You get the wheelchair at check-in. An attendant swoops in and looks at everyone except you. The attendant is looking for someone apparently disabled. It’s embarrassing, and you wish you could take back the twenty-four-hours-in-advance phone call that reserved this chair. The alternative is to walk for you don’t know how much, stand in the security line for you don’t know how long, and then hike to a gate you don’t know how far. Not knowing is the enemy. You fess up and watch as the attendant pretends not to be surprised that the tiny youngish lady is the one waiting to be wheeled through the airport.
Airport gates can be over a forty-minute walk from security. That’s an able person’s forty-minute walk. I can walk forty minutes – a day. That’s my max, done in short bursts of no more than .4 or .5 miles – about five minutes each for an able person, and on most days, ten minutes for me. On a “pain” day, it’s all up for grabs — how much, how slow, how often. Every little thing factors in, from carrying a bag or a computer, to someone bumping into me, to unexpected stairs. Of course, you’d never know any of this from looking at me. I look like I’ve got no worries at all.
Being able on the outside comes with its own problem set. Side-eye is common, as is the stare that implies you are cutting the line. I have developed an inner scale that weighs outward scrutiny against the stabbing pain that feels like my bones have been replaced by knives getting worse every minute I stand in a line. I feel my face tightening, humor fading, as the cutting metal feeling inside grows sharper and goes deeper. I ask for help less often than I should.
Travel is not a luxury, but part of my life as a freelancer. If I don’t travel, I don’t earn. The decision for each airport on a journey is to risk walking to keep my autonomy, my perceived ability, and my normalcy, or to risk that I will reach a point of no return of pain and simply not be able to keep going. I’d like to say I’m immune to all the shade, that it doesn’t weigh into my decision-making. I’m perfectly clear I’m not sexy or cute or someone people would chat up, but I could do without the scowls, the down-the-nose stares, and the odd jealousy that comes off people like a bad scent.
In this ableist, ageist article on wheelchair use in airports from 2012, The New York Times sarcastically reports a woman’s miraculous recovery after going through security. “Once cleared, the woman suddenly sprang up from her wheelchair, hoisted two huge carry-on bags from the magnetometer’s conveyor belt and plopped back in the wheelchair.” If you are less than able, walking, lifting, standing, and sitting are each completely separate actions. You might not be able to do any of them. You might be able to do all of them. You might be able to do different ones on different days. I have taken my bag down when the attendant didn’t want me to, because I did not want the attendant to have to lift my things. At times, attendants have unzipped my boots for me when bending was difficult — not because I asked, but because they could see it was causing me pain.
In real life, or at least, in my old life, I used my pre-board time to buy an obscenely priced bottle of water, find reasonably healthy, obscenely priced food, and use the bathroom to avoid at least one trip to the grubby airplane pod. Now I’m wheeled by a stranger whose job is to get me from one place to another, not to run my personal errands. I’m embarrassed to ask to stop so I can go to the bathroom, or get food pre-flight or water. Usually, I don’t; occasionally, they offer. I miss autonomy.
The person steering the chair is not always careful, which can mean abrupt stops, bumps, and scary turns. It can be fun – like a POV camera in a comedy-adventure movie. On a pain day, each jar, bump, and stop short translates into a stab. The sharp jab replaces the slow burn of walking. The turns challenge equilibrium, the speed feels unnatural, all energy goes into staying on the chair.
The attendant is meant to wait with you at the gate, but they don’t always. At a small Oregon airport, the attendant deposited me and left. In the seating area, I got the so what’s wrong with her she looks fine to me glance from the other passengers. With a long wait, starving and thirsty, I knew I’d have to move from where I was seated. The bathroom was a thirty-foot walk. The place to get water was a different thirty feet, and the place to get food yet another. Each little trip would mean leaving the seat I had, and carrying all my things; baggage fees and security issues are no friend to people who are less able. Even pulling a small case can be a stress on an already stressed body. As I walked first to the bathroom, people stared: She can walk! It’s a miracle! Praise Jesus and hallelujah! And then, the aftermath stare, the so why does she get special treatment look.
When the attendant doesn’t wait, you face long periods of standing for another pre-check, and then the gangway, as the knives return. As soon as the wheelchair departs, you are just another passenger – no special treatment.
When they do wait with you, you are pre-boarded. You get a nice space for your overhead luggage and a nice long sit in a seat you will be sitting in for hours. For me, there is no such thing as a comfortable sitting position. Sitting earlier than everyone else just means prolonged discomfort. If I don’t shift periodically, I stiffen. The defense against this is not to stay in any position long enough for it to harden into something unbearable to get out of. The fifteen-minute rule is a good one. Never get too comfortable. As if I could get comfortable at all.
After the flight, you are meant to wait in your seat until someone comes to collect you. You only do that once. No one comes to collect you. You sit there and realize that all the other chair people have left. You know the other chair people because they were on board early, like you. When you finally walk yourself off the plane, you realize that you are the last in line for a chair.
Out of the plane, you come upon waiting area that sometimes has a few seats. On a recent flight, there were over fifteen people waiting for wheelchairs, and about six plastic seats. Appearing younger than the others, no cast or cane, it was clear I would not be sitting any time soon. It was not clear that they had more pain, but we tend to defer to an assumed level of pain in each other, recognize it by the furrows in the brows, the panic in the eyes. If someone is sitting, and they look at you and see you are in more pain than they are, they will give up their seat. It’s happened for me when I truly needed it. As long as we look, we can see each other’s pain.
When the waiting area cleared some, I finally got a seat next to a woman in her late sixties. They were bringing chairs at a rate of one every five or so minutes. It was going to be a long wait, and since I am able on the outside, I was sure I’d go last.
As we sat and waited, we talked.
“We could try walking…of course, there’s no telling how far it is. Could be a mile,” she said.
“It’s far,” I said, “and you have to be careful.”
“Yes, she said. “No one understands that. You can’t just go walking. What if later you’re somewhere, and you have to walk? But you’ve already done your walking for the day?”
“You have to count your steps,” I said.
“You have to count your steps,” she echoed. “You only have so many and you can’t use them up if you have a choice. You have to save them for when you really need them.”
Eventually, they came and got us both. I was last, but one. I think someone felt bad for me. As we whisked through after our long wait, I ignored the side-eyes and the frozen stares. You have to save your steps where you can. There were miles still to go and no telling what the journey would bring.
[Headline image: The photograph features a person sitting in a wheelchair, facing a large airport window that overlooks the runway.]