Last October, motivational speaker Johnnie Tuitel — a long-time wheelchair user with cerebral palsy — made headlines when he was removed from a US Airways flight that, ironically, was to take him to a speaking engagement at a self-advocacy conference.
Tuitel says he was told by a US Airways rep that he was “too disabled to fly without someone else” to accompany him. (Tuitel — still unaccompanied — caught a Delta Air Lines flight, but arrived too late for his presentation.)
While the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Air Carrier Access Act prohibits discrimination “against any otherwise qualified individual with a disability, by reason of such disability, in the provision of air transportation,” consumers with disabilities can still run into a variety of problems at the airport and in the sky.
Mark Smith, consumer research manager for Pride Mobility Products, has cerebral palsy and drives a power wheelchair. Of a recent trip through airport security, Smith says, “Th e security screener was really concerned about my seat cushion, of all things. He said, ‘Can you please stand up so that I can inspect your cushion?’ And I said, ‘Sir, if I could stand up, we wouldn’t be having this conversation because I’d be in that other (security) line, walking.’”
Smith adds, “What I’ve found with travel is you can have all the policy and regulation, but ultimately what it comes down to is the people. If you have an ignorant security screener or gate agent, it’s really tough, regardless of policy.”
For the record, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) says in its disabilities guidelines that Smith did not have to leave his wheelchair: “You should not be required to transfer from your wheelchair to another chair or be lift ed out of your chair during the inspection process.”
One of the best ways to streamline your air travel is to know DOT policies beforehand. Check out these Web sites for more information.
- File complaints: disability & discrimination
- Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Disability in Air Travel
- Transportation Security Administration Guidelines for Mobility Disabilities
Q: I have a spinal cord injury, and I’ll be flying next week. What should I know?
Bert Burns: I fly a lot, nationally and internationally. The first thing you should always do before getting on the plane? Go pee. Either use a catheter or a leg bag, but go do it. And if you are going to be on a long flight, the night before you go, do a bowel program. Your biggest fear on an airplane will always be having a bowel accident.
When getting on the plane, you will wheel down the ramp, and they’ll transfer you to an aisle chair. They’ll take you back to your seat. Make sure you take your chair cushion with you. Don’t leave anything valuable in your wheelchair, and if you normally keep a bag under your chair, take it with you.