Tuesday, March 8, 2016
Running the Gamut of Planes, Trains and Wheelchairs
In a short 5-day span I’ve gone from the most accessible city in the world (Portland, Ore.) to the least, Kathmandu, Nepal. And in between I spent my time in Holland which scores a solid accessibility “B.”
Getting on an airplane when your legs don’t work can be a real pain if the people working the plane don’t know what they’re doing. But the folks at PDX have it down. I have to transfer into a small aisle chair where they strap me in and roll me right to my seat. I unclip the straps transfer over and I’m good to go. 15 years ago, I had to teach nearly every flight attendant how to use this gear properly, but now most of the PDX crew have it down.
Transferring in San Francisco was just as easy as they are also old hands at this process. I’ve come to expect this in the States, and these days I’m rarely disappointed. But once you leave the U.S., you’re in for a different story.
My first international transfer was in Munich. The Lufthansa crew didn’t exactly know what they were doing, and they put me in a transit elevator instead of letting me just get in my chair and ride up the runway like everyone else. The transit elevator is one of those bulky 20-wheeled contraptions that you’ll see only on an airport tarmac. It was designed to carry disabled people as awkwardly and uncomfortably as possible to the gate, where they are escorted to an elevator that lifts you to the same line with everyone else. Every worker outside of the U.S. will immediately grab the back of your chair and start pushing you whether you want them to or not.
This does not qualify you to operate an aisle chair!
When I got to my Amsterdam flight they had an aisle chair, but it had no straps on it. I was forced to hold my legs together and balance on a 10” seat using butt muscles that haven’t worked since the Clinton administration. There were two attendants, one hauling the aisle chair backwards through the plane and another trying to hold my arms together so that they wouldn’t hit the seats – ignoring the fact that the whole time I’m slipping off the chair. I got to my seat and prayed that my chair would be at the gate at Schiphol.
The Dutch did not have straps on their chair, but their attendant realized that it was better to hold my knees together than grab my elbows. My chair was sitting right at the edge of the plane so I easily popped in and rolled what seemed like 15 miles to the baggage carousels. Once through customs, I rolled a bit further to find myself at the Schiphol rail station – located inside the airport.
This, of course is wildly convenient, except for the fact that the attendant at the help desk told me in no uncertain terms that I was not allowed on the train without a lift and the lifts must be ordered 24-hours in advance. That policy is wildly discriminatory but before I had a chance to point that out, he went on a diatribe of how rude it was for me to put him out like that – after all he was going to have to take one of his workers off the ticket line (It was 10 o’clock and the ticket lines were empty) and have them go down to the track with me and work the lift. I was just about to let him know a thing or two about inconvenience, but then I noticed that although his mouth was flapping, the process was, in fact, taking place. I also noticed that when the lift operator arrived, they had no problem. The help desk guy kept complaining to himself long after I was out of earshot. He was just a complainer.
The Dutch rail system actually does like a notice, but it’s only an hour, not a full day. The lift is actually just a folding ramp that takes little more than 20 seconds to get in place and deploy. I took a dozen more trains throughout my stay and never once had a problem. Every time I had to transfer, the lift was waiting for me.
Holland has a fleet of zippy intercity trains that are all accessible.
I was based in Den Haag with my old friend Maaike and she lived just off of one of the new completely accessible local tram lines. They are super easy to use, relatively cheap and 100% accessible. The only problem is there is still a large system of non-accessible trams in Den Haag. Had I been staying along one of those lines, it would have resulted in some hefty cab fares.
After just a few short days, I was off again, this time into the realm of zero-disability awareness. I said goodbye to my cushy Dutch fantasy land and headed for an 18-hour layover in Istanbul. For the past 10 years, it seems that every time I travel to Asia, I’m spending time in the Istanbul airport. The airport’s great - it’s just that if I get a room in Istanbul, there is no way I’ll be able to get into the bathroom.
I didn’t get any sleep on my red-eye, so I opted to run into town and crash at a cheap dive for the day. The only place I could find on short notice had three big steps at the entrance and a bathroom door as wide as home plate. The way I get around this is to squeeze a small chair into the bathroom and transfer to it through the bathroom door. From there I hop around on it as if I were a hostage tied to it. Provided the legs don’t split (they have in the past!) I can usually bump my way to the sink, toilet and even the shower if I’m lucky.
I was so bagged that I never even made it out of the hotel. I just watched Al Jazeera News and caught a few episodes of Fargo on Netflix. Once back at the airport, I had the last hamburger I’m sure I’ll see in a long time and sucked down another episode of Fargo, assuming (correctly) I would not see good Internet connection the rest of the trip.
Eventually it was time for my flight and they ushered me to a disability transfer lounge. Before I made the switch to the aisle chair, I asked again if my chair was marked so it would meet me at the airplane and not go through to baggage. They assured me it would. I asked them if any of them would like to place a wager on that. I had no takers.
The final leg of the trip was an 8-hour flight straight east to Kathmandu. As far as disability goes, Turkish airlines is the worst I’ve ever been on. One time they refused to board me without having a doctor ride with me. Fortunately for me, I was going to a medical convention and one of the doctors on the flight recognized me from our website. I was told I had a window seat, but when they rolled me on the plane, they stuck me on an inside aisle – because they thought it would be easier for me. Of course, they would know what’s best for me as I am a feeble-minded man in a wheelchair.
Most of the big airlines have aisle chairs on board so people in chairs can use the bathroom on long-haul flights. No such luck with Turkish Air, but I came prepared. I waited for the cabin lights to go down, pulled a blanket over my lap and peed in a bottle.
Eight hours later the plane flew past the Himalayas on a scorching sunny day – something I could barely make out from my aisle seat. As the plane emptied out I was waiting for a flight attendant to tell me my chair was waiting at the door. Instead, one of them looked at me curiously and asked why I wasn’t leaving.
“Do you not remember that I had to be carried on?” I asked. Now in America they would admit their mistake and do their best to correct it. But this is Asia where saving face is a way of life. The attendant smiled and walked away – and I never saw her again. Instead another woman came and said that they would be with me momentarily. 55 minutes later, they finally arrived with the most poorly designed aisle chair I’ve ever seen. The foot plate stuck out so far that it was impossible for me to transfer from my seat to the aisle chair. I had to throw myself about a foot backwards and the two attendants grabbed my arms and pulled me onto the chair.
My fellow disabled passengers on the Kathmandu flight.
In America this is where they strap you in as if you were Hannibal Lecter. But this device had no straps. I had to grab my legs in a tuck and lean back while the attendant bounced me through the plane crashing into every fourth seat. Eventually we made it to another giant elevator truck, which was sorely lacking in my personal wheelchair.
“Where is my wheelchair?” I asked. The attendant confidently responded in a tone insinuating he had it all covered, “We have this chair.” In the past I’ve put up a major stink when this happens. Not only am I sincerely pissed, but I usually weasel out an upgrade or a meal voucher out of it. But seeing as this was my last flight, I wasn’t getting anywhere. I just sat on the rolling stool teed up like a golf ball.
The elevator truck dropped us down to the tarmac where I held on for dear life as I was rolled through a maze of planes and airport vehicles and into the customs line. The attendant was not only pushing me, he was also hauling my backpack and a super-heavy bag containing my computer and camera equipment. When we got in line, he left me there to fill out forms and set my bags down next to a doorway where anyone could just pick them up and walk. Losing either one of them would have disastrous effects.
With one eye on my out-of-reach bags and another filling out my visa form, I waited impatiently for him to return. Luckily, they let me skip to the head of the line, most likely because the guy was sick of dealing with me. Finally, with my visa was stamped, I was rolled into the baggage hall and sitting very lonely up against a big pillar was my wheelchair. I’ve never been happier in my life to see that thing. I transferred into it, did a couple of spins and wheelies, collected my bags then headed immediately towards the bathroom with the attendant following me yelling something in Nepali. By the time I was done, he was gone and I never saw him again. I picked up my big bag, bungied it to my feet then wheeled out to meet my driver from the Spinal Injury Rehabilitation Center. I survived the five flights it took to get me to Kathmandu, but wrestling with disability issues in this town had just begun.