Why is it that I am ‘gifted’ with advocacy opportunities so often? A chance to advocate for myself is not necessarily a welcome opportunity. While I am glad that I have a voice and an ability to speak up for myself, and that people with disabilities have laws—like those in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)—to strengthen our fight, it is still a fight; the opportunity to advocate for myself means experiencing the discomfort, inconvenience, or pain that I have to advocate against.
What has prompted my mini tirade? My recent flight to Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love, has driven me to it. While the city certainly emanates fraternal cherishing, I was not feeling it as I visited this past week for what I thought would be a quick hour and eighteen minute long in and out as I connected to my flight to Rochester, NY.
When my flight from Detroit finally skidded to a stop in Philly, I had already lost twenty minutes of my layover. And on top of the flight’s late arrival, I have to wait on average fifteen minutes for the other passengers to clumsily locate their carry on luggage (“Oh, it’s not in that one, it’s in this one…okay, maybe the next one”) and then inch slowly down the aisle as they bump and “oops” their way past me until the airport personnel can even begin to help me off the plane. I am one of those lucky individuals who gets to use an aisle chair, or ‘straight back’ as they call it—making it sound even more like it looks: a transportation device for a dangerous Hannibal-like criminal, hands and legs bound to a chair to prevent any violent outbursts (“I didn’t get my bag of peanuts! Aarrrgghh!”).
So, I am finally in the airport, in my chair and my connecting flight leaves in forty minutes. As the airport staff debate who will push me through the airport, I learn that my express flight leaves through a separate terminal that I need to take a shuttle to. Of course, no way this could just be easy.
Watching the shuttle pull up in an out-of-the-way, ground-level corner of the airport, I have a sinking feeling: no ramp on the bus. As I’m wheeled out ahead of everyone else (as is customary), I see another young airport staffer place a metal tri-fold ramp up to the bus door—you know, one of those deals that is carried briefcase-style. I’m wheeled up, rolled backwards so the back of me is to the bus’s front window, and I’m staring straight to the back of the bus.
“You want to be tied down?” one of the staffers asks me. Now I seriously consider declining. My chair is tied down in a lift van on a daily basis back home, and I know it can use up precious time I don’t have. On the other hand, falling out of my chair as the shuttle races across the airfield would take considerably more time to remedy. So, I give a nod.
The tie down system is a contraption I’ve never seen: tying my chair tightly to the wall behind me using a locking system in the wall. “Now,” the staffer said after securing the chair, “when the bus arrives at Terminal F, an airport escort like me will come on, unhook you, set up another ramp and help you off, okay?” Another nod of my head. Simple enough.
We have all had moments when we watch the events shaping our experience as if we ourselves are outside out of it, helpless to do anything about it. This moment was one of those moments.
The shuttle pulled up to the terminal, hurried passengers poised as the bus doors slid open; it took all of twenty seconds, and I was alone, the bus moving again. What was I thinking at the moment he parked—about 100 feet from the terminal–got off, and sauntered toward the terminal entrance, ignorant of my existence?
Well, let’s consider that:
- Maybe he is taking me to another entrance?
- Is what I think happening, happening?
- Yeah, I’m definitely missing my flight.
Okay, so let’s now look at the facts:
- I’m alone.
- I’m in a parked shuttle bus on the Philadelphia airport airfield.
- I’m strapped to a wall.
At a time like this what else is there to do but call Mom; even if she is a few hundred miles away. I explained the above facts to her, in what I consider only a slightly frantic tone, and she (as expected) flipped out.
Amazingly, she was able to bypass all the automated messages and “Dial ‘0’ to speak to an airport representative after listening to 45 minutes of Air Supply’s Greatest Hits,” and talk to a live person in the airport’s Communication department. The next 20 minutes was spent missing the airport staff’s attempts to call me as I talked Mom down off a ledge and kept losing signal on my phone. Finally, I got them on my phone, and after figuring out where the shuttle was, the woman dealt with me as if I was calling 911 amidst a crisis;
“Now, Robin, don’t panic, sweetie! I’m going to stay right here on the phone with you until airport police arrive! Sweetie, are you okay? Are you hurt?” the woman repeated in a breathless frenzy.
“I’m fine. I’m just stuck on a bus.” I laughed.
I had figured out the locking system which held my wheelchair immobile, and as Philly police, airport security and airline representatives opened the bus doors, I rolled up, smiled and said, “fancy meeting you here!”
A post on “Advocacy, After the Doors Opened” to follow soon!