Monday, January 09, 2006

Flying the International Skies in a Wheelchair

Why is it so hard to get fair treatment while flying if you are in a wheelchair? American Eagle has been the worst airline to fly. Their planes are tiny and not anywhere near accessible. O'Hare is the worst airport to fly into. They never come to take you off the plane when you arrive or they even have gone as far to pull onto the runway without putting your chair on the plane and leaving it in the terrified hands of an O'Hare employee who was has to wave her arms frantically to the pilot so he won't fly away. Last November the American Eagle pilot and flight attendant had to get me off the plane themselves. This is only one of the interesting stories I own about the unfriendly skies. There are more below. And I am sure more to come.

The last two times I flew were international flights out of Chicago's O'Hare Airport. In November of last year I flew from Port Columbus International Airport to O'Hare. I arrived in O'Hare and was trying to switch planes from American Airline's American Eagle, a subsidiary of American, to one of their jumbo jets in order to fly to London and was left on the small communter jet for thirty minutes. No one from O'Hare's staff came to get me. The pilot, furious, had to lift me off the plane himself with the flight attendant. He asked me to send a complaint to the airline. He said American Eagle and O'Hare are infamous for this-leaving disabled passengers on planes. Once I was off I rushed to my next flight. At the gate for the international flight I was met by two young employees of O'Hare to help me on the plane. I have a wheelchair that weighs about 18lbs and comes apart. When you book a flight with American they guarantee, based on first come first serve basis, that your chair, if it is collapsible or comes apart, it will be stored on the plane in the closet and will not have to be checked as baggage. Once on the plane, in my seat in economy, I then explained to the two young O'Hare employees how to dis-assemble my chair and put it in the closet. They left me in my seat to do this and I noticed five blonde American Airline flight attendants shaking their heads and gesturing to the outside of the plane to the two young O'Hare employees. The two young O'Hare employees came back to my seat and said the chair wouldn't fit and I would have to claim it as baggage. I said that is impossible, would they please try again, the airline has to put my chair on board it is the law. The young male O'Hare employee looked at me and said they (The American Airline Flight Attendants) won't move their luggage out of the closet. I looked at him, he was worried, slightly saddened, and I said to him okay. As he and his colleague walked away I looked towards the group of blonde flight attendants who were too far away for my to yell to and noticed they were whispering and looking over at me. How lucky they were I could not get up. How lucky they were to be that lazy and mean-spirited. How easy it was for them to put their luggage ahead of my piece of mind. I had to pray that my wheelchair made it under the plane and that it would not get dammaged. I had a ten day London/Tunisia Trip ahead of me. All I could do for the next seven hours was press the button for the "Stewardess" every thirty minutes and ask to be taken to the bathroom in a poorly constructed aisle chair. Unfortunately for the flight attendants they couldn't claim my bladder as baggage. They had to be polite and acknowledge it. One interesting side note-the flight attendant who got stuck taking me to the bathroom the most asked me during one of our bonding moments while waiting in line for the ladies room why I was going to London and I told her about a dance performance I was in, and my love for this project the company I was performing with. But instead of discussing the event or London or Tunisia, she stopped me in mid-verse and said, " can you dance you can't use your legs? Dancers use their legs." I just couldn't compete with that much ignorance on one American Airline flight. I didn't answer, I just kind of shut-down and while ignoring being trapped on a rigid metal slab with my life in her hands and being dragged to the ladies room, I prayed someday this conversation would be public knowledge, and someone would know just how ignorant the "Stewardesses" of American Airlines were on that day in November.

You see I thought I had heard it all during an Aer-Lingus flight this past August when a Flight Attendant on Aer-Lingus told me I had to sit in the window seat in case there was an emergency because the Airline staff would have to evacuate all of the able-bodied passengers first and if I continued to sit in the aisle seat I would be in the way of them. She politely said this right before take-off with a plane full of people, in a very eloquent Irish dialect. I looked at a mentor of mine I was flying with and she said she didn't mind where I sat. The Aer-Lingus flight attendant then looked to the man in the window seat and he looked at her and shrugged his shoulders. It seemed the three passengers saw the absurdity of the "FAA" regulation as she put it, except her and Aer-Lingus. That flight I didn't make it to the bathroom. I didn't even bother asking for an aisle chair. The bathroom seemed so far away during that two hour flight. I watched with jealousy as passengers emptied their coffee and tea-filled bladders. I felt so horrible and second-class. There is great difficulty flying without incident for someone who is a paraplegic.

Two weeks ago I ran into the another problem storing my chair in the closet again while getting ready to board a flight to London. The flight attendants swore they couldn't fit the chair and that it would break "FAA Laws" if they forced the chair on board in the closet. But an aware skycap swept into my conversation with a finger-wagging flight attendant and took my chair frame from him and fit it in the closet with ease. I have no clue what the problem or issue was. I just know that you have to have skin that is thick like some real-deal Gucci leather to hear and take in these comments and treatment without crying or getting so angry. I gave up my fear of flight this past trip. The baloney that the airline puts you through before you get on the plane is enough to wash away any fear of a suicide bomber or some electrical malfunction. I have promised myself I will documnet these travels. Document the poor system of the aisle chair, the "your frame won't fit in the closet because my luggage is already in there", or the can I help you-can I help you-can I HELP you with your luggage-can I help you get to the gate-can I push you...wait you have no handles on your chair. I wonder if the day will come when the airline has one little section where there is one chair on the plane the size of a business class seat. And a closet for a wheelchair to fit in next to it and the small, but accessible bathroom right next to this larger seat, a seat without the bar in the cushion that could give a paraplegic a pressure sore during an eight hour flight-a nice cushion seat+a little closet+ the small but accessible bathroom=no stress. No stress for a lot of people. No stress for the passenger, the flight attendants, the airline. I wonder if they would ever consider remodeling a plane this way. Or just take out two seats so that one passenger could fly comfortably. I do doubt this day will come anytime soon. I think it will come but not in the next ten years. I say this because I just saw a news story on television today saying how "passengers of size" are making the airlines lose money because they have to put more fuel in the planes and have "passengers of size" buy two seats. If the airlines can't have seats for larger people constructed, people who I think are allowed to be whatever size they want, healthy or not, then they are nowhere near changing the current system for "passengers of inability".

To Tunisia or Not To Tunisia

Imagine I am your daughter, your niece, your wife, or your sister. Then picture I have a problem like everyone else in this world. Just imagine my problem is more visual than others. Imagine I am in a wheelchair. My problem is permanent. Imagine I am a paraplegic. But pity is not in this equation. There is success and perseverance in this story.
I had the privilege to perform this last November with a London based organization that focuses on Global Community Outreach at the World Summit for the Information Society in Tunisia. Being a third year graduate student in acting any work I can get in the US or internationally is a gift. So off to Tunisia I went.
I have never been to Africa. I knew Tunisia was a Muslim country, but found out quickly after the plane landed that only French and Arabic was spoken. No problem. I like adventures and new opportunities. I just had no idea what I was getting myself into.
I traveled to the Carthage Airport in Tunis alone from London. I realized after we landed something was not quite right. The airport crew refused to get my own wheelchair from under the plane. They also had no clue what an aisle chair was. They just wouldn’t get the aisle chair so I could get off the plane. Then a security officer came on the plane and asked me in very broken English if I needed assistance. I told him I need my own chair from under the plane. He didn’t understand. So I asked the flight attendant to get me off the plane with the planes own aisle chair. She then had to ask the airport employees in French to get my chair from under the plane. They finally got my chair. I thought O’Hare was slow to assist.
Once off the plane I then had to convince the airport crew I could transfer and push myself. They tried to then push me anyway. I just remained patient and showed them it was okay. I was an alien to them from the Planet Independent Woman.
As the airport let me go on my own I saw behind me as they began to push these other two women in the Tunisian 1950’s airport wheelchairs. I tried to wheel ahead by myself to get my luggage but was stopped by a female military officer. She didn’t speak English, would not let me pass through the sign that read “sorte” and began to yell down the hallway in Arabic to the disgruntled airport employee pushing the two women in these clunky chairs. It was so odd. From her behavior and his reaction I figured she made me wait so that he would bring me through the “sorte” also. I wanted to say something like, “Hey guys, relax, it’s okay, I do this by myself all the time,” but the gun on her belt and her severe young face, I chose to stay quiet and wait for The Carthage Employee of the Year sloppily pushing these two women one after the other awkwardly down the hallway towards us. He would push one five feet then go back to get the other. As he went to get the other the one he left behind would drift into the wall. I wanted no part of this so I acted like I was being a good slightly retarded, handicapped person, and made my escape. Luckily I saw one of the musicians who had come to the airport to pick me up. I got my passport stamped and made a mad dash to the car.
As we drove to the hotel, which was an hour away from the airport, I looked at the Tunisian countryside: lots of dry dirt. Lots of half built houses made out of concrete. Then some more grass and more dirt. But in the distance there were these beautiful mountains. They seemed so far away.
We arrived at our gated and guarded hotel and I checked in, once again telling the porter I didn’t need to be pushed. I still felt optimistic about the Summit. But very soon I would change my opinion.
The first frustrating experience was traveling to the conference center where Tunisia was holding the Summit. I traveled to the conference center with a dancer, an Irish musician, and a couple other mates from Spain. We jumped into a small van the hotel ordered for us. It had no lift and the doors were small but I was learning quickly to adjust. We took off with our driver named “Churky”. He was very kind. We took the hour long drive into Tunis quietly, all wondering what the conference center would be like and what the stage would be like. As we got to the gate Churky asked one of the guards if we could drive through because I had my chair. The guard started to yell at him to pull over and park. Churky pulled over and they had an intense five minute conversation as the guard stared at us then looked at Churky to yell at him some more. I realized soon this was not going to be good.
We had to get out of Churky’s van and wait on the side of the road for another van to drive us to the conference center which was visible but over a mile away. The first van that came to take us was clearly not going to work. It was already almost full with delegates from Japan who were staring at the angry cop then to me then back to the cop. I just smiled at them and shrugged my shoulders. I told my Spanish mates to go ahead. So I waited another ten minutes with my dancer friend and the musician from Ireland. As we waited the musician noticed that the land we were standing on used to be water. Tunisia must have re-made this part for the conference center. Even though it was dark, the conference center to the left lit up the dark distance. To the right were sparkling lights that seemed to glisten and say hello to us. The air was cool but clear. Finally another van arrived and I was told that the wheelchair and I were to ride in the trunk of this van to the conference center. I couldn’t believe it. The angry cop was all of a sudden happy and said that this ride would be much better for me. I figured I had no choice. We had to rehearse tonight and we were going to be late. So I told Churky we would be back in an hour and I was then lifted by these random Tunisian men into the trunk of this van.
We get to the convention center and after they “unloaded me”; we searched for the next thirty minutes for our performance space. Not one employee knew where anything was and we kept getting the same maps to find the space. I think my musician friend had three maps at one time. We finally found the space but it was in an area that was closed off. So for another ten minutes we had to argue our way into the blocked off area. We finally got through and found the rest of our group. I then went to search for an accessible bathroom and there was not one. Not one in the whole newly-built-on-top-of what-used-to-be-water-convention-center.
The next day was the performance and we were all excited about going. Churky came to get us again and we took the long drive back to the conference center. I traveled this time with an additional companion, another dancer who was in a chair. He is quite remarkable. The President of Tunisia was at the conference center this night in particular so his Secret Service was present at the gate. One of his employees seeing the two wheelchairs, my two new mates from Spain, and my dancer friend proceeded to hop in the van to get us to the conference center. There was another checkpoint a half a mile ahead and they stopped us and it took a moment for them to realize one of there fellow employees was in the van with us. Wait a second, why didn’t the Secret Service guys at the first gate radio ahead and tell the guys at the next gate we were coming? Well after some questions in Arabic we went ahead to the conference center. I made arrangements for Churky to pick us up at the same spot he was dropping us off at: right by one of the entrances to the conference center. I then asked the Secret Service agent if Churky would be allowed through and he said yes. Churky needed us to be out there waiting for him by ten because he had another pick up. So I saw no problem, I mean it was 6:30pm. We were set. No more problems like the night before.
We performed and when we were done it was nine thirty: perfect timing. We left the convention center and arrived at our rendezvous point, myself, my other colleague in his chair, the two mates from Spain, and my dancer friend; but no Churky. I looked in my journal and pulled out his number. I couldn’t seem to dial it correctly. I look over and the two Spanish mates were chatting up some good looking Tunisian man who speaks Spanish, French, and Arabic. I ask him to call the number for me and see where our driver is. He does and tells me the driver can’t get through the gate, the guards won’t let him. I take the phone and tell Churky to wait there we will come to him. I then ask the first guard I see when the next van from the convention center to the main gate will be arriving and he says there aren’t any more that can take us. I didn’t believe what he was telling me. I get the young Tunisian man to ask the guard if there is another bus and the guard says no. I then tell the guard our taxi is waiting for us at the gate but he is not permitted through, can he radio ahead to the gate and let the taxi through so we can catch our ride. He says no and walks away.
At this moment I look around me. It is dark out. There does not seem to be anymore buses. I see my colleague in his chair and the two Spanish mates and my dancer friend and I started to get a little worried. We could be stuck out here if we don’t get to that gate and find Churky. I call Churky and tell him not to leave, we will get to him. I then walk up to a Secret Service agent and tell him the situation he waves me off and walks away. I go over to the rest of our group and tell them what is going on. Then all of us try to get the guards to either give us a ride to the gate or let our taxi driver through. They refuse. Some walk away. Among all this chaos and refusal on their part to help us I look over and there sits a brand new United Nations van equipped with a wheelchair lift and a driver sitting in the front seat. I yell wait there is a van with a lift. I go over to the driver and ask him to give us a ride. He looks at me stone-faced and says no. I couldn’t believe it. I said we are part of the conference we need a ride and he said no again and looked away. I rush over to the rest of the group and tell them about the van. Then everyone congregates by the van. Our group is trying to get the driver to take us and he refuses. The guards and the Secret Service refuse to help us get him to give us a ride. It is now ten thirty and I have a sinking feeling Churky has left. My New York skills of persuasion have faded; my American idealism that all people are good deep down has left my body. I call Churky, he answers but still cannot get through the gate. I look over at all my friends but especially my colleague in his wheelchair. And I start to cry on the phone to Churky, begging him to not leave us here. Begging him to wait, please I said. We will get to you. I look over at the guards and the Secret Service and tell each of them through my tears of frustration, anger, and complete sadness of their lack of compassion, I tell them I hope you and you and you have nothing bad ever happen to you. Deep down I prayed in that moment for their wives and daughters. How could these men, employees of the President of Tunisia, employees of the conference, holding a World Summit sponsored by the United Nations put us all through this much grief and stress over a simple ride to the front gate? They were making our lives so difficult and then I saw they were laughing. The guards and Secret Service agents were laughing at me. I turned around dumbfounded, embarrassed, and angry. I finished with Churky and hung up the phone. Another ten minutes goes by and out of nowhere the lift starts to go down and they are willing to take us. I don’t what happened but they changed there minds. It was surreal. We all get in the bus relieved. My Spanish mates yell Adios Guapo to the young man they met, the one person that night from Tunisia who helped us.
I wondered something big that day. As a young woman I have to let people know what happened to us. If we were denied the right to transportation what other Human Rights Violations occur in Tunisia to its own people? I want the United Nations to realize this logistical blunder. What is so easy to construct for guests to a Summit was made so difficult and quite frightening at times. I would not have minded more security checks on my person if I could have had the right to an accessible transport to the Summit, not the trunk of a car or a van ill-equipped for a wheelchair. It would have been nice to have a bathroom I could use. And then the irony of all ironies: the one mode of transport that was accessible was denied to us. I am an American. We have certain ways of treating our fellow citizens. There is no reason to make life so difficult. The United Nations and the Tunisian government should have worked this out ahead of time, but for us they didn’t. I shudder to think what happens to those disabled Tunisians who live with a Spinal Cord Injury or any other mixed ability. There are no curb cuts in Tunisia. No infrastructure to support independence in a wheelchair. And there definitely isn’t any awareness or compassion. How can a group of people gain there independence in one country and have to leave it at home to survive in another? There is no reason to hold back progress. This Summit was about inclusion. I felt none of that from The Tunisian government running this event. They need to know what happened to us and make change, if not for me then at least for the sake of that one young Tunisian citizen, disabled, sitting in their parents home unable to go out because the geography and mentality of their country doesn’t want or allow them to.