Assistance for the disabled: the first or last moment of a trip

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(transalted from Italian by Sophia Boccard)

I just got back from an incredible solo trip to Thailand. I have not traveled alone since my trip to Peru in 2016. In the subsequent years and while with friends, I’ve traveled using various modes of transportations.

I needed to understand how much I could still do on my own. How I move around, discover new things, how to navigate a marketplace or even that of the mountain or the countryside.

Traveling within Asia or in South America is different. Just as it is different traveling within Europe and the United States. When I was in New York in 2017 I got around easily because the language, services and transportations that comes with a city like New York made navigating a breeze. However, traveling in Asia was a disaster.

I was in Saigon in 2017 and the memory of that trip made me fear that Bangkok would be equally as chaotic. Of course, it’s a heavily trafficked city, but there weren’t nearly as many scooters that prevented you from crossing the street like there were in Saigon, and that alone made things easier. In Bangkok, the edges of the sidewalks are all painted red and white to help prevent you from stumbling. I loved using the tuk-tuks, these three-wheeled mini-cars, because they gave you the freedom to make short journeys without ever colliding as we navigated through the jungle of stalls, people, manholes, and all other obstacles.

However, the theme I want to cover is that of the assistance for the disabled at the airports. For several years I have started to use this free service that allows me to avoid the complicated queues and to move within the airport stress-free. The biggest enemies for those who suffer from tunnel vision are the influx of people coming from all directions with their trolleys and luggage.

On this trip I traveled through 7 airports for a grand total of 7 flights with 11 embarkations. The following were the airports I flew through: Berlin Schönefeld, Moscow Sheremetyevo International Airport, Bangkok Suvarnabhumi, Chiang Rai Mae Fah Luang, Chiang Mai International Airport, Surat Thani Airport, and Bangkok Don Mueang Airport. I know, my environmental impact has been a complete disaster but that’s another story. In each of the 11 different boarding process, I was assisted by someone who helped me check in, pass the metal detector, passport control, getting to the gate and then getting to my seat on the flight.

It is a service that I will never give up as it allows me to avoid long lines and, in some cases, get treatment that is typically reserved for those with first class tickets. For example, I was offered coffee as soon as I sat down during an Air France flight and in an AreoFlot flight, they offered me a drink as soon as I entered the aircraft without waiting for take off or the corridor service. Small gestures like those make a different on the experience. Even during an EasyJet flight I had a steward offer me snacks.

In Thailand, I received first class treatment during all my transfers, and everyone was very kind and whether it is cultural or not, they always had a smile on their faces. In Milan and Venice, the special assistance staffers are familiar throughout the airport that it’s like being escorted by a friend. The best service I received was from a gentleman at the Treviso airport who knew exactly how to behave with a visually impaired individual and how to assist using the proper methods. It was so impressive I complemented him.

On the flip side, many of the special assistance staffers are only trained to assist someone with limited mobility and thus force me to sit in a wheelchair regardless of my own mobility. At this point I’m used to it and sit down willingly, enjoying the journey from another point of view and catching the looks from spectators who see a miracle transpire at the gate when I arise from the wheelchair and walk myself onto the plane. That most exhilarating situation is when they take me on the plane with an elevator that would normally serve those who cannot use the stairs. In this case, I enter the door opposite to the entrance door of the general passenger entrance. It almost seems as if they were waiting for me to take off.

I have a bit of experience in this area and even though I am limited with my freedom of being able to move about in the airport, I am completely uninterested in all the chaos that I would rather be sitting in the special assistance area where I can charge my phone, have water or access to the bathroom. It will be a different scenario when I cover my stop at the Changi Airport in Singapore. It’s wonderful to not have to worry about anything from the moment I check in at the airport. I’m a true VIP, both in the meaning of a Very Important Person and Visually Impaired Person. There were only two unpleasant experiences that helped me to understand how it feels to be disrespected and witness the lack of compassion or professionalism with some of the staffers.

My first dreadful experience was during check-in of a Ryanair flight although please keep in mind that Ryanair is not the worst airline around. It was a the Schönefeld Airport in Berlin. I was dressed in yellow because I was coming back to Italy for a NoisyVision event. I went over to the check-in and I requested assistance and the gate agent asked “Why do you want assistance”? I replied that I was visually impaired and she noticed that I was starting into her eyes so she waved her hand in front of my face as if to test whether I could see her gesture.

My jaw dropped and I said, “Are you fucking serious?” Are you kidding? There aren’t a lot of things that make me so angry to feel like slapping someone, but I pulled myself together to gracefully say, despite my fury, “You should never question someone or make that kind of gesture towards someone. If you don’t understand what low vision is or how much a visually impaired person can see, you should avoid treating your customers like that”.

I was so hurt by her gesture that a woman, who, after checking in herself, came over to see if I needed help and to basically apologize on behalf of the Ryanair employee. I wanted to ask for that woman’s name and file a complaint, but I decided to drop it completely.

My second miserable experience happened during the Bangkok to Moscow flight that took place February 15th. I hope that the details of that flight in this blog post ends up in the hands of someone who can take measures to prevent these things from happening again.

The flight was SU6276 at 21:50 operated by Rossiya Airlines on behalf of Aeroflot. I am stupefied that the reviews of this airline on the various sites are not terrible, but I’ve since added my own on TripAdvisor. In this review I talked about how the staff manager who managed to find an entire row for me as I requested. Having a row to yourself makes the journey much more comfortable and not only because you can lie down on the seats to sleep, as I did, but because you have access to two back seat tables and can avoid flipping them over to the passenger next to you. Obviously you can also enjoy a meal with just one table and seat but it is all the more complicated and can get awkward.

The problem arose when they came down with the drink cart and the flight attendant asked me almost by whispering if I wanted something to drink. I didn’t hear her over the noise of the plane’s engines and I had already taken out my hearing aids. I asked her if she could repeat herself and instead of getting closer and raise her voice slightly, she literally screamed “WOULD YOU LIKE SOMETHING TO DRINK?” My blood started boiling and I flushed red with embarrassment and sadness. I looked at her without saying anything.

I asked for her name and while I wanted to report her to the manager that manager was the same one that offered me the private row of three seats so I reported nothing. I drank the water in one gulp trying hard not to think about what just happened. And yet, here I am, writing my tale.

These moments of discriminations do harm. And when you read on the internet that someone was unable to board a taxi with their guide dog or about how someone couldn’t enter the museum because they cannot see well. You think they are just stories to make headlines, but they are stories of violated rights of wounded people. Yes, wounded. How I felt hurt and wounded.

While it’s nice that there is a law that requires all airports and airlines to provide free assistance for the disabled traveler, but it is equally important that the service is offered with a bit of sensitivity, professionalism and humanity. I am fully aware that the flight attendants all work in conditions of high stress and they need to assist many demanding passengers who think they can make whatever demands they please, as if it is in their right. Yet, that does not justify being treated without respect. These negative experiences have been with the airline staff and not with the staff on the ground working at the airport.

The special assistance service really helps to make a trip a pleasant experience, eliminating the tension and stress, giving those requiring special assistance the pleasure of looking forward to the beginning of a new adventure or the sweet taste of coming home.

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