelchairs damaged. What me and my team are working on is for disabled passengers to have the same experience as other passengers.

Like Sophie, I am an experienced traveller and have flown to many countries around the world including Europe, America, Australia and New Zealand.  Yet, as a wheelchair user, requiring assistance, air travel is more of an ordeal than an enjoyable part of a trip or holiday.

I am expected to be at the gate early even when a flight is delayed.  This is standard with every flight I take and prevents me from the pleasurable part of being in an airport… browsing in the shops, enjoying a bite to eat or a coffee etc.  Instead I am expected to wait on my own at the specialist gate, often for long periods of time.  This in itself is a frustrating part of travelling as a disabled person.

Despite all that, I love to travel and I have plans to travel next year. However, the thought of having to trust the baggage handlers with my precious wheelchair fills me dread.

What is it going to take to change attitudes and behaviours towards disability and disabled travellers?  Airlines need to step up and start considering the needs of disabled passengers and that we have the right to be acknowledged and accepted as equal members of society.

I believe that the way to achieve this is to raise awareness, open up conversations and challenge negative attitudes and behaviours in a safe and supportive way.  The WAAD Disruptor programme helps individuals and organisations to start thinking differently about disability in order to create real, positive cultural change.

If you are interested in the programme or have your own story to share about your travel experiences then I’d love to hear from you.

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