Crawl of Shame

We’ve been in Zurich for the last few days. The flight back yesterday morning was only an hour and twenty minutes. But for a wheelchair user flying is nearly always stressful and yesterday’s flight was no exception.

For the last couple of years I’ve been experiencing chronic pain and fatigue, and more recently loads of issues with my bladder as well, which mean I need to go to the toilet very often and don’t get much warning. On some days I need to go as frequently as every fifteen minutes!

I can’t walk, so when I fly I need an aisle chair to get to my seat – this is an extra-narrow wheelchair that fits inside the plane. My own wheelchair is then stowed in the hold.

The airport assistance team normally help me on, using their aisle chair, and although this chair stays in the airport, there’s generally one on board too. This means that if I need the toilet during the flight I can get there in the most dignified, comfortable way possible. Using an aisle chair in front of everyone can feel a bit humiliating but it’s certainly better than the way I had to get to the toilet on the flights to and from Zurich.

We were flying with Swiss Air. As I boarded I asked the friendly flight crew if there was an aisle chair on board and was stunned to discover that there wasn’t. They told me that this was because it’s only a short flight. Trust me – an hour and a half is a long time if you need a wee.

Sure enough within twenty minutes of take off I felt the pressure in my bladder rise. We were traveling business class so that I had more space to manage my pain by lying flat, and we were at the front of the plane so fairly close to the toilet. Leftwing Idiot lifted me out of my seat and onto the floor and I then dragged myself along the aisle. This was painful, exhausting and humiliating.

Every other passenger could go to the toilet with no problem: I had to choose between wetting myself in my seat or pulling my body along the floor.

I’ve just started taking a new muscle relaxing medication and it’s affected my strength, particularly in my arms. It was only a small distance to the toilet but it took me a long time and I could see my fellow passengers staring at me.

Aisle chairs fold down easily and they’re very lightweight. I can’t see any reason not to have one on board every plane. I got the impression that not having one was just standard policy. I’m sure Swiss Air aren’t alone, and that many airlines don’t carry aisle chairs on short haul flights either.

This seems like clear discrimination to me, seemingly based on the assumption that wheelchair users can wait to go to the loo until they’ve landed no matter what their circumstances.

These decisions have been made on the basis of a “normal” bladder, or in fact an extraordinarily strong bladder, since there’s provision for everyone else to relieve themselves at any time.

My trip to the loo cost me dearly in energy, comfort and dignity. This is too high a price, and it’s totally unacceptable.

In a twist of astonishing irony another business class traveller got instantly furious when the toilet was occupied by a member of the cabin crew, and another attendant suggested he use the one at the back of the plane instead. The difference between this passenger’s experience and mine couldn’t have been more pronounced, and it’s clearly something airlines need to address with urgency.

I plan to make a formal complaint to Swiss Air and to the Civil Aviation Complaints Team, and I urge disabled people who’ve had similar experiences to do the same.

In all forms of travel, whether it be bus, train or plane, disabled people face huge additional hurdles, and that’s something that has to be addressed. We have to move beyond it simply being technically possible for disabled people to use transportation to there being some parity in the experience.

The ability to travel is fundamental. It’s about much more than just the journey itself – it’s about being able to visit loved ones, access opportunities, and develop careers.

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