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Tom Shakespeare

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Tom is a Research Fellow at Newcastle University. His non-fiction books include Genetics Politics: from Eugenics to Genome and The Sexual Politics of Disability.

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Who needs airport assistance?

5th June 2009

My poor wheelchair is looking a bit battered. Perhaps that's not so surprising, as since I became paralysed last August, it's been manhandled onto at least twenty-seven different airplanes across four continents. The push rims are missing paint, my brake handles have been bent, the cap has come off the front caster and so on. Once, I turned up at Newcastle airport only to find that my Quickie had gone astray somewhere between Sydney and home, and I was relegated to a nasty airport number which I couldn’t even push myself around in. Thankfully, the panic only lasted until the evening. I've never been happier than when I opened the front door to find the courier standing there with my trusted purple chair.
Passengers in an airport terminal, with planes in the background
I know that some folks have had far worse experiences, but all in all I am quite impressed with airport special assistance. They’ve so far got me to all my flights on time, lifted me on and off without a murmur, and often turned out to be cheerful and friendly souls into the bargain (the all-time star being the Lebanese guy at Geneva who effusively greeted every workmate we passed while simultaneously entertaining me with stories of his global adventures).
Mind you, there are some exceptions. For instance, the spotty boys who turned up to escort me out of Chicago last week didn't quite know what they were doing, and were almost certainly on work experience. I've waited ages to get off flights on occasions when the special assistance team didn’t turn up on time. And there have been some grumpy, clumsy, not to mention patronising staff along the way. Yet overall, I do think it's amazing that disabled people can travel almost anywhere in the world, and that as long as they give prior warning (and avoid Ryanair, who in recent years have had a succession of controversial incidents involving disabled passengers), they can expect to be enabled to get on and off their plane without a fuss and without paying extra for the privilege. I don’t even mind being first on, last off - at least it gives you time to flirt with the cabin crew.
A wheelchair user receiving assistance at an airport terminal
Which is why I felt outraged earlier this week when I was waiting for my flight at Chicago's O’Hare International airport and another passenger commandeered those aforementioned spotty boys to assist his mother with her luggage, when they should have been helping me board. This opportunistic individual had not let the fact that his mother had no obvious disability prevent him from claiming the wheelchair assistance that he so plainly felt was her due.

The main obstacle the pair of them seemed to be labouring under was having way too much cabin baggage. As well as several suitcases, they had a rolled-up carpet and several bin liners full of tat. Having monopolised the special assistance, they then filled all the overhead lockers in their vicinity with their possessions. During the flight, mother stood and stretched and wandered around the cabin with no sign of a limp or any other mobility impairment, yet when we touched down at London's Heathrow airport she was magically rendered incapacitated and in need of urgent help.
Passengers in a busy airport terminal, with planes in the background
In the assistance truck, my partner asked innocently if he and his mother always used disability services. Always, assured our friend without blushing, since his mother was liable to get a 'sore knee'. Given that they seemed to be operating a cowboy intercontinental removal operation, I'm not entirely surprised.

Well, I’m sorry, but before I was a wheelchair user, I was pretty rubbish at walking long distances, but I never booked special assistance on my own behalf. I figured that there were other people who had a greater need for it. This week at Heathrow, speaking to the nice guy who pushed me all the way to the train, he confirmed that what we had witnessed was far from unusual. He told me that almost every week he is allocated one or two people to support who, in his view, are not actually disabled. For example, a passenger might let him push them across the airport, only to leap up and skip happily into a cab once they reach the taxi rank.
Passengers in a busy airport
Of course, neither he nor I have medical qualifications, and plenty of people have hidden impairments and thus have less than obvious reasons to find walking difficult or even dangerous. But I think, just as with blue badge abuse, there are undoubtedly a small minority of people who book special assistance without requiring it, presumably because they are too lazy to be bothered walking from check-in to departure gate, or because they know it’s the best way to get away with having more hand luggage than Imelda Marcos. Logically, the effect of any such abuse is that those who genuinely require support are less likely to get it, or have to wait longer for it, or else the whole system eventually falls into disrepute and genuine disabled people are seen as Andy Pipkin-style malingerers.
At the moment, there’s no enforcement and no questioning of anyone who requests assistance. If you ask for it, you get it. But like disabled parking badges, it wouldn't be too difficult to eliminate the cheats if the airport authorities had the will to do so. All it would require is to follow up a sample of those who book and receive special assistance, and where they do not have genuine medical reasons, fine them £1000.

Anyway, rant over; must go, I have a flight to catch. Now just don’t mention global warming to me, will you?

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