In the beginning
I didn’t always fly, drive and travel with a disability.
Hobart airport tarmac, disembarking, May 2012. My first, most visceral disability travel moment. Thighs frenetically, yet weakly quivering, knees begging to stay locked in supporting my uprightness. I pictured my forward plunging body lying, bleeding from every point of bitumen-contact with each step down the horrifyingly vertical, thin, metal, waiting-for-an-accident-to-happen-to-anyone-stair-mountain. Each step down seemed to bring me no closer to the bottom – until it did, of course.
This was, yet another, characteristically abrupt development in my Limb-Girdle Muscular Dystrophy (LGMD) journey. And so my travelling, including flying with a disability, life began.
After a much-needed sit-down, we spoke to airline staff to find an accessible way of boarding on our home-bound flight. They made notes on the return booking and instructed us to make our way to the boarding gate fifteen minutes prior. Assisted by friendly and efficient airline ground control crew, this was to be the first of a few plane boardings via scissor-lift. Back then feeling really self-conscious and downright embarrassed (an old self-ableist attitude that I have since become much better at shrugging off).
Since then, I have flown many times both domestically and internationally, with the majority of travels being in a wheelchair. These are the things that I have learnt along the way, as I travel with a disability, to mitigate disaster. I have added what I hope are helpful links throughout and below:
So obvious, I know, BUT the level of just-suck-it-and-see casualness to booking outings, accommodation, transport and eateries is regrettably negligible once any form of less-ability is living with you.
The preparation that is involved in any trip be it overnight, a mere 100km’s away, or a fortnight overseas via air travel can feel quite overwhelming. And I can never stress enough just how grateful I am to have, and hopeful that most people do as well, someone who can pick up the organising when your brain just can’t sort it out anymore. Or someone who can brainstorm some angles of operations and come up with a neat and easy solution.
Depending on your condition, to add preparing to travel with a disability can be mentally challenging.
This assistance could also include the right disability-friendly travel agent. An O.T., local to Hawaii, was a great contact to have beforehand. Her helpful tips and advice on accessibility on Maui gave me more confidence that I could enjoy the trip.
Arrange everything as far ahead of time as possible and stay on top of it all with follow up emails and phone calls and getting confirmations in writing. Involving your person with an intellectual disability in the planning and packing ensures a much smoother adventure for all.
If you are flying ( or making any significant changes to a routine) with anyone who has less visible conditions such as ASD, Dementia or anxiety, you may find the creation of a Social Stories ™ handy. The pictello app is another great way to take lots of photos and make speaking stories to create conversation and involvement in holiday planning and to relive the experience after.
Another fabulous Melbourne innovation is the Access Key designed by Access Ability Australia. The Access Key should be everywhere, its multi-functional platforms of use assist those with ALL disabilities including those that tend to be invisible such as blindness, hearing loss, dementia, anxiety – the list of people who benefit is extensive. You may find places of interest at your destination listed on the Access Able Australia website.
Most airlines have information on how they can accommodate various requirements, and this is an excellent place to start.
If you are a reluctant insurance devotee, like me, always book your travel insurance at the same time that you book the first stage of the trip when going overseas. Insurance companies will not provide coverage for any event that occurs before you insure regardless of when you book you travel – Hawaiian or Bali Volcano, Coronavirus ring a bell?
Any malaise that befalls you, and relates to your condition may not be covered either, if you have insured but not disclosed any medical info that is required. I know it is a pain but shopping around may help you find the insurance plan for disability travel that best suits you. Some credit cards provide travel insurance but have limited cover.
This is obviously your choice and you should research according to your situation.
What equipment and other aids do you need?
You will need to list what equipment you will be able to take with you and what you need to hire. Make sure you get to see photos of what you are hiring – not all shower/commodes are created equal, just sayin’. If your gluteus maximus are at their minimalist like mine you don’t need an 18” seat!
Make sure the hire company can deliver to your place of accommodation – they generally can. Sometimes you can have success advocating for your accommodation venue to purchase a piece for future guests as well. I had success getting some rollators into the Reef View Hotel in Hamilton Island.
Ensure essential supplies will not run out
List all medication and consumable supplies ( continence aids, masks, etc.) you require, and make sure you have a surplus supply. If travelling overseas have a signed letter from your G.P. and check out that countries requirement’s regarding carrying medication. Just in case.
Pack all this, and some undies, in at least two separate pieces of luggage to safeguard against luggage loss or misplacement.
Don’t forget the charger!!! Make sure you have the correct charger for your power chair or scooter when overseas. Our 240V did not work even with a transformer in the U.S. – that’s potentially my legs not working all over again!!
A battery charger with a multi-voltage input system that works between 90-260VAC will work anywhere in the world and is much more efficient.
A transformer (actually changes the voltage) on a 240V charger may work but will generally take many hours longer to charge. We tried this trick in Hawaii, and the current was so weak as to be non-existent, we had to hire a charger. Bye, bye, USD 100.
Of course, you will need an adaptor for your charger, the same as for your shaver or hairdryer, and smartphone/tablet. An Australian plug can be used in a U.S. or Japanese outlet, for example, with an Australian adaptor. Having an adaptor dedicated to that country rather than a multi-country adaptor is a better idea for optimum use.
Please contact your wheelchair manufacturer to get specific advice.
Deciding on your accommodation is made so much easier with the internet. But first-party accommodation websites are just not inclusive yet, and you will almost definitely have to call to ask if they can accommodate your requirements. A pictured wheelchair just doesn’t cut it!!
Luckily though, we have the so timely, inclusive and potentially life-altering, Accessible Accommodation. This third-party website showcases a huge range of properties, and has a comprehensive guide that answers any question you will have with accessible accommodation.
If you do not use Accessible Accommodation to inquire about a property make sure you see pictures if you need to, and get measurements. Don’t get told that they can’t right now – everyone has a smartphone, and a tape measure isn’t that far away.
At The Airport
Most airlines advise you to call first when making an accessible (or my least favourite – special needs ) booking and will have instructions on their website as to what information they require and any forms that you may need to fill out and provide. Many people find it much easier for everyone to request ‘special assistance’ when at the Aiport. This ensures no queuing, cart rides in large terminals, and support going through customs. Special Assistance is a wonderful way to reduce possible stress and to help feel the holiday vibe sooner.
Ensure that you advise the airline that you need to stay in your wheelchair until you reach the plane door – this allows you to be comfortable and independent until your flight is boarding. It is also the most comfortable and independent way to be while waiting around the airport.
Transferring from your chair to the aircraft can be via a few methods depending on whether you will embark via aerobridge or tarmac. You should be able to find out beforehand which method will be available to you so that you can be prepared.
A lot more airlines now mobilise an Eagle Lift for transfers required. These are used to transfer you to an aisle chair or straight to your plane seat depending on your requirements, providing a higher level of dignity than a manual lift. You may also have a ‘special’ escort in an accessible van across the tarmac to the terminus if you have a connecting flight. My experiences of these have been great.
To add an extra level of security for my chair, I laminate an A4 sheet and attach to my chair, stating, name, flight no., instructions on wheelchair folding, power disengagement, battery type and treatment (remove or not).
Our wheelchairs are genuinely extension of our physical selves and as such, MUST be treated with respect and utmost care. This concept can be difficult for non-disabled people to understand sometimes, so we need to educate and advocate for ourselves.
These tips here are in no way exhaustive and I have added more in my next blog – The Necessities For Disability Travelling. If you would like to share any of your tips please comment below and/or leave a comment on my Facebook page.
Travelling is a wonderful privilege and is one of life’s experiences that I wish to continue. And doing it differently than some surely adds to the enrichment that comes from exploring and getting out of one’s routine. Live in the now and soak it all up – this trip will be worth the effort.
HANDY TRAVELLING WITH DISABILITY LINKS
Air Travel For Wheelchair Users – Travel eBook – by Cory Lee