Today, I want to share a story with you. I share it not for you to feel bad or demand apologies, but to educate and help raise awareness because, unfortunately, the following is an all too common occurrence for people living with a disability.
It starts with a family holiday. My wife, son and I were heading overseas for our first holiday in what felt like forever. Having recently started my own business, 30 Foot Drop, life had been hectic to say the least and I’d spend far more time away from my family than I would have liked nor expected. So of course we were excited to get away and spend some quality time together.
As a quadriplegic reliant on my wheelchair, there’s a lot that goes into planning a holiday. Not only research into the accessibility of your destination and chosen accommodation, but you also have to apply for permits to check-in any battery powered mobility equipment. If you don’t get your permit, you equipment doesn't get on the plane.
Everything was in order and we headed to the airport. However, like many families, while we were there we had the unfortunate event of having our flight cancelled last minute. A technical issue with the plane – no worries, I’d prefer to fly in a safe plane than at all.
We were given two options: get on another flight that was leaving 48 hours later (and took triple as long to get there!) or get our money back. With only seven days allocated for our holiday, we chose to go with the latter option and try our luck with another airline.
Again, when you’re travelling with a wheelchair, you can’t just pick up and get on the very next flight. There’s logistics to consider. Thankfully when we approached another airline with a later flight that day, they were really accommodating and told us no problems. Sweet relief! We paid our fares in full and the staff told us to return once check-in opened.
With two hours to go until our flight was to depart, my family and I arrived at check-in. We like to arrive with plenty of time because, again, logistics – it just takes a little longer to get everything in order. Here’s where the story takes a turn...
There had been a change over in staff and the team who had been so helpful earlier were no where to be seen. It’s fair to say the new staff on shift were less than accommodating. After initially discussing our situation, they asked us to wait to one side while they checked in customers waiting in line.
We waited for over an hour.
Eventually my wife (who had been the point of contact throughout the experience while I kept our son distracted) asked what was happening. Again, staff were less than helpful. It was only when I came up to the desk to see how things were progressing did they realise I wasn’t incapacitated – I could understand what was happening, and I could definitely talk. What followed next was a swift discussion about civility and what constitutes discrimination in Australia...
Finally, accepting our approved permit paperwork and checking in our luggage we were allowed to go through security. By this stage the plane had already begun boarding and our names were being called over the airport PA system.
We were the last people to board the plane, and it was a far from pleasant experience having to be loaded into my seat in front of the other passengers, who I’m sure were feeling a mixture of annoyance about our lateness and embarrassment for me.
But what this experience taught me is that far too many people don’t know how to deal with a situation when presented to them. Obviously not all the airline staff were ignorant –as I mentioned, the earlier team were fantastic. What it does point out is inconsistency in training.
This is why I began 30 Foot Drop. You can’t blame people for their ignorance. What needs to happen is more access and inclusion training for all people, especially those working in customer-facing roles. By educating people and making them aware, you are providing them with the tools to use when confronted with this situation.
If this story has struck a cord, get in touch. I’m always happy to discuss how we can help educate communities so that this situation becomes less and less frequent.
And, as always, my golden rule is: Just Ask! If you’re not sure what people with a disability need, just ask us. We don’t bite, and generally it takes the guesswork out of what can feel like an awkward situation.