Travelling with a Wheelchair

We have all gone travelling, haven’t we? Whether on a package holiday to relax, rest and forget daily stress, or with rucksack and a map in hand for adventure, most of us seek out the joys of a holiday at least once a year. The internet offers a plethora of deals; hotels, cheap short breaks, last minute or other. So easy to choose online, book, pack a suitcase and hop onto that cheap flight to wherever the fancy takes you. Not for us physically challenged travel customers.

I have not only experienced first-hand the joys of being a disabled traveller but the psychological blockage of not wanting to go through it again. The frustrations too of having an NHS provided electric high-backed wheelchair that doesn’t negotiate bumps, kerbs, hills or uneven terrain. One compensation is the support seating and tilt mechanism which certainly helps when waiting three hours at an airport before boarding. You see, I suffer from degenerative spinal and joint disease and chronic pain. Four operations on the spine, not getting any better, and sitting upright or standing are very difficult. But it doesn’t prevent me from wanting to travel and have the same opportunities as other more able people despite the difficulties.

I’m a writer/author, a creative who seeks inspiration and breaks from daily struggles with very little support. I’m also someone who loves other cultures and although limited in resources, wish to spend a little on going places. But no cheap options for me, I fear. Nor for other disabled people who require the assistance of a carer. When you hop onto that plane for your cheap(er) holiday or break, remember us and the additional expense when, in general, already on a low budget –

  • No travelling alone so have to pay double for a carer to accompany.
  • I live in an area with difficult rail access to airports so have to pay for a disabled taxi transfer – £95 each way. Add that onto the final bill! So a holiday package that usually costs say, £600, comes in at around £1,500!
  • Transfers on the usual coach are out of the question. Majority don’t take electric Powerchairs like mine. So we have to pay extra for special taxis from airport to destination. E.g. I once paid €280 return to get to a resort only to find I couldn’t access half of it because of steps everywhere.
  • Accessibility – Lesson learned. I now Google resort distances, accessibility and play around with Google Street View for hours trying to find a suitable holiday or hotel. Emails direct to hotels and resorts as well. So many hours spent in organising, phoning, checking. No hopping onto any last minute deal for me!

 

As you can see from the above, and that’s only the tip of the logistics iceberg, it is tiring, stressful and frustrating from the start! Ah, but the actual travelling? Oh the joys, or nightmares…

Here are some of my experiences, stressful when happening but I have to look back on them and try and laugh. Well, I try. Because if I rant sometimes, it’s not about what happened to me, but WHY it happened. About how we are treated like pariahs, inconveniences; how there is often a lack of respect and consideration. Not everywhere or from everyone, because there are some lovely people out there who make it all worthwhile.

  • Booking in: We are asked to arrive at least 2 ½ hours early so as to ‘book in the wheelchair’. Running around from one point to the other with staff of some airlines completely clueless about where, what and how to do things. Disabled assistance can be patchy, staff overworked, sometimes only half an hour left to grab some water, food in duty-free lounge.
  • Time since leaving home – 3 to 4 hrs
  • Stress levels – 5/10
  • Pain, exhaustion (and thirst) levels – 6/10
  • Security: Despite disabled assistance which should mean priority and ease, it can be hell on earth; asked to get out of wheelchair, stand without cane, no support and told to walk through the detector. I always buzz, without fail which makes me wonder whether the spinal surgeon hasn’t left something metal in my body! Frisked while standing, still no support, wobbling, legs giving way, increased pain. The worse is when fully frisked, with security officer lifting top up, baring midriff and bra in front of all the passengers. Inevitably separated from carer, by the way. Then left to hang onto side of conveyor waiting for my tray to go through, all alone to put everything back on, including back brace, and pack everything all away again.
  • Time since leaving home – 4 to 5 hours
  • Stress levels – 7/10
  • Pain, exhaustion (and desperate need for the loo) levels – 7/10
  • Boarding, getting into and off plane: More often than not, we are the last to embark and disembark, adding extra time to the journey. Often find the locker above my seat already full of other passengers’ items. Handbags and small bags that could go under seats take up space for my cabin bag which has my precious writing, laptop, camera, valuables. Cabin bag once shoved at the other end of the plane…anyone could have pinched it. I once waited 45 minutes in the plane for my Powerchair to be brought to me so I could disembark. Found my luggage doing a solitary roundabout on the carousel. Once again, anyone could have pinched it…

Twice I have had to virtually crawl up stairs from tarmac to aircraft despite having booked the lift vehicle. Compensation was offered by some rather handsome and rugged Greek and Spanish luggage handlers courteously manhandling me up them.

  • Time since leaving home – 4 ½ to 6 hours
  • Stress levels (now in my seat) – 8/10
  • Pain, exhaustion levels – 8/10

Pops a painkiller, has an alcoholic drink, sits through journey with bags on lap or under feet, unable to shift, move my limbs, find a comfortable position. Stares out of window and watches clouds go by in an attempt to block out the increasing pain and exhaustion.

  • Regularly and here I will name names, my 3-wheeled, foldaway walker has been twisted, broken, a wheel sheared right off at Gatwick on return journeys. Thank you handlers. Also, and once again, depending on airline, almost always end up last out of the luggage carousel area because I’m waiting for my Powerchair which inevitable comes back with damage. i.e. Left on tarmac for 45 mins in pouring rain. Memory foam seat literally soaked, unable to use because of water on cables and in batteries; another time and for some weird reason, the command arm was dismantled, unscrewed and left on the seat for me to sort out on the tarmac. Screws missing, cables unplugged and luckily the disabled assistance guy found a screwdriver and some duck-tape.
  • Full journey time: average from my home to resort/hotel and same for return, discounting any delays – 9 to 12 hours depending on flight.
  • Stress levels – 10/10
  • Pain, exhaustion, thirst, need to visit WC – 10/10

So there are a few examples of what it is to travel as a disabled person in a wheelchair. I have left out all the little details and could write pages on a single incident and maybe I will. People who have accompanied me couldn’t believe what we go through and have said I should write about all this, especially as you need to be stoic, courageous and sometimes loud-mouthed to go through the hoops, hurdles and obstacles. As one friend said to me – “Lynne, I don’t know how you do it. But as always, your self-deprecating humour shines through.” There perhaps lies the answer, despite being stressed out at times? In any case, compensation at the end of each journey is the right to enjoy a holiday like anyone else, laze in the sun, pool, on the beach – and for me, to take time out to write, write.

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