Disabled Accommodations While Traveling by Air: Invisible MS and the Cane

  • Traveling can present obstacles in your path, especially when you live with chronic disease.  Multiple sclerosis is definitely one of those diseases, as is rheumatoid arthirtis and scleroderma.  Fortunately, my MS is behaving itself for the most part.  It keeps threatening a flare-up but then keeps at just a mild simmer without boiling over. 

    Yesterday, I met a woman on the plane who had an experience which is probably not so uncommon.  She uses a cane when necessary but not all the time.  Her request at the airport gate was simple.  She wanted to board early to have a little extra time getting on the plane and getting settled safely.

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    Do you remember when the airlines boarded their planes used to ask “and now we’d like to invite families traveling with small children and any others who would like a little extra time down the gangway to board at this time”?  I remember, but hadn’t really thought about the fact that I hadn’t heard this announcement in quite some time in all of my travels over the past two years.

    As MS patients, we can relate to the need to have a little extra time walking toward the plane or getting settled without the threat of the mob-like crowd who wishes to push and get forward as quickly as possible.  I know that I don’t like to be rushed when I’ve finally gotten to my seat on the plane.

    The procedure for this particular airline was very simple (however not clear) regarding the extra time for passengers who need it.  You simply have to be one of the passengers who request wheelchair assistance, then your name will be called and you will receive personal assistance in getting yourself and your bags on the plane safely. 

    What if you didn’t need a wheelchair but used your cane to get to the gate?  What if you prefer to walk and like to maintain your independence?  What if your name doesn’t get on that special list?

    You must speak up for yourself.  I guess you must learn to play by the “rules” and ask for the wheelchair even if you don’t use it.  In fact, that’s what the flight attendant suggested that my neighboring passenger should have done to have prevented any challenges she faced in obtaining priority boarding.

    Ask for the wheelchair and then don’t use it.  Sounds kinda crazy to me.  And perhaps the airlines will end up running out of wheelchairs if every passenger who needed extra time (but who use canes) requested a wheelchair (to play by the rules).  Seems silly. 

    It doesn’t seem right to ask disabled travelers to play games just in order to receive the consideration that they need.  Playing games takes away some of the dignity which one maintains.  I know that I don’t want my request for assistance to be questioned one day because it seems that certain privileges have been abused by others.

    This post is not so much about what disabled accommodations are offered by airlines or other means of travel.  That is a subject worthy of an entire article alone.  This post is about the invisible nature of disability and the need for each of us to be our own advocates.

  • If you need that extra time getting on the plane, let the agents at the gate know.  If they seem to doubt your need, perhaps you could say something like, “If it’s necessary, I’d like to request a wheelchair. But to be honest, I won’t be using the wheelchair unless the skycap wants to roll my purse down the gangway.  I just don’t want to risk being knocked over by those folks who are in a hurry.”

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    Ok, so the comment about the purse might not be your style.  Come up with an explanation which fits your personal situation on that specific day.  Just don’t sit back and later realize that the gate attendant never asked for those passengers who needed extra help or time to get on the plane.

    Tomorrow, I am traveling (again) and will be in the company of a person who does need that wheelchair getting through the airport.  This will provide an opportunity to witness the process which a different airlines has in place to accommodate disabled passengers.

    As it’s been two weeks since I last posted on MS Central, it will be another two weeks before I return on vacation.  I hope that you are each having a great summer.  Stay cool and have some fun.



    Lisa Emrich is author of the blog Brass and Ivory: Life with MS and RA and founder of the Carnival of MS Bloggers.


Published On: June 23, 2011