I received my very first custom fit light wheelchair in early 2012. My family in Florida had been asking me to visit with them since 2010. Their beseeching was for me to stay with them for two months. I decided to accept this proposition and planned to visit in the winter of 2013- 2014. Since a wheelchair made me more mobile, this trip would be manageable. This visit was going to be over a year away, so I knew that I had time to plan for everything carefully. For your knowledge life in a chair also involves geometry and spatial reasoning. The importance of this information will become apparent later in the story.
Anyone that knows me can probably tell you that I am a scheduler and a planner. This invitation to stay with family in Florida was going to be for eight weeks. I had not traveled for nearly two decades, and now I was going to fly with a medical condition. A trip like this with multiple sclerosis was going to be a gargantuan undertaking. It was not helpful that I did not yet comprehend my new permanent petulant plight. I would need to think slowly and anticipate every possible issue that could come up.
I began making checklists including things that I needed for both my carry-on and checked bags. I had a list of the things that I needed for my house as well because I would be gone for two months. There was a requirement for a tabulation of all items that I desperately desired. This desideratum for the trip included luggage and the like. I also had to stop my mail, cable and put several of my lights on timers. Making sure that my medication was refilled was essential. Lastly and most importantly I had to set-up a ride to and from the airport.
I did a lot of research learning the ins-and-outs of air travel with a wheelchair. All of my studying showed me the fundamental things that were not common knowledge. This information also talked about what one needs to know about going through the security checkpoint in a chair. Erudition informed me of the value of an aisle chair to those of us in wheelchairs. It also explained the reason to avoid this assistive boarding device when possible.
I found a great airline company that was not only affordable but also had excellent customer service. I do not like to advertise for a company so for the sake of this blog I will call them Zouth Vest. They are the last company that still allows a traveler to have two checked bags at no cost. This company also allows each journeyman to have one carry-on bag with no fee. I have heard how many airlines are charging for most things like pillows, blankets, and even peanuts.
We pulled the car up to the check-in desk for Zouth Vest airlines. They were wearing big smiles like kids getting their favorite toy at Christmas. These happy people checked me in entirely within a few minutes. One ZV employee then asked if I would like her to push me to my gate as she took me there. As a very independent guy, I said no thank you. I did not want to feel like the feeble. Sadly I did not know just how far the gate was. The circuitous route to the gate was a vicious cycle of strain, numbness, and pain that made this journey a struggle.
Everyone has to go through a security check in, and wheelchair users are no different. As I was in the security area, the wait was brief. The security person had me remove my belt and shoes. I was required to place them in a grey bin to be passed through the scanner. As he began to do the pat-down, he was very thorough and explained his every move. I appreciated that he made direct eye contact with me while clarifying every step he would make. For my ease of use, I had a large key ring on my pants zipper. This seemingly hidden metal ring made him jumpy when he first saw it. However, as soon as he grabbed it his comment was “oh” and then he moved on.
I had dropped a piece of paper and quickly leaned forward to pick it up. The wheelchair casters sit behind the leg rests making the chair tip forward. Like a slow-motion action scene, I tipped forward falling onto the floor. I quickly tried to turn to get back into the chair, but my legs were as sturdy as pipe cleaners. As fast as a cheetah attacks a gazelle the security guy grabbed me. He picked me up off of the floor and carefully put me back into my wheelchair. He was as gentle as putting his infant to bed. Thankfully I only hurt my pride that day.
After I left the security area, it was back to the labyrinthine hallways of the airport. We still had not arrived at my gate. The woman that brought me from the parking lot passed the baton and handed me off. The new Zouth Vest employee smiled just as much as the previous staff member. As we moved down the corridor, she offered to stop at the snack kiosk and the restrooms. I was as hungry as a grizzly bear, and then this need for food was squelched by the absurdly high prices. A bag of vending machine size chips should not cost nearly four dollars. Do airports not know the prices everywhere else? Sorry for the digression.
We rolled up to the gate where I met another extremely happy ZV employee. This gentleman began clicking on his keyboard, and within minutes he told me all about my flight. He let me know my takeoff and landing times and that I had no layover. This employee made me aware of when the plane would begin boarding. It was also brought to my attention that wheelchair users would board first. I then waited just over an hour for my plane to arrive.
When the Zouth Vest plane began boarding, I was the first one to be loaded. They do not have assigned seating, so it is “first come first serve.” The people in manual chairs are given the option to roll themselves onto the plane and transfer into a seat. This movement will enable them to eliminate the aisle chair as a necessary assistive boarding device. Once I rolled onto the plane and shifted my rump into the seat I did not move again. I did not move an inch until we landed in Orlando Florida about two hours later.
The last time that I flew on a plane was 1995, so I was unaware of the many new gate guidelines. After the ambulatory people disembarked, it was then time for the disabled to deplane. One of the crew brought my wheelchair, so I did the reverse of when I boarded the plane. I was then rolled out to the gate area where I did not know that my family could not meet me. I told the ZV employee that I was okay and required no more assistance. I then took out my cell phone and called my mom asking where she was.
“I am right here at the gate,” she said. “No mom I just got off the plane, and I am here at the gate, and I do not see you” I replied. I asked a woman who was quietly reading a book where the families meet their kin. I was told to go down this hall and make the first left past the second snack kiosk. At that point, I get on the first train, and that would take me to the building for meeting my family. Needless to say, her words were as clear as mud because she sputtered her directions quickly.
I set off in search of the first snack bar or was it the second? This was turning into another circuitous journey of over the river and through the woods. I met an airport employee that thought that I looked lost. I began to tell her my long story of how I just received my wheelchair and that I have not traveled since 1995. After I did some explaining, she decided that it was just easier to push me the rest of the way.
I found my family and had an otherwise enjoyable two-month visit. I realize that most people think that wheelchair life is effortless. You just sit in this wheeled chariot and roll around, and that cannot be farther from the truth. You must always be aware of the length, width and general footprint of your rolling apparatus. The life of a chair user takes muscles that most do not possess. As for air travel for a wheelchair neophyte, it is an ordeal that is not for the faint of heart.