The Others: The Disabled and United Airlines

People misunderstand the frustrations behind being disabled and, unfortunately, a really great example is happening to me right now. They often think it’s a direct manifestation of what you have, often asking me questions like, “Are you mad that you can’t walk?” Not exactly, no. Sometimes it would be nice. Other times I consider how little I’ve spent on shoes in my life relative to everyone else.

Here’s where the real frustrations come in. Events. Things that happen. Life. Right now, I’m supposed to be having beers with my friends, something we’ve been planning for over a month, but I can’t. The reason I can’t isn’t directly that I can’t walk either. I own a wheelchair that costs about $25,000 (I really need to write an article about how asinine the cost of a wheelchair is at some point — note to self). While the cost is outrageous, normally the situation would be no problem for me. However, tonight I can’t.

The reason I didn’t attend tonight was United Airlines baggage claim workers dropped my wheelchair and broke it. Here’s how the system works.

You need to call the airline ahead of time if you’re disabled. This is more than reasonable, and has a lot of good reasons. My wheelchair weighs about 350 pounds, so they need to know if the plane can handle that weight, have people ready to load it and have some people to assist you on and off the plane. I actually did this well ahead of time and called again to confirm it was properly documented. Everything was done correctly.

Here’s where it breaks down. Normally the flight attendants come by to make sure everything is in order, that I was all set and ready to go. They didn’t, which didn’t end up being that bad but it is worth noting. After we landed, the people that assist me came by to help me off the plane. It’s interesting that it works that way for a lot of reasons. If you think about it, it doesn’t make sense that United Airlines would have people employed and sitting around, waiting specifically for disabled people. For that reason, they have privately contracted individuals that they call to help out, but they have conflicting interests. Point of fact, I’ve never flown and not had the airline staff not have a disagreement with these contractors on at least one of the two flights, which means that I’m pretty much forced into a very uncomfortable situation every time I fly and really the airlines know this is happening.

In my case, it was taking a long time to get my wheelchair off of the plane, so I was sitting in what’s called an aisle chair. It’s an uncomfortable device designed to squeeze between seats on an airplane, no wider than 22 inches.

After about fifteen minutes, we looked out the window. While I couldn’t really see out the window, I was told by my family that there were one or two people trying to pull my 350 pound wheelchair off the airplane and they dropped it on the concrete. After a few more minutes, we realized the reason the chair hadn’t arrived was the people handling it couldn’t figure out how to get it to move. It was at this point that we asked if we could go down and help. They said no for obvious safety reasons, which makes sense, so we asked if we could radio down to tell them. Neither United nor the contractors had any way to contact the people moving the chair. How is that a thing? How does that happen? Both the flight attendants and the contractors were joking that the baggage people don’t know how to handle wheelchairs, so United knows this is a thing and hasn’t resolved it.

Instead what happens is you have to sit and watch in a very special torture while one or two very strong people push as hard as they can on your wheelchair, which is exactly the thing I would tell you to do if you wanted to break some expensive medical equipment. After a few minutes of my stomach in knots, the flight attendants grew restless. They asked the contractor to move me up the flight ramp and into the waiting area because it was too hot. It was warm, I’ll give her that, but that wasn’t the real motivation. They wanted to board the next plane, didn’t care it was their fault it was taking so long and wanted me out of the way.

And the fun bit. The contractors that help tend to make a pointed effort to do as little as possible. They didn’t want to push me up the ramp, so rather than asking what I wanted, he offered up, “No, no, he says he is fine and comfortable here.”

Actually, no, I didn’t want that, or at least I didn’t say that. At this point, I’m stuck in a feud between two sides that are both wrong in motivations, wondering who I disliked less and should side with. I wanted to speak, but at this point I was too angry to speak without regret, am intelligent enough to know that, so I sat there and played shy. As I do.

They don’t know I have a blog.

Eventually, after a few more protests from the contractor (something about it was against the rules and possibly illegal to comply), he gave up and rolled me out. At this point I was in pretty severe pain, sitting on a nerve in my leg that caused my whole leg to go numb and burn like it was on fire. I figured it couldn’t be too much longer.

My favorite part of this story is the survey. The contractors are required to ask how you well they had performed and fill out your feedback on a tablet. First off, it’s an unfair position to put me in. Second, wouldn’t it be, basically, stupid (and possibly even dangerous), to give a bad review before they did pretty essential things like lifting you? Third, really? You’re really going to ask? Interestingly, I don’t know how he answered because I couldn’t see the screen. Maybe a 9 out of ten for all I know.

Ten to twenty minutes later, the wheelchair arrived. My wheelchair has two major systems. One system is a tilt motor that leans back so I can sit up at all. That system was entirely broken. The second major system is, you know, the driving system. That system was also broken. All of the casing was cracked or destroyed. It looked about how I felt.

The airline apologized for the inconvenience and told us to file a claim at baggage claim. Unfortunately, they were simply too busy to help us get there. It was one of those unreal situations where someone broke your legs and then has the audacity to ask you to walk downstairs to file a complaint. How was this a thing?

We got downstairs and they promised a rental that evening or, at latest, early morning. 29 hours and 7 phone calls later, we were promised help sometime today, but that’s not a thing. It’s not even that they didn’t send someone. They didn’t bother to call and say they aren’t coming. Now I’m sitting in my sister’s old glitchy wheelchair, covered in sassy high school bumper stickers.

While I would like to say this is United’s fault, this happened on Alaska Airlines when I flew to Seattle and when I flew Southwest to New Orleans. It happened to my sister on two flights so far, but to be fair, she’s younger than I am. Did you know that the Federal ADA laws don’t apply to airlines?

The reality is this. I’m at home, in a fair amount of physical pain because this seat isn’t designed for my body, having difficulty sitting at all, but what I’m really upset about is I couldn’t have a beer with my friends.

That’s what it is to be disabled.

Did my friends reschedule? Of course they did. Wasn’t even a concern of theirs. But is it okay that the airlines don’t get it or care? Don’t worry. They will.

I’ll make sure they do.

Interested in helping? I’ll just put this here. Like on Facebook, follow on Twitter, or donate if you feel passionate.