Nicky’s blog: Second Post…
There has been a lot of publicity recently about the highs and lows of travelling with a wheelchair. Sadly, most of the stories highlight the difficulties and problems wheelchair users face, and fail to find much positive in our public transport system or the joys of international air travel.
You’ve probably read the tales of wheelchair users being stranded on trains, if, that is they have even got safely onto the train in the first place! Or once boarded they discover that their 6 hour train journey doesn’t have an accessible bathroom for them to use. But what about buses? Many city buses are now fitted with ramps so they are a great way to travel; unless you can’t get on because the bus is full, or there are pushchairs in the wheelchair spaces and their owners are unwilling to share the area.
I was in London recently and started to really look at our capital – how would we cope if we tried to get across the city via the underground with my husband (c5/6) in one piece? Not straightforward. I quickly concluded that whilst some stations are ‘step-free’ there is much more to contend with than just the station being accessible. Often there is big step between the train and the platform, I’ve been told more than once that this is a constant problem and the promised ramp fails to materialise. Rush hour would be pretty difficult to negotiate due to the sheer number of people, and then what if we get to our destination and the lift isn’t working? It’s a logistical nightmare and if you manage to travel around London or any other city in a wheelchair successfully on a daily basis, I have nothing but admiration for you.
But of course taxis are accessible, right? Wrong. You can’t just hail a passing cab if you use a power chair. We live in the Cotswolds; yes, utterly charming and very picturesque but there are very few local cabs we can use as most are saloon cars and they can’t get the husband’s rigid frame chair plus e-motion wheels in their boot! Plus he needs to be able to transfer with a slide board into the passenger seat, which isn’t going to work if the supplied vehicle is a ‘people carrier’ with high seating. I know this isn’t always the case in larger towns and cities, but we come across this problem far too often around the UK.
And of course, I must mention air travel. My husband has flown several times since his accident, and not once has it been easy. I am already getting stressed about the trip we are making in 6 moths which is long haul – honestly, I am dreading it. The first hurdle to (figuratively) jump is booking the required level of assistance to board the plane. Why is this so difficult – I have no idea! Our flight is with British Airways, and whilst booking we specified that he needed ‘special assistance’ but this only alerts the airline to the fact that they have a disabled passenger on that flight, it doesn’t actually GET HIM onto the aeroplane. He needs lifting from his wheelchair to the aisle seat at the plane door, and then from the aisle seat to the plane seat by 2 people. Obviously, I am able to help, and will willingly do so (and I am trained to) – but on every trip, it has been nothing short of a nightmare. Our trip to Barcelona (with BA out of Heathrow) a couple of years ago was booked online and we ticked all the assistance boxes, I also contacted BA via email and through social media to find out about the actual boarding assistance. During several conversations with them, I was continually told that they do not provide assistance getting into the seat, but they failed to tell me how I could find out how to book this – it took more work than necessary to find out about Omniserv – the ‘airside’ partner at Heathrow – who operate assistance for passengers with a disability. We know how it works, but if you were flying with a spinal cord injury for the first time, how would you find this out? Basic internet searching will tell you that if you’re a PRM (person of reduced mobility) then you must travel with someone who can facilitate your movement. But I can’t facilitate my husband getting into the plane seat alone, so where do I go next?
I won’t bore you with the hassle, it would make this simple blog into an essay. The ‘assistance’ was booked weeks in advance and we were at the gate an hour before our designated time; we checked the booked assistance was coming and were assured that it was. We waited, and waited, and waited. Eventually the whole, entire plane was allowed to board and still we waited.
A lady from Omniserv arrived and told us that she was assisting my husband to the plane – bear in mind that the whole plane was already boarded. The lady was approximately 4’10 tall and (I do not wish to be rude) was in the latter stages of her career. We had obviously mentioned the necessity for 2 people that would be able to lift him – she assured us it would all be FINE.
It wasn’t fine at all; it was nothing short of horrific. Her colleague that eventually arrived to assist was belligerent and rude. They wouldn’t listen to my husband’s advice on how best to help him, they rushed everything, lifting him was incredibly badly done and any possibility of dignity was long gone – bearing in mind we were being watched by a whole entire plane full of people.
Not a great start to our holiday! I suppose if there is an upside to his high-level injury – careful bowel management and an indwelling SPC (supra pubic catheter) meant that toileting was low risk and relatively easy for us. But this won’t be the case for everyone; generally plane bathrooms are tiny and you may not be able to transfer easily if at all. Something else to think about before you travel!
His chair is always clearly marked as ‘return to plane door’ – he always politely reminds the crew before landing. It usually disappears off regardless and we are left waiting for them to locate and return it. Surely it should be automatic that wheelchairs are returned to the plane door? Aisle chairs and standard wheelchairs do not suit many people, especially if you have little or no sitting balance. That aside, it is your chair and it should be returned without question. I hope that airlines and the government take note of the recent publicity and make this a mandatory requirement.
There is always an upside though, and no matter what level of spinal cord injury you have, you can explore the globe. Travel is accessible – it just requires research, planning and a bucket load of “can-do” attitude. We’ve had so many bad experiences, but once we’ve reached our destination, we’ve made memories, had fun, and seen the world. Despite the difficulties, we love to travel! It’s just the “getting there” bit that seems to present us with barriers. Let’s hope that whilst the recent publicity has been very negative, it will eventually make things easier for all wheelchair users to enjoy travelling.
If you are considering flying with a Spinal Cord Injury, you might like to view some of the factsheets produced by the Spinal Injuries Association www.spinal.co.uk (search for travel resources)