While I was excited about the opportunity to go abroad to Costa Rica on an exchange program, as a disabled person I worried about how my experience getting on and off the plane would be.
I learned quickly that airline personnel don’t always know what to do when it comes to helping to transfer a person with a disability. Although they may have received formal training, it is different having to help in a real situation. Each person with a disability is different, and what may work for one person doesn’t mean it will work for another. Here are four tips that have worked for me:
1. Be assertive, descriptive, and specific in the way you want assistance.
Before I let any of the airline personnel begin to transfer me, I found it useful to be assertive and give brief instructions on how they could best assist me. I pointed a lot and used phrases such as, “Grab here and not here,” or “When you have my (legs, arms, etc.,) you’re going to move this way to get me here.” I made sure each person knew his or her destination. Some key points I found that really helped get me to my destination were to have people hold on to and lift with the elastic of my pants, under my armpits and under my knees.
2. Bring along helpful tools for getting into position.
I also brought a sliding board, which is very effective for transferring me to places that are level to, or have a slight down slope with, the height of my wheelchair. Another option is to sit on a towel or blanket that’s folded lengthwise over the airline seat. Then by ensuring that the flaps of the towel stay over each side of the armrest, the people assisting can have something to grab onto when it’s time to be lifted up and out of the seat. In addition, the towel can be used to help in scooting back or sitting up straighter during the flight.
3. Wear durable clothing that can withstand being pulled and lifted.
I learned that wearing pants or shorts with tough material and a thick elastic band that can withstand pulling or has loops (jeans are perfect) provided a great place for a person to really get a good hold of and grab on to. Another helpful item to bring is a transfer belt. It can be secured around one’s waist (like a seat belt) and instantly it creates something for a lifter to grab on to.
4. Book a spacious seat with room to maneuver.
Something else I learned is that only newer aircraft, and sometimes only first class seats, have armrests that flip up. Sometimes if there is space available, passengers with disabilities can ask to be moved up to first class, where not only do the seats have more width but there is also more room for the transferring helpers to maneuver.
As I look back after having this international experience, I am inclined to try doing things differently — especially in new situations. Although as people with disabilities we know ourselves best, we should be open to suggestions and willing to try new transfer approaches. Some new settings will be challenging, but if we take a moment to think about it, we’re sure to find a new way to do it.