By: Cindy Kolbe
Note from the editor:
Cindy’s Kolbe’s daughter, Beth, became a competitive quadriplegic swimmer, during her sophomore year in high school. It required traveling by air to swimming meets – internationally and in the US – which meant they had to figure out how to handle flying with a wheelchair.
My family had rarely traveled before my daughter Beth’s C6-7 spinal cord injury. From our small hometown in Ohio, she had been on a plane once, to Orlando, Florida.
Two years after Beth’s injury, she happened to meet a Paralympic coach, who encouraged her to try competitive swimming. She registered for the USA Swimming Disability Championships while she finished 10th grade. I was clueless, completely unaware of the details of traveling with a wheelchair.
We decided to order a manual wheelchair, instead of a power chair, during Beth’s inpatient stay in rehab during the summer of 2000, even though she could barely push it. With no thoughts of travel, Beth and I had no way of knowing that her new manual chair would be the key to simplifying the many flights in her future. That’s because a power chair is more vulnerable to significant damage, and may not work at all after a trip in the cargo hold of a plane.
On our very first flight to Seattle, I transferred Beth to an airport wheelchair and innocently handed over her manual chair at check-in. At the gate, she had to transfer again to a narrow “aisle chair” to be carried on to the plane. I helped with transfers and tamed the leg spasms that followed. There were three seats together in our row. With my daughter on the aisle, the window seat passenger had to crawl over Beth before I followed him to sit in the middle. Her wheelchair survived under the luggage pile with only a bent brake lever, a stroke of luck.
A year after that Seattle trip, Beth was invited to Alberta, Canada with the U.S. Paralympic National Swim Team. At the airport, she wheeled her own chair to the gate. We left the side guards on her gate-checked chair and ended up losing one, but she earned her first stamps in her brand-new passport.
After graduating from high school, Beth’s first flight on her own took her to the National Youth Leadership Network conference in Washington, DC. I carefully packed her suitcase, and she carried my list of important phone numbers and a health card in her wallet.
“It was my first independent flight,” Beth said. “I’m not sure why, probably just something new and being nervous, but I got teary when Mom left me at security.”
Lifted into an aisle chair to board the plane, she asked flight personnel to wait with her while she calmed her leg spasms. At home in Ohio, I watched the clock and waited. When the plane landed in DC, she called me, reclaimed her wheelchair, and made her way to the conference.
Through her college years, she flew across the country and around the world with the U.S. Paralympic National Swim Team. She often traveled on her own, and getting to the airport was a challenge at first. Accessible taxis worked with early reservations, but after one was late picking her up, she experimented with the subway, friends with cars, and taxis—which rarely stopped for a young woman in a wheelchair.
In Montreal for a swim meet, Beth had a flat tire on a Sunday during a snowstorm. Miraculously, I found an open bike shop with the right inner-tube. She has used foam-filled tires ever since!
Beth competed at England’s first Paralympic World Cup in 2005. At the hotel, her bed was too high. She asked another swimmer to put her mattress along the wall. Beth slept on the box springs because she would not ask for help to get into bed. At her next World Cup, two years later at the same hotel, her coach moved the box springs along the wall instead of the mattress.
As Beth traveled overseas more often with U.S. Paralympics, I stayed at home for some of the trips, but I always renewed my passport. I needed to know that I could fly to her if she needed me. Thankfully, she didn’t.
Nowadays, college and competitive swimming are in the past, and Beth continues to fly for her job and for fun.
Some of her work trips are short and routine. She wears pants instead of her usual work dresses and skirts to make her independent transfers easier. She packs light with a bag on the back of her chair and her computer in another on her lap. She carries an electronic health card and my list of important phone numbers. Neither has ever been needed, but she humors me and leaves them in her wallet anyway.
Beth takes an Uber sedan to the airport for work trips. After she transfers herself into the back seat, she tells the driver to take the big wheels off her chair, so it fits in the trunk.
Before she boards the plane, Beth removes the side guards and cushion from her chair to prevent damage. Then, from the aisle seat, she scoots over to her window seat, so that no one has to climb over her.
After landing, she uses her phone while the other passengers exit. She avoids the baggage claim when she can, and wheels outside to a waiting Uber. She’s become a confident air traveler — just another day of flying.
Cindy’s tips for air travel:
TIP #1: Fly with a manual wheelchair instead of a power chair, if at all possible.
TIP #2: Get to the airport gate early to check in with the clerk to review the boarding process and always gate-check the manual wheelchair. Don’t leave anything loose on the chair. Tape the push handles down. (For any damage, fill out the airline’s claim form.)
TIP #3: Have a prepared emergency plan in place. Pack extra medical supplies. Be ready for flight delays, or extended time on the plane.
TIP #4: If you have air-filled wheelchair tires, pack two spare inner-tubes and a bicycle pump.
TIP #5: Consider a window seat so people don’t have to climb over you.
About the author: A lifelong disability advocate, Cindy Kolbe managed group homes in Ohio and ran a non-profit in Massachusetts. She currently lives in Summerville, South Carolina. Her daughter Beth is a health policy lawyer in Washington, DC. Cindy’s blog shares their adventures at www.strugglingwithserendipity.com