Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Dave's Very Bad Day

We got to the gate in Boise in plenty of time. We are always careful with time as, being a wheelchair user, things can more more slowly. Just before boarding we remembered that my wheelchair had not yet been tagged so we approached the gate and got the paperwork done and the tag dangled off the arm of my chair. Travelling by air isn't even slightly glamourous. It's cramped and uncomfortable, sweaty and frustrating. But it is, at least, quick.

We arrived in Buffalo on a plane that was jam packed full. We always wait until everyone else is off, I don't move quickly in the first place but I move even more slowly after having my legs squashed up against the seat in front of me. When I stepped off the plane onto the jetway I noticed my chair was not yet brought up. I asked the flight attendant about the chair and before he could answer the pilot said, "I'll go down and find out what's keeping it."

Seconds later he was back telling me that the chair was the first thing brought up, there was only one chair. At that point the Skycap guy sent to push me said, "They must have used that chair to take the other passenger down." I got very upset and said, "But that's my personal chair." The Sky cap guy said, "Well, it wasn't tagged." I assured him it was tagged. Thereby began a discussion between Skycap services and United Airlines about the chair and how it wasn't tagged. I said several times, "It was tagged," but no one heard me. It was like I was in a parallel universe where I could see them and hear them but they could not hear me. Finally, I screamed that we needed to stop talking and get down and get my chair back.

I was plunked into an extremely uncomfortable chair and we headed off in chase of my chair. The Skycap guy radioed ahead saying, "The chair you are using belongs to my customer, don't let go of it." When we got down the elevator he noticed something and ran out of the building. He walked back in with another Skycap and my wheelchair, almost. It turned out that another passenger claimed the chair was his and was taking off with my chair. They wrestled my chair out of the trunk of their car but had forgotten, as I was now hysterically pointing out, the footrests. They ran out again but the car was long gone.

We are sent over to baggage where I make a big fuss. I still have a week to go, travelling or lecturing every day, and my wheelchair is fine for sitting in but impossible to move in. I can't hold my legs up and push at the same time. In fact, I can't hold my legs up and have Joe push either. I don't have that kind of strength in my legs. I am trying to explain, without crying, that my mobility is now gone. I keep getting told to calm down. I keep explaining that they gave my legs away. They gave my movement away. They gave my mobility away.

Finally there was nothing to do but leave. They promised to pay for replacement feet but there was nothing they could do, or would do now. They wouldn't even look at airport wheelchairs to see if they had a set of matching legs. I was just to go away and stop being upset.

Immediately I got a sense of what the week was going to be like. The place where the van was to pick us up to take us to the hotel was at the far end of the airport. It was labourious and difficult to make it there. I had become disabled, crippled, unable. I cried publically for the first time in a very long time. The next few days have been difficult physically and emotionally. I now sit in the car rather than go in to rest stops or stores like I normally would. It's too hard to get around. It's too frustrating to not be able to move, to participate. I sit in the car and cry.

Who would steal a wheelchair from another person? Why wouldn't a skycap check a tag to see that the right person is in the chair? Why couldn't they understand what they had done to me?

We don't get back into Canada until late Thursday and we will order footrests immediately. But I have two more days of inability ahead of me. We had planned for a full day off tomorrow. We were going to go to a movie and to shopping. But now, I may end up just sitting in my hotel room, unable to get very far, unable to do very much. I know that part of this is because my spirit has been battered and maybe even permenantly damaged. I know that part of this is because of a deep depression that is settling around me.

"Wheelchair bound" ... that's what people say of me.

"Wheelchair liberated" ... is what I am.

Or rather, what I was.


wendy said...

I'm sorry this is happening to you. The attitude of the airline is terrible! How can they not see that this is an emergency and needs to be handled as such? Is there any possibility that a local wheelchair vendor might have what you need?
I'll be thinking about you.

Belinda said...

What an absolute nightmare. I am stuck for words to say more. It was awful and I am sure will fill future flights with apprehension.

John R. said...

It all surrounds two things......

1) Airlines are too alienating and when staffed with...

2)...humans that defy empathy and true service to other humans (not even "customers")....

....the stage gets set for such disaster and mistreatment.

You were mistreated by that airline and you should get your "compensation" and indeed write to the airline to indicate and describe the situation.

Perhaps, a person in administrative ranks will put more checks and balances together for those who fly with adaptive and LIBERATING equipment. This is an unacceptable circumstance and must be corrected.

....so sorry for this bad day but if anyone can make such an event into a positive....it is you, Dave!!

Let us all know if we can assist in a letter writing/communicating campaign to this airline...

Annie said...

I hope I am not teaching my Grandfather to suck eggs here, but having travelled with someone using a chair on a few occasions, it is still permissible to carry an empty bag to the door of the plane (tagged of course) and put any removable 'bits' eg arm rests, foot plates etc in and either try and squeeze it on as hand luggage (used to be okay but not sure with new rules) or else put it in the hold with the chair.

This stops removable bits getting lost in the hold, and would deter someone trying to nick your chair if parts are missing! However it does leave you open to losing the whole bag with the bits if it goes in the hold.......

Very sorry to hear of your experience anyway. Just curious as to why the other person wanted to 'steal' your chair? I wonder what they are doing with the footrests?

Anonymous said...

I can sense what you are feeling from a situation that happened to me. It was after 911 when I was told I could not carry my insulin, syringes and test equipment. I would have to hand them over and ask if I needed them. I don't go to the corner store without these in my possession. Flying does weird things to your blood sugar and I test several times while flying as my blood sugar seems to react like turbulance on the plane. I can't sense when I'm high or low and need to treat. I tried to explain I needed these - couldn't wait for the attendent to get them, find them when it was convienent for her. All to no avail, it was her personal interpretation of the rules and I was but a passenger and could choose not to fly. I still remeber the sense of fear, loss of control, anger. Why could they not understand - which made me feel like I was over reacting and them thinking I should just calm down. I think that what bothered me the most, the complete lack of understanding of the staff of the situation. Even if one person could of said I understand instead of making me feel like I was the only one that saw this as a major issue. Though the rules have changed since then thanks mainly to national organizations that advocated for our rights, I still have that apprehension every time I fly. I wish I could say something that will make this better for you Dave, but knowing I still fly with apprehension I can only say I share in your sense of loss. I'm thinking of you. MDN

Leslie said...

I'm sorry this happened to you! I've heard similar nightmare stories from friends who use wheelchairs - the airlines seem amazingly cavalier about things that no one with a scrap of empathy or imagination should be. If you're anywhere where there's a wheelchair vendor perhaps you can get some replacement footrests on your one free day? And remember, just because a few people were assholes doesn't make you less of a wonderful person. I think it's horrific that airlines dehumanize people the way they do - both their passengers and their staffers - but their actions don't diminish who you are. They have profoundly inconvenienced you though and I don't mean to trivialize that in the slightest.

I also wonder if the site http://consumerist.com/ might be useful in raising hell about this.


Beth said...

I'm furious. Upset. frustrated. I detest situations like this. It's like a terrible dream.

I'm sorry that this happened. Nobody listened to you. Nobody cared enough to fix it. I can't understand that kind of insensitivity. I'm sorry again.

Certainly the airline would have records of who was in the wheelchair...

Wheelie Catholic said...

Dave- I'm so sorry this happened. Losing independence and mobility is heart wrenching. An airline lost one of my wheelchairs on a trip once and acted like it was no big deal. It took hours of wrangling to get them to even understand I couldn't leave the airport without it and they had to locate it. No one had a clue where it was and kept saying it might be in this city or that city as if that was no big deal. I was fortunate that I wasn't traveling alone and it worked out eventually, but the helpless feeling is bad enough without being told you "shouldn't be upset". Upset? It's not a luxury item.

Andrea Shettle, MSW said...

I wish I knew what to say that could help.

You should print out this blog post and send it, perhaps with a cover letter emphasizing that the loss of a personal wheelchair SHOULD ALWAYS BE TREATED AS AN EMERGENCY SITUATION, to every party involved that you can think of. Certainly the airline. Maybe airport personnel. Perhaps a cc to whatever travel agency you've been using, just so they're aware that this is a serious concern common to many wheelchair users. Is there an equivalent of the Better Business Bureau in Canada?

Maybe also send to a newspaper or magazine reporter who does travel stories and point out that this is a very common problem for wheelchair riders. (A publication local to you might be a good start, but might not hurt to also contact something national in addition to that. National publications are always a much longer shot, but you never know.) Ask them to do a story focusing on the problematic behaviors that wheelchair users and travelers with disabilities encounter in traveling in general -- not necessarily focused on you and your personal situation, but the overall pattern where airlines don't always take good care of wheelchairs -- and then don't respond adequately when something does go wrong.

They might hesitate to do a story about just one person with a complaint (because, really, they probably hear from many many passengers with complaints all the time, and not all of them warrant a story, even when it's as deeply upsetting for the individual affected as this experience has been). But if they understand that this is something that happens frequently, and that many airlines don't even BEGIN to take it seriously enough, then maybe they would listen more closely.

Tell them an excellent referral source for more people to talk to, more quotes, etc. would be Scott Rains at http://www.rollingrains.com/ -- his professional focus is on travel, disability, and universal design, and he collects stories like these. (I've already emailed him the link to this blog post.) He focuses on travel for people with all disabilities, so he also collects stories like the one "anonymous" posted about the airline that took away his insulin and syringes.

lina said...

I'm furious. I can't believe they would give your chair to someone else, and then act so inhumanely. I too am ready to write a letter to this airline - and all airlines for that matter, enough of this. Do you pay a lesser fare? Do you get special treatment? No, really Dave, enough. I say we all write to this airline to let them know that this is unacceptable and that they need to make immediate changes. I say we demand it!

Cynthia Freeman said...

Don't sink down into depression, Dave, we need you and so does Joe! Maybe this would be a good time for an emergency baking session of something really decadent? Is there someone at the conference who can loan you guys a kitchen for a few hours? You could do all the mixing and sifting and chopping of nuts or decorating of cookies just sitting at the table.

p.s. what i've learned from your blog led to me confronting someone for using the word "retarded" for the first time today. he didn't take it well but maybe he'll think next time anyway.

Amy said...

Oh, Dave. That goes beyond bad day. It is simply inexcusable that you were treated this way, and (yet again) I'm just appalled that fellow human beings could behave like this.

You've been given some options of people to contact, and I'm going to give you another one. Christopher Elliott is a travel ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler's reader advocate, writes a "Travel Troubleshooter" column, and has a website: http://www.elliott.org/ Email address is chris@elliott.org Maybe he has some ideas about not only what the airline should be doing, but the industry in general.

I'm so sorry you went through this. Sending lots of love your way...

Andrea Shettle, MSW said...

If you do contact Christopher Elliot (I hope you do), again, I'd suggest making clear that this is an ongoing patern that many wheelchair riders face when they fly (not just you), and encourage him to get in touch with Scott Rains for an excellent source of quotes and many more stories like yours.

Scott has now informed me via email that he has been circulating the link to this post, so he's now aware of your story.

scott said...


That's the best refutation of the insulting phrase "wheelchair bound" that I have ever read. Sorry to know that it cost you so much to write it.

Take some consolation in the knowledge that your sorry has gone out to another 400+ people working in the area of Inclusive Travel since Andrea brought it to our attention an hour or so ago.

Keep writing. People need to know from the inside what it is like for our community to travel because, while it doesn't always feel like it, we definitely have allies in powerful places around the world who use these incidents to be sure that we get our rights under Article 30 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.


yanub said...

Dave, rent the best chair you can and charge the expense to the airline. They are responsible for this mess, and they are the ones who should be paying, just as they should be the ones paying for your replacement footrests. Just what airlines is this, anyways? By yourself, you are just some guy, but if you tell us who they are, you are some guy giving them bad publicity, and they will move fast to stop the bleed.

Anonymous said...

Terrible thing to have happened. People who don't use personal equipement probably think everything is interchangeable and don't realize how important a particular, customized piece is to someone. Anyway, try to take control back in anyway you can. To keep this from happening in the future, rather than just relying on an airline tag, can you decorate the wheelchair in some identifiable way to make it obvious that this is a personal wheelchair? Monogram, ribbons, whatever, to make it stand out as YOURS and not just any wheelchair for anyone to use. I do this with luggage, and though it looks funny, no one mistakes my stuff for theirs.

Cynthia said...

Oh, Dave! I'm so mad that this happened!
Airlines have seldom treated people as more than cattle, unless you are lucky enough to have elite/VIP status. It is truly outrageous that the very thing that allows you to be independent has been taken from you. I think you have an army ready to speak for you that this should not have happened. A replacement should have been found immediately, and a sincere apology should have been made. That you have been made to go through the week without a functioning chair, while trying to do your job, is inexcusable.
I'm thinking you need to call this airline and let them know that you expect that they will have a replacement for you to use when you get to your home airport, if not sooner, because what you have been left with is unusable for you. They also need to transport your current chair back home with no complaints!
You should not have been treated this way!

abby said...

sending all the love and positive thoughts I can muster from across the continent.

thank you for sharing the beautiful along-side the hideous. your blog is an outlet for lots of us everyday as we struggle through the maze of this life. you make us tear up in the presence of joy and grace, and you let us share your anger and your rage.

perhaps when you are home, we can join with you in righteous anger and make the airlines wake up with a letter barrage in reaction to all such incidents.

be well. you have lots of people raging for you out here.

Shan said...

What a nightmare, I'm so sorry. The attitude is astonishing - like you should be grateful they're letting you pay them thousands of dollars for a few hours of travel, so shut up about your lost wheelchair already.

Things often work out better than you think they will, and I hope in this case it means that great things are coming to you.

Anonymous said...

Since your flew in the US you are protected under the Air Carriers Access Act. In part it states that "Each air carrier must have at least one Complaints Resolution Official (CRO) available at each airport during times of scheduled air carrier operations."

The National Association of the Deaf offers this useful further information:

Any passenger with a complaint of alleged violations of the Air Carrier Access rules is entitled to communicate with a CRO. The CRO has authority to resolve complaints on behalf of the air carrier.

If the CRO agrees with the passenger that a violation of the rule occurred, he or she must give the passenger a written statement summarizing the facts and what steps if any, the air carrier proposes to take in response to the violation.

If the passenger is not satisfied with the response, the passenger has the right to pursue an enforcement action with the U.S. Department of Transportation. If a passenger chooses to file a written complaint, the complaint should note whether the passenger contacted the CRO at the time of the alleged violation, and include the CRO’s name and the date of contact, if available. It should include any written response received from the CRO. Complaints should be mailed (postmarked) within 45 days after the date of an alleged violation.

A carrier must respond to a written complaint within 30 days after receiving it. The response must state the airline’s position on the alleged violation, and may also state whether and why no violation occurred, or what the airline plans to do about the problem.

Any person believing that a carrier has violated any provision of the rule may contact the following office for assistance:

Department of Transportation
Aviation Consumer Protection
Division, C-75
400 Seventh Street, S.W.
Washington, D.C. 20590
Email: airconsumer@ost.dot.gov

The FAA has been informed of this incident. Be sure to follow up with the Department of Transportation.

Colleen said...

Dear Dave:

I am so sorry this happened to you. Not only is it demoralizing but it strikes at your dignity and I think it is dehumanizing too. What a horrible way to treat a human being or if you want to just get commercial about it - a paying customer! There is absolutely no way that they could possibly justify this.
I hope that there is some resolution that restores to you all that you have lost here (material and otherwise) and that puts that airline in its place!

gracie1956 said...

I think that airline is going to be sorry that they screwed with you. You have a lot of support out here from a bunch of people who don't just roll over and take it when one of our FAMILY!!! is treated poorly. I don't have much clout but from reading the comments some of us do.
Not much is worse than being told to "calm down" when those words are being used in a condescending manner. That is just a way to put the blame back on the injured party.
I wish I could give you a hug and give those idiots a good boot in the butt!
Hang in there and know that you are cared about by many people including me!

Kei said...

Oh Dave, I'm so sorry they effed you like that. And that someone would have the nerve to steal your chair!?!?!!! WTF?
Sending love your way.

Wheeling said...

I'm so sorry! I'm horrified by their lack of response. I hope you get to read all these responses and go from depressed to angry.

File a complaint. And write them for compensation beyond just replacing the footrests (think travel vouchers at minimum).

I'll third contacting Elliot over at Tripso (where he also posts).

And you've convinced me to up the precautions I take when flying. I always used to just have my name address and phone number on ever bit of the chair, now I want to add a big "please match this chair with the person wearing x" as one more safety.

As a "make do" can you use duct tape to keep your feet up?

Rosemary said...

Oh Dave.
Many hugs.

rickismom said...

I think that the first order of business is for you to rent a chair, even if it costs you money? Mobility is too important a facet of life to give up, even for a few days.

Anonymous said...

I will send up some prayers for you tonight Dave, may God lift the fog that is settling over you and wrap you in His healing powers!

Tammy said...

What a total nightmare. I'm sorry this has happened. There is nothing else I can say. No one deserves suc treatment.

Wheelchair Dancer said...

All the swear words in the universe. This is totally unacceptable. Those disgusting pieces of flesh that aren't human.

What Scott said.


(I've also had something similar happen to me -- gave the chair to grandma who was at baggage claim before they got to her. Luckily the capt. took charge; I was simply howling in public. Gma wondered why the chair was so light comfortable. Daughter swore it was theirs. !@##($#@()$)_@!!**)

Anonymous said...

Unbelievable...but, unfortunately...beievable.

Susan said...

Oh, Dave. This really sucks...

awesomeangel said...

Hi Dave, every time we fly with my 12 year old daughter we run into problems of some type or another. Angel has a dual diagnosis of DS-ASD, and has a Service Dog that flies with her on board the plane. People just don't understand the dynamics of DS-ASD and how very hard it is on a child to go through security, where they have to take off their shoes, someone takes all of their belongings, they even take their dog from them and take it's harness off. And then they make the dog walk through security without her. It's always a scream fest and very traumatic for our daughter who just wants her stuff to be left alone in her arms. She has problems with letting things go through the check out at the store and be scanned and bagged as it is, so it really upsets her when her belongings get taken away and put on the track to go through the xray machines. She's so worried they will destroy it all or that it's no longer the same. And when they take her luggage it's another screaming event as well. One time they took her special needs stroller, which she was using as her wheelchair, and they wouldn't let her sit in it to the gate, she had to walk the way to the gate. And of course she did so screaming and crying the whole way. We also found that most flight attendants really don't like it when we let her wear head gear during take off to help her endure through the loud noise. The last flight attendant that demanded they be removed during take off learned quickly that the loud engines bring on a fear which induces loud screaming.
We've learned to always ask to be seated in the bulkhead so that there is room for the service dog to lie at our daughters feet. And we've also learned to recheck our seats a few hours before flying to make sure the staff of the day are aware that we NEED seating in the bulkhead and don't decide to move us because someone else checks in first and requests it. The last time this happened they tried to put our daughter and her dog in the bulkhead and put us in another row. Like that wouldn't have set off another major breakdown hey!!! Yep, we get a little uptight with it all, and just when I was finally near losing it on our last trip we came upon an airline attendant that stopped what she was doing and watched our daughter falling apart with fear over having to hand over her luggage, and being upset that a male attendant was going to take it to boot. This lady took the time to get to come to meet our daughter and ask her about her holiday and she promise to take care of her luggage and bring it all the way to the designation airport for her. A trust was formed and our daughter knew she could hand over her luggage and she felt sure that this lady would make sure it was safe. Thank goodness for those who take the time to care and go the extra bit.


little.birdy said...

I wonder how the airline officials would like it if someone took their feet away and then said, "Please calm down. There's nothing we can do. We are not responsible for your feet, even though we took them from you and they were in our care when they were taken."
It's hard not to get bitter and resentful when I hear stories like this. I can't believe they wouldn't even loan you a wheelchair or try to compensate you in any way. UGH. Give them hell.

Anonymous said...

I keep explaining that they gave my legs away.

You'd think anyone would understand that. Wish I could help.

Brenda said...

What an utterly horrible thing to go through. This airline certainly needs to be held accountable. I really hope that you follow up with a Strong letter of complaint, demanding some sort of compensation. You are so knowledgeable and articulate, I'm sure that anything in writing from you, directed to the appropriate individual, could make a big difference. (We once had difficulty with a car, and I skipped all the middle people and wrote directly to the CEO with copies to the middle people. BOY, did we get action fast!)

Vikas Sharma said...

Hi Dave,

Just got to know about this incident from Scott. Im sorry the aviation incompetence has claimed another victim in yourself.

I hope you will let neither the Skycaps nor the United Airlines sleep over this. At the very least it will make them reconsider their practices.


Amanda said...


And I have to fly tomorrow. This is not adding to my good mood about packing.

I actually had someone try to steal my wheelchair once before. It was during my three days ever of living on the streets. And I was sleeping on the sidewalk with one leg curled around my chair.

Middle of the night I woke up to something yanking on that leg. Was immediately alert, grunted, and yanked back as hard as I could. I heard a panicked voice say, of all things, "Sorry!" and then running footsteps.

Someone told me she'd been warned when she got her chair, that people ride around with them for fun and will steal them for that purpose. That seems really strange to me and quite a lot selfish.

But...apparently I'm not the only one it happens to.

spadamchrist said...

These are not mutually inclusive factors. Bad people can do good and good people can do bad. Just because an individual excells at making a great thing, product or venture or whatever; it does not mean they are good. SO often, we have problems separating the person from the event.
Buzz Marketing

Kathy said...

I'm so sorry Dave. Please don't let it break you down any more. I hate it for you.

Brian said...

Hi Dave,

So sorry to hear your story - Scott Rains copied me. I've heard many people have been through the mill with their chairs being lost or damaged in transit, but this takes the biscuit.

If I can I'll get the story / link up on our website in the UK, so that others are aware of how bad things can get. I do hope you are in a better position now?

Best wishes, Brian, Tourism for All UK

FridaWrites said...

Dave, I'm so sorry. I just read this. I hope you are wheelchair liberated again soon. Indeed this is an emergency situation. Much love to you. How nightmarish.

lindagene said...

The greater question here is: why can't airlines create bulkhead lockdown spaces for passengers in wheelchairs? Buses, trains and vans can do it. They could even feature lock-in seats for those times when there's no wheeled passenger. (The driver's seat in my van can be locked into either side, so I or my wheelchair-liberated husband can drive.) This is not rocket science.

Blue Chair Blog said...

Sorry to read about your fiasco. I have travelled a lot and never had an experience like yours, tho' my chair did fly on to Montreal once without me. That left me in Toronto waiting for it to come back to me!

Most airlines are quite responsive, but United really dropped the ball.

I always try to keep the chair in the cabin if possible, but it usually isn't.

Cheers and keep travelling, despite those ableists!!

scott said...

Regarding Lindagene's questions about why airlines can't develop lock-down removable airline seats. It's not that they can't. I met the young designer who developed them. She contracts with the Boeing team in Everett, Washington. It's simply a matter of airlines deciding that they want to use them.

Liz Henry said...

Hi Dave. I have so been there. You might like my own airport lament and rant.


I always feel like if I were in a role-playing game, merely being in an airport does several points of psychic damage to me. Or, if it were in a Cthulhu game, I'd lose a few SAN points....

People who behave in such dehumanizing ways do more than damage to individuals like us. They damage themselves, and the fabric of society, social trust, civil behavior.

Liz said...

Whoops sorry, here's that link as a link. 8-)

I am not The Wheelchair: Air Travel & Disability