Wheelchair Woes: Traveling with RA

Wheelchair Woes: Traveling with RA

I just got back from Washington, D.C. about a week ago and I think I'm still recovering. I was out there for a patient advocacy workshop given by the National Center for Health Research, which was excellent. I've always loved the excitement and adventure of travel (as far back as I can remember), however what I don't love is the stress and pain that comes along with it--especially if you have RA and chronic pain.

While I love hanging out in D.C., after a few days of never-ending walking on swollen feet and ankles, and the stress and anxiety of navigating hotels and busy airports while in considerable pain--I was ready to be home and done with all of it. I remember wishing that I could just magically "beam" myself and my luggage home and avoid the agony of the airport.

Secret weapon for traveling with RA: Wheelchair services!

No such luck. Despite my fantasy, reality told me that I had to suffer through the exhausting airport ordeal like everyone else. But, I did have a sort of "secret weapon" that I've only begun to use within the last year or so. I can't remember during which trip it was on, but I finally caved in and decided to start using wheelchair services. After years of dragging heavy luggage long distances through seemingly endless airport terminals, my constantly painful feet and ankles told me, "Stop. Get a chair already!" So I did. And it's pretty great. Well, it's great when the wheelchair I request ahead of time actually shows up when and where it's supposed to.

This article isn't an attempt to bash anybody or an excuse to be catty or spiteful, however so far it's been one airline in particular that has continually screwed up my wheelchair service. Delta, I'm looking at you. Since March I've flown a total of six times, and four of those times included pretty bad wheelchair experiences. Why bad? Despite indicating ahead of time when I booked my reservations that I needed disability and wheelchair assistance, every time I checked in at the counter the agent seemed surprised at this news. Oh, what? You need a wheelchair? Really? Ummm, wait here....

And then I'd wait. And wait. I'd shift from foot to sore foot, wondering where the heck my wheelchair and chair-pusher was (there's probably a more official term for this position, but I have no idea what it is). Just when I would decide to forget it and start walking to the dreaded TSA line, I'd see an airport employee slowly pushing a chair in my direction. Oh, thank God.Finally.

I would then awkwardly climb into the chair while people pretended to not stare at a young, healthy-looking person about to get zoomed through security ahead of them. I usually looked down at my iPhone for most of these rides, not wanting to meet the curious or accusatory gazes falling upon me. Even with both ankles tightly wrapped in bright, conspicuous bandages, I felt silently judged for not looking sick or disabled enough. However, saving myself from serious pain and misery before even boarding a flight was worth any feelings of awkwardness, anxiety, or shame.

Despite these "glitches" of invariably having to wait an annoying length of time for wheelchair assistance when departing from a city, my wheelchair "service" upon arrival somewhere was even worse and mostly non-existent. Just during my travels this spring, every time I returned home to Minneapolis, except once, there was no wheelchair waiting for me as I stepped off the plane. Nothing, even though I kept requesting to have one. After a long flight cramped in a tiny coach seat, with both feet and ankles throbbing and resembling giant water balloons, noticing the absence of someone standing next to a chair holding up a sign with my name on it filled me with irritation and despair. Great, not again.

After requesting help and waiting a ridiculously long time, an airline agent would eventually sort out finding someone to come rescue me from the gate and push me the long way to the baggage claim area. Despite being impatient--dying--to get home and put my feet up, I realized how horribly painful this attempt to reunite with my luggage (and ride home) would be if I didn't have someone wheeling me the entire way there. How did I survive all of those years without a wheelchair?

For many years, my pride and intense desire for independence prevented me from taking advantage of the assistance that I very much needed. I realize now that I could have spared myself from a lot of pain and physical (and mental) suffering if I had allowed myself to feel and look vulnerable by admitting I needed the help. Now, I welcome the assistance and I'm learning to be assertive and insist upon it. The assistance is there for a reason: to help people who truly need it. And I do need it, even if I still don't like the fact that I do.

Despite all of the whining and complaining I've been doing in this article about Delta's (mostly) poor disability accommodations lately, I am grateful that these services exist. They need to, just as people with physical disabilities need to feel comfortable using them.

We, with RA and chronic pain, also need to not be afraid to advocate for ourselves while traveling. If the airline keeps messing up, or even screws up just once, they need to know that. I have complained to Delta about my poor wheelchair experiences and I hope they will somehow get their act together. If not, then I'll forego my precious airline miles and spend my dollars elsewhere. I still have a lot of traveling to do in my life and I don't want to be stranded by pain, or by any airline that doesn't value and take care of its customers.

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