A Week of Travel with Ableism

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Daman Wandke, our CEO, wrote this blog post in 2012 about the challenges he faces when he travels. He created AbiliTrek to start solving the issues faced by travelers with disabilities.

Travel for me is usually a reminder of how prevalent ableism is in our society.  Like racism or sexism, one definition of ableism is discrimination in favor of the able-bodied.  I travel a lot as a national disability advocate.  My disability is Cerebral Palsy, and I use an electric scooter.  I use electric scooter and wheelchair interchangeably throughout the post.  This past week I was in Seattle for two days and Atlanta for three.  I decided to write this blog post as a glimpse of what traveling with a disability is like in a world full of ableism.

Sunday, February 19 – I travel down to Seattle on the Amtrak train and take an accessible taxi to the hotel.  I check in and ask them to help me get in my room; surprisingly I had no problems on this day.

Monday, February 20 – No problems with ableism never lasts long!  At 7 am, I was at the hotel’s continental breakfast.  The hotel staff helped me get my breakfast, and I was relaxing a little before my 8 am GMAT test (Graduate Management Admission Test). One of the hotel guests walked up to me, grabbed one of my napkins, and without asking, wiped my mouth.  Just in case you think you read that wrong, he wiped my mouth!  He was lucky I was in shock, I did not say anything, and he left.  I am the helpless cripple, unable to take care of myself.  He did not even care to ask me if I wanted help.  Okay, no time to get mad, I am off to my test.

I arrive at the testing center, but I cannot get in the building.  There is no automatic door.  After about five minutes, I wave down a maintenance employee who lets me in.  I go through all of their security procedures that include scanning the palm of your hand on a machine.  My left hand (known as lefty) has a mind of its own and does not lay flat.  They finally gave up.  When I told them I wanted to transfer into one of their office chairs to take my test, they were shocked. It hadn’t occurred to them that I could leave my wheelchair and sit in an office chair. They saw my wheelchair as part of me, and assumed I could do nothing without it.  To them, I am a helpless cripple confined to my wheelchair.  I use a wheelchair but I am not confined to it, unable to get out and transfer somewhere else for sitting stationary.

Tuesday, February 21 – I survived the two-day test, and I am now on the train going home.  I pull up on the seat in front of me to transfer into the seat next to my scooter.  The woman sitting in the seat in front of me looked up, her eyes opened very wide, and said: “Oh my!”  Her reaction was similar to the one you would get at a circus if an animal escaped.   Again, according to societal norms, if you use a wheelchair, you must be confined to it.  I am out of my wheelchair, am I okay?  I may fall, “Oh my!”  Did I mention she was wearing medical scrubs?

I made it home and did not have to leave again until Thursday, a short break from ableism.

Thursday, February 22 – The trip to Atlanta begins!  Its 5 pm, I have been in classes all day, and I am waiting for the airport shuttle.  On this trip, one of my personal care attendants (PCAs) is coming with me, one of my defenses to ableism. I am scheduled to present in Atlanta the next day is 10 am (EST), so the travel schedule is tight.  The airporter bus shows up and does not have a wheelchair lift.  The driver knows I am bringing an electric scooter, but the company assumed that I was going to put my scooter underneath the bus in the luggage area.  That is a negative!  My PCA called dispatch who agreed to bring an accessible bus for the next scheduled pickup, which is a two-hour delay!  That left us just under one hour to make it through airport security and catch my flight.

About airport security, I get a full body pat down, and my scooter is inspected for explosives every time.  TSA has a machine where they test their gloves after the pat down for explosives.  They also wipe my scooter with some wipes that the machine tests.  This time the machine tested “positive” on their gloves.  Time for the second full body pat down.  Now the machine is happy, and I can proceed to my gate.  After all of the excitement, I made my flight!

Friday, February 23 at 3:45 am PST – I step off the airplane half-asleep to find my scooter awaiting.  I have three hours to get an accessible taxi, check into the hotel, and set up my presentation.  There is an issue: the plastic piece on the front of my scooter is missing.  The airlines call a manager who assesses the situation, and another airline employee arrives holding the plastic piece, he found it in the airplane!  We get the plastic back on, file a complaint, and are off to find the taxi.  I was so happy to have a PCA coordinating with the taxi driver on the phone; there was little chance they were going to understand my speech.  On the taxi ride to the hotel, I find out that Atlanta only has three accessible taxis.  I was lucky to get one as quick as I did.  I made it to my presentation on time, and it went great!

Back in the hotel room, I almost fell over because there is an incline in the carpet leading to the door of the accessible bathroom.  How creative the architect of this hotel was, an incline inside the accessible hotel room.  Shouldn’t floors be flat?  It turns out another guest in a room below me who uses a wheelchair did fall on this incline.  I can imagine the architect’s thinking: this incline will be all right because people who use this room will be confined to a wheelchair.

Saturday, February 24 – My afternoon is free, so I plan to meet up with one of my friends who goes to school in Atlanta.  I have my PCA call and schedule an accessible taxi.  After discussing the details of the taxi trip, the dispatcher says he needs to talk to me.  My PCA hands me the phone, and I tell them yes, I want a taxi.  The dispatcher then asks to talk to my PCA again. He tells her he could not understand me. Thus, the taxi driver cannot wait around at my destination for someone to meet me.  My PCA laughs and agrees.  She gets off the phone, and we laugh, we requested a taxi, not a babysitter.  The dispatcher automatically assumed that because I had a speech impairment I had an intellectual impairment.  Luckily, the taxi driver was nice, and I made it to and from my lunch plans.

Sunday, February 25 – You know the three accessible taxis Atlanta had on every other day of my trip?  Well, the taxi company has no drivers working on Sundays.  My driver Saturday told me to call dispatch on Sunday; no one mentioned that no drivers work on Sundays.  Okay, no time to get mad, what’s plan B?  We have a flight to catch!  We found out we were near the subway.  The hotel staff helped us find the subway elevator, and we finally made it to the airport.  After the no taxi complication, we again only had one hour at the airport.  We barely made it, but we made it!

Back in Seattle, the airline staff took their time to get my electric scooter to the gate.  We made it to the light rail train and realized our Amtrak train was leaving in 25 minutes and it would take us 30 minutes to get there.  We missed our last connection!  At the train station, we call both the airport shuttle and the Greyhound bus; both would not make an exception to their 48-hour notice requirement for an accessible bus.  As a person with a disability, I am required to plan ahead.  We find a hotel nearby and get a regular hotel room with two beds.  No need for an accessible shower, I am deprived of sleep and have a 7:40 am train to catch the next morning.  After checking in, we find a small Italian restaurant and have an amazing dinner.  Food is amazing when it has been 12 hours since your last meal.  We ask for the check and find out an anonymous guest paid for our meals.  My PCA is so excited, I am happy, but I wonder why.  This good deed has happened to me multiple times.  Was it out of pity?  I am seen as a handicapped person, meaning I have a cap in my hand and need money. People feel pity towards those poor people with disabilities.  I just hope this was not a deed caused by pity; I hope it was actually a random act of kindness.

Monday, February 26 – I made my train and made it back to Bellingham with no problems with ableism!  That was too good to be true.  I drove my electric scooter a little too fast on to the lift to get off the train.  No one got hurt.  I was ready to be home!  The Amtrak employee proceeded to tell my PCA to remind me to slow down.  I am too stupid to understand him I guess.  I was at the end of my patience, I snapped at him, “I am not an idiot!”  Finally, I am home!

I love to travel but trips like this past week are draining.  These kinds occurrences don’t just happen when I travel. For many people with disabilities, this is far too often how we are treated. This treatment is demeaning and alienating and can be improved through awareness. For anyone who isn’t aware of this reality, I encourage you to approach individuals who are different from you with open-minded consideration. At AbiliTrek, we are dedicated to building experiences which seek to overcome the ignorant decisions of countless architects, businesses, and individuals by providing resources to find places where everyone will be accommodated, not just those who are able-bodied.  We, as a society, have made giant leaps in improving accessibility, but we still have a long way to go.