Flying Crippled: Inadvertent Adventures in my World of Invisible Disability

Disabled Traveler

Earlier this summer, my husband Rich and I drove across country. It was a wonderful experience, one I thought I’d never have. Long periods of sitting really spike my already chronic pain level. But if there is anyone who knows how to “accommodate” me, it’s Rich. He made it fun, he made it easy, and I’ll take some credit myself—for asking bluntly for what I needed (to be active—driving, walking—for only 2/3 of each day and then to rest).
Part of what made it doable was that while Rich drove back, I flew. Ostensibly quicker, and less crippling. Ha ha. I should have driven.
My first problem was immediate—I was flying from Baltimore to Boston. I was happy to get pre-boarded on a flight without assigned seats. I boarded, left my cane on my seat, and went to the back bathroom.
Then this ensued.
Stewardess: Why didn’t you use the bathroom before you got on the plane?
Frankly, I was stunned, but I said: I’m disabled, my cane is on my seat, in BWI this seemed easier. I’m sorry, but is the bathroom available?
Stewardess: Where are you sitting?
I gesture, Behind the wing.
Stewardess: Why didn’t you use the bathroom up front?
I stared at her.
Stewardess: Well, this is just getting too complicated.
Me: I agree!
Stewardess: You can use the bathroom.

No sooner did I shut the door, than I found myself sobbing. I’d done everything I could to take care of myself and inconvenience no one, and it wasn’t working.

Do some people—even service professionals—dislike, scorn, or fear me because I’m disabled? I’m thinking: yes. What I feel in terms of prejudice is of course the assumption that I’m able bodied. But it’s more than that. My disability—made visible by the cane—seems to make people REACT—with pity, or negativity, with unwanted advice, with dislike or even sadism.
I want to say: LEAVE ME THE FUCK ALONE. My problem is not yours—it’s mine—and if you’d comply with the law and common sense we’ll be fine. Got it?

I got to Boston. A few days later, I flew to Dallas. Then, in a that-fast-bit-is-impossible afternoon, I was on a flight to Santa Fe that got delayed twice, finally cancelled.

The gate agent was re-booking us…a long line.
“Can you accommodate me?” I gestured to my cane.
“You can sit and wait until everyone is done,” he said.
Of course I was not asking that. I was asking—can you hold my spot in line? But he wouldn’t.

People suggest a wheelchair in airports, and it may come to that, but I don’t want one. I’m so grateful I can walk—it takes hours of PT and more each week. And walking helps as a break from sitting. Why should I be less mobile just because others can’t deal with a woman on a cane? Is it either wheelchair or trouble?

I wrote a letter of complaint about the Baltimore bathroom fiasco. My request: don’t ask people why they need the bathroom. I started thinking about it—infection, pregnancy, miscarriage, ostomies, cancer, autoimmune disease and more may be implicated. Did the stewardess really want to hear an answer like that? Travel sites also stress using the airplane bathroom as little as possible. Well, it’s there for a reason.

I got sort of an apology, and a $50 travel voucher. Better than nothing.

2 thoughts on “Flying Crippled: Inadvertent Adventures in my World of Invisible Disability

  1. Much empathy.. Invisible disability is I need an enormous issue. Solution is not easy especially with increased security issues. And from experience I can say that the legs through DFW are always painful, requiring insistence and more pAin and patience than is possible for someone already not wholly well. Society needs to understand this. Airline employees in the USA are not trained or are inurred. Travel begins sadly to require superhuman effort.
    In empathy
    You have

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