Don’t Judge a Disability By Its Wheelchair

July 25, 2022

My name is Liz, and I am the social media manager here at Chronically Simple. I usually work ‘behind the scenes’ working closely with Kristy as we plan what content to post on social media, in our newsletter and on the blog.

I don’t know that I’ve ever posted about myself on any of our channels but after a recent encounter, I couldn’t think of anywhere else I could share it then here.

Like many people, my family and I had travel plans that we had to re-book several times because of Covid. Travel restrictions, lockdowns, testing requirements all wreaked havoc on our plans.  Finally, this Spring we found ourselves in a sweet spot of low case numbers, reduced border restrictions and no longer needing to quarantine upon returning home.

Our group was made up of myself, my wife, our two small kids, and my mother and father-in-law. Both of my in-laws are seniors, and they have several health issues, some age related and others not. My father-in-law has a prosthetic leg, having lost his leg to cancer when he was a teenager. He walks with a bit of a limp but if he’s wearing longer pants, you wouldn’t necessarily know he has a prosthetic limb.

My mother-in-law has severe arthritis, it’s difficult for her to go up and down stairs, walk longer distances or stand for longer periods. With these issues in mind, we spoke with our travel agent when we booked our tickets and asked if any accommodations could be made to make the travel a bit more bearable for my in-laws.

The travel agent was fantastic, she worked with the airline to ensure that we would get the extra help we would need both at our local airport and when we arrived at our destination.

When we arrived at the airport here in Toronto, we quickly found the Accessibility counter where we were assigned an agent (and a wheelchair for my mother-in-law) to help us get checked in. Even though there were long lines at ticket counters and security, we managed to skip ahead because we had the agent expediting us through. We got many looks from other passengers, but in the polite Canadian way, no one said anything to us.

Part of me felt guilty – being able to skip ahead when others were waiting in long lines for an hour or more. But then I remembered that we were getting ahead because we needed the extra help. While my mother-in-law had an airline agent helping to push her wheelchair, we were helping my father-in-law with his luggage and navigating through security with his prosthetic

When we finally made it through security, an airport employee was kind enough to offer my in-laws a ride to our gate on his shuttle. My toddler loved it because he got to go along for the ride, too.

Our travel south went smoothly. Upon arriving at our destination, another airline agent helped us navigate getting our bags, going through customs, and finding a taxi to our hotel.

We had a great vacation; it was so nice to finally be out of the house and really unplug. What really made it special was the extra time we had as a family. My in-laws both rented scooters while we were away so that they could easily get around the resort. I’m not sure who enjoyed the scooters more – my in-laws or the toddler who loved cruising around.

When it came time to return home, we weren’t too clear about whether we’d be able to get any help at the airport. Upon arriving at the airport, a baggage handler took control of our bags and helped us find the right place to check-in.

The line-up was long, it was hot, and the air was thick from the humidity. We were all uncomfortable, but nobody more so than my mother-in-law who didn’t yet have a wheelchair. The line was moving slowly, and she looked so distraught at the prospect of having to stay standing for such a long time.

Thankfully, the gentleman handling our bags noticed that my mother-in-law needed help. He went and found a wheelchair for her and in doing so, found the airline employee who had helped us when we arrived. That employee took over my mother-in-law’s wheelchair and took us to the front of the line.

As it was the previous week in Toronto, we got some angry stares from the other passengers in line. I could hear some grumblings from the people behind us – they were clearly not happy that we had been bumped to the front of the line.

To be honest, I didn’t really care. My mother-in-law was not in good shape, she needed to get off her feet and she needed the extra help.

We got checked in and as we made our away from the ticket counter, it happened: I got to experience what people with invisible illnesses experience on a regular basis.

“Thanks for cutting the line!” A man from the crowd shouted at us. A few people around him nodded in agreement.

“We have someone in a wheelchair,” my father-in-law replied.

“Not all of you are in wheelchairs!” The man shouted back.

“He has a prosthetic leg!” My wife snapped back, pointing at her dad. “And we’re helping him”

The man shrugged and rolled his eyes.

“You don’t know anything about what it’s like losing your mobility,” my wife continued. “Trust me, my dad would gladly wait in lines if it meant having his leg again.”

By this point the man made a gesture with his hand as if to indicate he was brushing us aside. My father-in-law returned the gesture, and we continued on our way.

The whole exchange lasted a minute, maybe less. I was left stunned. No one likes to see other people cut through a long line. Surely, they’d be understanding when they saw that someone was in a wheelchair and another person in the group was limping.

The answer, I learned, was that people are not as sympathetic as you would hope they’d be. Even though they saw someone in our group was in a wheelchair, they still felt slighted. Maybe it was because my mother-in-law had initially been standing; perhaps they thought she was faking it.

Here’s what I’ve learned from the entire interaction: It really isn’t up to you to decide who gets to use accessibility services. If someone is in a wheelchair after having walked around, that’s none of your business. You don’t know what a person’s underlying health conditions are so you can’t even assume or judge what help they may need.

We arranged to have the extra help through the airline. We explained why we needed the help and they agreed and approved having the extra resources to help us. Believe me, both of my in-laws would have preferred to walk through the airport without any assistance. That’s not the case, they needed some help and they got it.

If you see someone get ahead in a long line, don’t assume that they’re trying to cheat their way through. You never know who is living with an illness or disability, and people don’t need to prove that they’re sick. So instead of getting frustrated that someone is getting ahead of you, just practice some patience and kindness.

We could all benefit from a little more of that.