THE HIGHS AND LOWS OF AIR TRAVEL

I am not a good traveller. As a kid, there was nothing more exciting than waking up at 3 AM, dragging my suitcase down the stairs (and usually over someone’s toe, oops), and heading off on some grand adventure. Whether it was a road trip across Canada or a flight that would transport us to Disneyland, I was eager for it all.

But upon returning from studying abroad after high school, my budding anxiety had already attached itself to many a victim, and flying was one of its first. I vividly recall walking to and from classes at university and as airplanes passed overhead, stopping to cover my ears until it faded into the distance. Many a friend held me in the middle of campus as this new fear gripped me tight. And it was then that I realized that if I was having this strong a reaction to the sound of airplanes, flying on them would be unbearable.

And as I’ve just recently returned from two plane trips, one trip to Michigan to take Cricket to his forever home and one to visit my family, I’ve been reflecting on the process of travelling as a blind woman. Seeing as I’m often asked about how it works, I thought I’d take a moment to share my reflections with you and maybe help to answer some of your questions.

So, how does it work practically?

When I travel independently by air, I make a note in my reservation stating that I am visually impaired and require assistance to board and deplane. Thus, when I arrive at the airport and check in, there’s a well established system that I’m immediately taken into:

  • A customer service agent guides me from check-in, through security and to my gate where they seat me and inform the airline agent that I need assistance on to the aircraft.
  • When pre-boarding is called, the airline agent assists me down the ramp and on to the airplane.
  • Here, the flight attendant guides me to my seat, helps me settle in, and often gives me a description of the plane, where the nearest exit is located and the safety protocols.
  • I sit back and attempt to bear the flight as best I can, often with headphones blasting tunes until the Ativan kicks in and I fall asleep.
  • Once landed, the flight attendant guides me to the ramp where I am met by another airline agent who guides me either to the gate for my connecting flight, or to arrivals.

Being passed from person to person is at times quite overwhelming and exhausting; I find myself on high alert, taking note of my surroundings, who’s assisting me and where my bags are at all times. It can be a convoluted process, but it does accomplish its goal: it gets me safely from point A to point B, and I’m just thankful that airlines have policies and systems in place to assist their disabled passengers.

But I’d be remiss not to address the issues inherent in this system. Let me take you back to 2016 and my most notable solo air adventure. You’ll see why.

For my reading break, I booked a week in California, soaking up the sun with a friend of mine from Bible college. To save myself money, I booked the most inconvenient trip—three flights spanning an entire day. Needless to say, when I landed in Sacramento, I was utterly spent.

The first two flights were blissfully uneventful. But before I could board my final flight from Denver to Sacramento, I had a four-hour layover, and for its entirety, I sat in a chair. Just, sat. When the airline agent came to assist me to my gate, I was stiff, cramped and relieved for the opportunity to stretch my legs.

Pre-boarding was just beginning as I arrived and I was passed off to the airline agent for my flight. From here, it was a short walk down the ramp and on to the aircraft, and as I’d walked on and off all my flights and through the airports, I expected to walk this also. But the agent had another idea.

Many blind travelers that I’ve spoken to have been offered a wheelchair as a means of getting from point A to point B. While I know some visually impaired individuals prefer this method—it can be less stressful, faster and easier to manage luggage—it’s never been a method I use or appreciate. I prefer to walk, and I said as much to the agent who had a wheelchair at the ready for me.

“Oh, no thanks,” I said.
“Honey,” she said, her tone not at all kind, “you need to sit in this wheelchair so we can get you on to the plane.” She proceeded to grab my arm and pull me down into the chair, knocking me off balance. I stood up and planted myself firmly in front of her.
“I would prefer to walk on to the plane, thanks.” I could almost see the glare I knew she was giving me.
“Honey.” Again, that tone. “You’re making a scene in front of all these people, and you’re holding up the line. Just sit in the chair.” Once more, she attempted to physically force my body down into the wheelchair, but I resisted. I was losing my cool quickly, but again, I said, “I don’t need this wheelchair. I prefer to walk, and if I could just take your arm for you to guide me, I’d appreciate it.”

She was right. It was a scene, and I knew my fellow passengers were watching. But I wasn’t making a scene. I was asserting my independence, advocating for my rights, and being denied.

It was then that an angel stepped forward from the crowd of onlookers and said to me, “I could guide you on to the plane. May I?” I have to admit that it was a fight to keep the triumphant smirk off my face as I took the woman’s elbow and walked down the ramp and onto the plane. As it turns out, this woman was returning home from visiting her aging mother who was visually impaired.

I was exhausted and fuming by the time I fell into the arms of my friend. And even now, five years later, I find myself reliving this experience and asking myself the same question:

Why are disabled people valued less than the systems in place to serve them?

During that trip to California, I was patronized, verbally dismissed, and physically coerced, the result of which was the unmistakable feeling that my life as a disabled person isn’t worth as much as an able-bodied person’s.

But Rhianna, isn’t that a bit exaggerated?

No. Not when I’ve lived two decades as a disabled woman and continue to hear and endure countless experiences like this, and worse. Being disabled has forced me to take a good, long look at the world I live in and see it for what it is. Too often, it’s an ablest, discriminatory place with people and systems that show an unwillingness to learn, change, and do better for their fellow people.

But people can’t do better unless they’re taught how.
I won’t claim to know how to accomplish this because it isn’t merely an attitudinal change but a systemic one and I’m only one voice out of a global community facing these challenges. But I’m doing what I can, sharing my perspective as someone who lives in this reality, and praying that it might spark one person to action.

So to the woman at the Denver airport, I say this:
I’m not mad that you offered me a wheelchair.
I’m not mad that you were following the directives of your company’s policy regarding passengers like me.
I’m not mad that you assumed I needed the help. After all, that’s what you’re lead to believe by the world around you.
But I am mad that you didn’t value me enough to listen, and trust that I know what’s best for me. I’m hurt that you didn’t respect my body enough to treat it with care and consent. I’m disappointed that it was a fellow passenger who stepped into help while your coworkers stood by in silence. I’m angry that in a society that prides itself on equality for all, I was treated like anything but an equal.
I did not feel like a person in that moment, but rather a task on your to-do list.

And now I ask the all-important question:
Now that you know how, will you work to make a change?