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You don’t mind that we’ve relocated your legs, do you?

mannequin legs hanging from a beam

I’m on a Southwest Airlines flight that has just landed in Sacramento, arriving ten minutes late from Denver. I have a two-and-a-half-hour layover before my last leg home to Seattle. In usual fashion, I’m the last person departing the aircraft because I have to wait for my wheelchair to be brought up from the cargo hold.

I’m waiting…and waiting…and…hmmm….

It seems longer than usual so I ask a flight attendant about my chair. I know it wasn’t left in Denver because from my window seat on the plane I saw them load it into the cargo hold. That’s a little nerve-wracking to watch, by the way.

According to recent data reported by the U.S. Department of Transportation, airlines break an average of 25 wheelchairs or motorized scooters per day. Over 700 times per month airline employees damage or misplace someone’s personal and essential form of mobility. Do you think they would be more careful if it belonged to their mother, child, spouse, or friend?

Finally, a gate agent steps aboard the plane and says, “They’ve already taken your wheelchair to your gate. We’ll just take you in one of our chairs.” Ummm, excuse me? What gate?? Remember that part about a two-and-a-half hour layover? My wheelchair with the motor is a $15,000 ride and acts as a stand-in for my legs. I’m not at all comfortable with someone arbitrarily deciding where it goes without me. Besides, I don’t want to go the gate. I want to go the bathroom, take my dog to the relief area, and get some food. In other words, just like anyone else, I have opinions about where I go.

Confused, I point out my concerns and ask that they bring my wheelchair back to me. It becomes rapidly clear the gate agent has zero concern for how I feel about the situation when she barks, “We just need to get you off the plane so we can board all of the passengers.” Wow, my dog has more empathy. Everywhere I speak, to thousands of people, I reinforce the message that, “Your job is not a task; your job is always a person.” This gate agent, stressed about a 10-minute delay, obviously needs to hear me speak. Well, she kind of did….

As my mother can attest, I have a big stubborn streak. If you try to treat me like oversize luggage, you will get to see it in action.

I settle back in my seat, look her straight in the eye, and firmly state, “That is not my problem. The only option is that you bring my wheelchair.” There was a collective intake of breath in the cabin. I was not their favorite person in that moment.

Ultimately it cost them additional time and the efforts of four people to get me off the aircraft. Four? The funny part (admittedly, only to me) was that when they brought my chair they wheeled it all the way onto the plane, turning a 90º corner, and wedged it against the front seats. No one had asked me what would be best or easiest. Since they seemed to be on a roll, I let them continue with their assumptions. I quickly and efficiently loaded it up (not my first rodeo) by attaching a 25-pound motor to the back axle and a backpack over the handles. I topped that off with a tote bag suspended by a carabiner then plopped me and my little dog onto the seat, waiting patiently for the fun to continue. At this point, someone behind me had a realization and asked to no one in particular, “How are we going to get this off the plane?” I swear I heard the pilot pull out a can opener to unwedge me from the aisle.

So much could have been different in this whole scenario. The problem was not that they mistakenly took my wheelchair to the wrong location. That’s just an operational error. The real problem is the underlying assumptions and beliefs of the airline staff. They believe any wheelchair is as good as any other. To them, it’s a mode of transportation like a cart. Any cart will do. To a person with mobility disabilities, a wheelchair (or other mobility aid) is their legs – their independence – their dignity. Would you want yours carted off?

Whether talking to someone with disabilities or not, pause to communicate with curiosity and respect instead of assumptions and condescension. Otherwise, in their eyes, you will never really have a leg to stand on.

3 replies
  1. K. S. Lapham
    K. S. Lapham says:

    Presumptions is the order of the day. The arrogance of their presuppositions in the training of an employee. Any understanding is a byproduct rather than the main focus of the agenda. The emphasis is the bottom line you and I are just a means to an end. Thank you Elisa for sharing and we are so grateful that you are an esteemed member of Christine T. Rose’s Life Beyond #MeToo
    Community.

    Reply

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