My partner and I flew out of Anchorage last Saturday morning, in search of summer. We arrived in Chicago almost six hours later.
Sounds uneventful, right? It was, relatively speaking. No mechanical or weather delays. The flight wasn’t overbooked. We left on time.
But commercial aviation is rarely uneventful for those who use wheelchairs, and for those who travel with them.
My partner is always the first one on the plane, and the last one off, extending her time on the plane by at least 45 minutes. Unless she’s really lucky (seated in the first or second row), she’s been strapped to an aisle chair by airport workers who usually have no clue how to attach the chair’s four or five belts, let alone how to preserve a person’s dignity. They almost always ask me what seats we’re in, assuming, I suppose, that my partner is not a competent adult.
When we arrive at our destination, we watch with amusement as the great rush to deplane begins. After our last fellow passenger has left the plane, the aisle chair ordeal begins in reverse. When we finally are under our own power on the jetway, the race for the bathroom begins.
What I haven’t told you yet is that using the onboard bathrooms is not really an option for my partner. So when she flies, she has to time her bathroom breaks precisely–once just before the gate agent tells us to board, and as soon as possible after we deplane.
Unfortunately, this fine-tuned process is almost always derailed by other travellers, most often ones who are able-bodied.
Last Saturday in O’Hare, my partner had to stop at three different bathrooms before she found an accessible stall she could use.
When she wheels into an airport bathroom, after the experiences I’ve already described, and sees empty stall after empty stall, with the accessible stall the only one in use, her blood pressure goes through the roof. It’s absolutely infuriating.
People like the accessible stall because it’s roomy. Sometimes they “need” the extra room because they’ve dragged their luggage in with them. Sometimes it’s because they’re (like me!) oversized Americans who don’t like feeling cramped. Sometimes it’s a parent and child. And sometimes there’s no visible reason at all.
What none of these people understand is that the stall they’ve chosen is not a choice for my partner. It’s her only option. Her wheelchair does not fit in a regular stall.
So here’s one good thing you can do in the world: save the bathrooms! Not just at the airport, but especially at the airport. It’s hard for us to educate people without taking their heads off. Those of you with less skin in the game have a better chance of doing so in a calm and reasonable manner.
See an able-bodied person using an accessible stall, when others are available? Just say, “You know, some people really need that stall. It’s for people who use wheelchairs.”
And if you have anything to do with designing public bathrooms, please stop putting the baby changing stations in the accessible stall. I know it’s easy to think, “This stall won’t be used all that often–let’s use the extra space.” But people who need accessible bathrooms usually need them right away, not after waiting for a parent to change a child’s diaper.
Thanks for letting me vent, and thanks to those of you who may choose to save the bathrooms! In my next posts I’ll tell you more about the summer we’ve found in Tennessee.