by Gary Karp
For years now, my work has had me up in the air.
Which is a very corny way of telling you that I’ve spent a great deal of time contemplating life and the cosmos on airplanes. My work has taken me all around the U.S. and, to a degree, the world. Having long ago lost count of how many intimate experiences I’ve had with a Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) security agent, making sure that neither my body or my wheelchair are threats, these countless sojourns via air travel mean I get to share some of the fine points with you.
First, lots of people are going to try to help you. It’s a generous world out there, which is a lovely thing. But as you well know, well-meaning helpers are as likely to get in your way as actually be of valued assistance. Or worse.
When the TSA officer starts their inevitable move to push me without asking, I let them know I push myself, thank you. At the door of the plane, the assist staffer — after having done the same thing as the TSA guy — will pull the aisle chair alongside me, after I specifically parked myself where I want to be in relation to it. I gently let him or her know that I’d like it back where it was please.
You might need help transferring into the seat, in which case you need to be very clear about how that should happen and be able to briefly instruct them on how to lift you.
Being a frequent traveler is an exercise in training people and doing it in a way that strikes that delicate balance of respect and confident assertion. So rule number one: you have the right to have things done in the way that is best and safe for you even under the time pressures of boarding an airplane that they have to get off the ground on time.
You should be respectful of their time. Arrive early, identify yourself to the gate agents so they can ensure the aisle chair is available, put the necessary “gate check only” tags on your chair, empty your bladder in plenty of time to board and have your bags ready to carry on. How smoothly things go is as much your responsibility as it is theirs.
Not really wanting to do an advertisement, I’ll tell you that I usually fly Southwest. Without assigned seating I can always get a seat in the front row with extra leg room — which also means that anyone sitting in the middle or window seat won’t have to climb over you to get to their seat or the restroom once you’re airborne. With the other airlines, book as early as you can and then call back specifically to block the “bulkhead” seat for that legroom. Or space for your service dog. Those seats are supposed to be for you, but the competition can be fierce.
Air travel is something you can master. Once you get the hang of it, things will usually go well (except for the occasional abused wheelchair) and whether your destination is for work, pleasure or both, it will be well worth the process. Travel well!
Gary Karp has used a wheelchair since falling out of a tree and injuring his spinal cord at T12 in 1973. He was 18 years old. Learn more at ModernDisability.com.
Know Your Rights
Even the best-planned trip can get bumpy. Know where the ADA ends and the ACAA begins. The ADA (found at ADA.gov) covers everything up to the plane door. The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) covers access and accommodation for passengers in the US for your actual flight. The requirements are different.
Read through the ACAA so you know what accommodations, facilities and services are (and are not) required and then carry a copy (found at transportation.gov/airconsumer/passengers-disabilities) with you in case you run into problems.
Every airport is required to have a Complaints Resolution Official on site to address access issues. Ask for that person if you have issues.
For more tips on travel, see our bonus content online.
While bulkhead seats offer the most leg room for you or your service animal, some travelers prefer other rows. In the bulkhead, armrests are fixed making sliding transfers tricky. Some find window seats preferable so no one climbs over you to get out of their seat but window seats require that you’re able to move across the row.
Gary Karp, a wheelchair user since his SCI in 1973, became a speaker for disability after releasing his first book “Life On Wheels: For the Active Wheelchair User” in 1999.