TSA CARES may create a smoother travel day for those with a disability.
Our daughters love to Fly. I meant to capitalize that. They speak of flying as if it is a reverent topic. The irony is that I have never liked to fly and…even more ironic…they are both in power chairs which is notoriously unfriendly to flying. It can be very difficult to travel with disability. (Have you SEEN the viral video of the man watching out his window as his chair falls off the conveyor as it is unloaded?) In fact, one of the reasons I started finding jobs for the girls to earn money is because I needed them to understand how much effort it takes to save enough money to buy an airline ticket…and to focus on that instead of pestering me to plan a flight.
The fact that most of our flights have had at least one sort of hiccup, sometimes an outright belch, does not deter them in the least. In fact, it somehow only ups the excitement to them. They anticipate the struggles we are bound to encounter and actually increase in excitement as it grows closer. I don’t understand it in the least. They have been transferred onto the aisle wheelchair in so many different ways: by strong men that hoisted them seemingly without effort, a pair of elderly women who had never seen one before and didn’t know how the seatbelts worked, a young man who was frustrated that they were twins (thus twice the work) and scolded them to “move your feet over!” (yup, I cleared that RIGHT up), an older man who gave them his number because he wanted to pray for their healing (at least I think that’s what he was saying?), and a personal favorite…the janitor (we were stuck on the tarmac until someone finally had him do the transfer…then I saw him pushing the mop in the bathroom hall). They loved each and every time. And to be clear, we were willing to take matters into our own hands but it was not allowed. Wanting to travel with disability can be a crazy adventure!
If it is the departure leg of the trip, all that takes place AFTER we make it through security. Did you know that if you bring your push wheelchair through the airport you may need it checked for explosives? That was a tough one to explain to them…still is. Sometimes they are told to remove their shoes and orthotics, sometimes not. Meanwhile, we are going through our own turn at security while some stranger is patting them down and asking them to lift up off their seats while they struggle to comply. The whole thing feels like chaos. Travel with disability can make me want to head back home.
Not these guys, though. They power through it all convinced it is all worth it to see new sites, find hotels with comfy beds, eat in restaurants, and with some luck, visit anything Disney. So this year, before heading off to Colorado, I decided to plead with the airline to make things go smoother. We were actually taking this trip to Colorado as a result of vouchers we received on our last trip. For that trip my husband had to carry each daughter off the plane, and back on, four times as issue after issue came up. The whole flight was abandoned sometime around 2 am. Evidently, under those circumstances, taking matters in our own hands and not waiting for an aisle wheelchair IS allowed. Did I mention it was also Super Bowl Sunday? What a night. So I determined to seek out a better plan for us to travel with disability. I discovered there actually was something more I could do.
Researching as much as you can ahead of time is always a great idea to prepare you for travel with disability and what you may encounter.
The United Spinal Academy has a great accessible air travel brochure here.You will find great information on security, check in, calling ahead, service animals and many other topics you may want to prepare for! However, even with all our preparations, we always seemed to hit a glitch. I have found that a great way to touch base with someone who is difficult to contact is through Facebook Messenger. I decided to reach out to TSA on their Facebook site. They answered me by the end of the day and directed me to their TSA Cares site describing them as
a helpline that provides travelers with disabilities, medical conditions and other special circumstances additional assistance during the security screening process. Please contact them 72 hours prior to traveling with questions about screening policies, procedures and what to expect at the security checkpoint.
Calling two or three days prior to travel with disability was a great comfort and help.
I dialed the number listed on the TSA site and was greeted with a woman who was very sympathetic and actually listened to my concerns. She relayed that she was taking notes to keep on file INCLUDING things that had gone WRONG in the past and should not be repeated! She instructed me to print the blue Disability Notification card on the website here. She informed me our whole party was included and I should hear from someone the day before we leave. They would tell me where to meet with them so they could escort us through security and to our gate. It sounded like heaven! I was cautiously hopeful. Unfortunately, that isn’t exactly how things went.
While our day did go smoother it still was not without fault.
I never received a phone call. Not when we left or when we returned. We were not greeted at the airport and most people had no idea what it meant for us to be carrying the blue Disability Notification cards. No one was expecting us. It began much like any other trip. And then I waved around this silly blue card that ANYONE could just print off the TSA website and suddenly the agent seemed to know I meant business. She radioed for someone to come meet with us at the security checkpoint area. It seemed to take forever for someone to respond but our willingness to stand our ground and wait paid off in dividends later. We were able to have security help us all the way through from that point forward. Our return flight was similar.
Were there crazy moments of chaos? Absolutely! In fact, as I relayed our airport experiences from this past trip to a friend, she thought it was the tales of a flight gone bad. I reassured her that this was the story of the BEST FLIGHT WE HAD YET! But the difference was that anything not going well wasn’t just our problem. It was the problem of the agent who was seeing us through the process. Believe you me, that sped things up considerably! And if someone wasn’t clear about something like if they could go through with their leg braces and shoes on the accompanying agent made a ruling right on the spot…usually to keep things moving along!
My advice is to plan ahead, give them a call, print the card, and pray for the best on your next wheel life adventure!