A Florida woman suffers from a condition that periodically flares and lands her in a wheelchair. She was just trying to get from her Broward County, FL, home to Denver, CO. 24-year-old Gaby Assouline booked her flight on Southwest Airlines, but never arrived in Denver. Instead, she ended up in the hospital and on a feeding tube, paralyzed from the neck down, because employees of Southwest Airlines refused to push her wheelchair down the jet bridge corridor, according to the New York Post. She tried to navigate the jet bridge herself, but in the process was “thrown” from her chair. She landed on her head, and cracked her vertebrae.
When I saw this story, I was horrified, as I’m sure you are. I am certain your horror is based on empathy, but my horror comes from a different place. My horror is based in one thought: it could have been me.
In fact, on several occasions, it almost was.
I don’t know how many of you are aware, but I, myself, am one of the 1.4 million Americans who are handicapped. I am not in a wheelchair, but I must use a cane to get anywhere, and I cannot take stairs, nor walk long distances. As you can image, this causes some issues when I travel.
I have never, since I got the cane, traveled Southwest, but I have had my own experiences with other airlines.
I used to live in Cleveland, OH, while my daughters and grandchildren were living in North Carolina, or Arkansas, or Texas. I used to fly to see my children and grandchildren regularly, a few times a year. And I used to have to fly alone, like Gaby Assouline.
Because I cannot take stairs, and I cannot walk long distances even with my cane, I require a wheelchair when I am in an airport.
Airports all over the country have personnel who help people like me get around, pushing us through the airport, and down the jet way. By and large, they are helpful and kind.
However, the experiences I have had have not always been pleasant. And the unpleasant experiences are not what I would call rare. Part of the difficulty is that the flights I end up on are frequently smaller planes which cannot accept a jet bridge — or a plane is directed to a gate where a jet bridge is not available. Often, entering or exiting these planes requires the use of stairs that are either built into the plane, or rolled up to the door.
There was the time I was returning from North Carolina to Cleveland, after a lovely visit with my family. I arrived back in Cleveland to a snowy night. As usual, there was no jet bridge, but stairs were rolled up to the side of the plane. As usual, I was the last one off the plane. When the flight attendant brought the wheelchair on board for me, they began to take me off the plane, carrying the chair with me in it — head first. Thankfully, the co-pilot put a stop to that, as the blood was rushing to my head, and I was getting dizzy, in addition to being — I think understandably — terrified that they would drop me.
Getting (feet first) to the tarmac in the chair wasn’t the end of that particular ordeal, however. The attendant wanted me to walk, on my own, across the ice-covered tarmac to the terminal. I finally was able to explain that, no, I can NOT walk, and they did — eventually — push me to the terminal.
Another incident occurred when I arrived at the airport in Charlotte, NC, to visit my best friend in Asheville — and look for a place to live. I was already in the wheelchair provided by the airport, and my sister had asked at least 3 times for a ramp to brought out for my use, long before the plane arrived. The ramp did not arrive, and they expected me to walk up the stairs. When my sister and I both explained multiple times (and with, I admit, increasing volume) that I absolutely needed the ramp, and reminded them that we had requested the ramp hours before the plane had arrived, they left me outside in a rainstorm, at night. I was soaked to the skin before they finally brought up the requested ramp. I ended up spending the first week of my three week visit sick in bed after that.
I see the looks I get in the airport when I’m in a wheelchair. There are three of them, really.
The first is pity. That one is hard for me. I am not a person who takes pity easily. I don’t need pity — no handicapped person needs pity. They — and I — need empathy and understanding.
The second look is, believe it or not, envy. Because everyone who flies knows that the handicapped, elderly, and those with small children board the plane first, and people think that getting on the plane before everyone else is a great perk. Yes, we are the first people on the plane — which, while it sounds great, is really not a good thing, because until the plane is taxiing, there is no heat or air conditioning — but we are the last people out as well. Anyone who requires a wheelchair or assistance is asked to remain on the plane until the able-bodied passengers deplane, so as not to hold up the line. Again we are sitting for at least the 10-15 minutes it takes for everyone else to get off. We also cannot leave until the wheelchair or other assistance required arrives from the airport. My record is 45 minutes of waiting. I have nearly missed connecting flights waiting to get off the plane more than once.
The third look is not a look at all. Rather, people look away. So often, the able bodied want to pretend that those of us who are differently abled do not exist. I’ve never understood why. Whatever is wrong with the differently abled, it’s not contagious. You can’t get it by being nice to us, certainly not by catching our eye. Perhaps there is a bit of “there, but for the grace of god, go I,” and that thought makes people uncomfortable. Often, I think that people look away because, like the homeless, the handicapped are viewed as not just a different sort of person but, all too often, as not a real person at all.
Because of these issues, and the increasingly hostile environment for those of us who are different — and, yes, because I am now 72 — I no longer travel alone. Because my usual travel companion, my sister, works full time and has limited vacation time, I rarely travel at all. It has been years since I have seen my children and grandchildren who reside in Texas or Ohio.
All of this is to say that those of us who are handicapped don’t ask for much. We — I — just want to be treated with decency and consideration. This is especially true when we travel, when we are at our most vulnerable. It’s not much to ask, one human to another. Is it?
Gaby Assouline in the hospital after her accident