Editor's Note

Recognizing Life’s Slippery Slopes

It’s springtime at last, which in the complex rehab industry is synonymous with “Pack your bags; we’re hitting the road!”

Laurie Wantanabe on the Mobili-T-Rover

At ISS, I found the Mobili-T-Rover by Rehab Ideas was a lot easier to parallel park than my Toyota. John Trivento of Rehab Ideas supervised. Photo by Stephen Sundarrao.

I’ve been fortunate to spend phone and face time recently with Mark E. Smith, consumer research manager for Pride Mobility Products. In addition to chatting with me at the International Seating Symposium in Nashville, Tenn. — see page 8 for comprehensive show coverage — Mark did an interview on the consumer-targeted topic “What I Need from My Equipment” for our Abilities Expo show edition (available in pdf format at mobilitymgmt.com/consumer).

In that interview, Mark mentioned a grim travel trend: Prohibiting passengers from taking airplane flights if they’re deemed “too disabled” to travel alone. Motivational speaker Johnnie Tuitel was booted from a US Airways flight last year; like Mark, Tuitel has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair.

The airlines’ explanation for kicking some people with disabilities off flights, Mark says, is that they’re concerned those people would not be able to aid in their own evacuation in case of an airplane emergency.

On the surface, that seems a reasonable concern. If passengers had to use those emergency exits or inflatable slides, could people with disabilities safely do so or provide enough self-aid to help the situation?

If not, aren’t airlines correct to be concerned?

Here’s the problem: Where do we draw the line?

For example: Airlines allow small children to fly alone. In an emergency situation, would the average scared 7-year-old know how to evacuate the plane all by himself?

I’ve worked with a lot of 7-year-olds. I’m predicting the answer is no.

What about someone with hearing loss or low vision? They might not be able to hear crew members’ instructions or easily see their way to the exit doors. How about people with respiratory difficulties, such as asthma or COPD? The stress of the situation and the extra physical exertion could cause dangerous shortness of breath. Seniors with arthritis might not have the dexterity to quickly navigate those narrow aisles, then jump down the slide.

Should all of them stay home, too?

If airlines get to arbitrarily decide who is and is not a potential liability in the sky — without input from clinical professionals or the passengers themselves — then what’s next? Mark is a father. Is someone going to decide he isn’t capable of chaperoning his daughter unless another adult is with them? That Mark can’t stay in a hotel room by himself, in case the hotel needs to be evacuated? That in fact, people with disabilities really would be “safer” living in hospitals or group homes? That it’s best if they don’t travel or have families?

That’s the problem with slippery slopes: They often take us on rides we never intended. And too often, we don’t even know the slope is slippery until we’ve already started the downward slide. And that’s why it’s so important to be on guard at all times for any possible erosion of our right to live as independently as possible.

This article originally appeared in the April 2011 issue of Mobility Management.

About the Author

Laurie Watanabe is the editor of Mobility Management. She can be reached at lwatanabe@1105media.com.

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