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SCI Forum Reports


Traveling with SCI

February 11, 2003

Resources are listed at the end of this report

Guest speaker Marge Jaques, Northwest Airlines customer services supervisor at SeaTac airport, distributed copies of the Northwest brochure "Air Travel for People with Disabilities," which reflects industry-wide requirements and practices. (Online information can be found at http://www.nwa.com/features/pcfaq.shtml ) "(Travelers with disabilities) have the same rights and responsibilities as all travelers," she said. To make things go smoothly, she strongly recommended calling ahead and talking to someone in person to discuss specific needs and concerns.

"Make sure you get your seat assignment when you make your reservation," she added. To make things go more smoothly, she also recommends arriving at the airport at least two hours before the flight. Airline personnel will make sure an aisle chair is available, if requested in advance. Travelers with special needs usually go on board first, although some people try to board last because they hope to be bumped up to first class. "Honestly, that's not likely," she said. "We're booked solid."

Everyone has to go through security, and hand-wands are usually used for people in wheelchairs. If there is metal in a passenger's shoes, the alarms will go off. "We have to evaluate if there's any alarm," Jaques said, which means the shoes will have to come off. "Like all passengers, you have the right to request a private wanding."

Airline personnel can assist travelers with the aisle chairs and transfers, but the in-flight crew cannot help with eating, medications, medical devices or personal care. A passenger's personal care attendant needs a separate ticket. Service dogs fly free-of-charge and sit on the floor next to their owners. Equipment-wheelchairs, shower chairs, etc.-are checked for free.

Travelers with problems or complaints should ask for the Complaint Resolutions Official (CRO). All airlines are required to have a CRO on duty at all times.

It is always with some reluctance that travelers relinquish their wheelchairs to the baggage area below because, in spite of everyone's best efforts, wheelchairs do sometimes get lost or damaged. "If your chair is unusable, we'll give you a suitable replacement until it is fixed," Jaques said. "Unlike regular luggage, there is no limit to what we will pay for a wheelchair replacement."

Experienced travelers with SCI recommend taking everything off the chair that's removable and carrying those parts onto the plane. They also advocate asking in-flight personnel to call the baggage handlers before take-off to confirm that the chair is in the luggage compartment. A wheelchair is tagged with the name of every stop along the way so the traveler can use the chair between connecting flights. "The wheelchair should be the last thing onto the plane and the first thing off," said Jaques. "That's the policy." She recommends scheduling a minimum of one hour between connecting flights.

Depending on what type they are, batteries must be either disconnected or removed before flight. Then the wheelchair goes into the luggage compartment of the plane and gets strapped down. There is an area in the passenger compartment that will accommodate one folded manual wheelchair on a first-come, first-served basis.

Several seasoned travelers with SCI served as panelists for the forum, and their collective wisdom was compiled in a comprehensive travel checklist and philosophy statement.

Click to download a pdf version of the Travel Checklist

Jay*, who has incomplete tetraplegia, said, "I always assume my baggage will be lost, so I carry anything I can't live without for a couple of days (catheters, medications) in a carry-on bag."

"I try not to let worries or problems ruin my trip," he added. "Often people mean well, they just don't know what to do."

Another issue for many is catheterizing during flight. "I've never been able to figure out how to go to the lavatory," Jay said. "I used to dehydrate to avoid it. Now I do it under a blanket."

It's not always easy or straightforward finding a hotel that's truly accessible to wheelchairs. Several travelers agreed that calling ahead and getting really specific about so-called accessible rooms-asking hotel personnel to measure the width of doors or the height of the toilet, for example-is essential. "A hotel may say they are accessible, but it may only mean the bathroom in the lobby (is accessible)," said one audience member.

Dave*, who has a C5 spinal cord injury, found Disney World in Orlando to be a very accessible destination for a vacation. "There were only a couple of things I couldn't do (at the park). They have a big accessibility department. I called ahead to talk about my needs, and I stayed in their hotel. It had a roll-in shower." Although Dave brought his own shower chair, others said they call ahead to their destinations and rent shower chairs. Dave has found that newer hotels tend to be more accessible than older, retrofitted ones and that hotels often don't charge for an attendant.

*Names have been changed to protect privacy.

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