What I Discovered When Flying With A Disability

The New York Times recently ran a story about being in a wheelchair and feeling invisible. When I injured my knee a few days before a trip from Lansing to D.C. via Detroit, I hesitated about arranging for wheelchair assistance in Detroit. It wasn’t invisibility I dreaded, it was exposure.

For those of you who don’t know the route or the Detroit airport, if you’re flying to or from Lansing, the connection there can take at least fifteen minutes even with the moving walkways and the monorail, because you have to switch terminals. As they say in the city of my birth, it’s a schlep.

My injury didn’t require surgery, just physical therapy when I got back. I had already cancelled a previous family visit to D.C. due to a severe migraine that kept me in bed for a whole weekend and I was determined to go this time. The trip was important, but then so was my health and comfort. I did not want to aggravate my injury.

I’d been in an airport wheelchair before when I had to take a flight to London and I didn’t like it. Yes, I got through security much faster, but at a price. People stared, then looked away. Both parts of that equation were very discomfiting. Were they wondering what was wrong with me since I seemed fit? Were they embarrassed for having been caught staring? I was embarrassed myself to have my disability—however unseen—on public display.

For this D.C. trip, a friend joked that I could wear a sign that said: INJURED KNEE. STOP STARING. That made me laugh, as she knew it would.

Being transported by wheelchair because of an injury, being helpless for what seemed like ages on that London trip made me feel reduced to that injury at a time when the pain, reduced mobility, and inconvenience had disrupted my normal routine enough already. In a chair, the disability felt like it was in charge and I was along for the ride.

I could easily imagine the flip side for my D.C. trip: limping the whole painful way. My light, well-packed roll-aboard would turn into a loathsome burden. Stopping to rest would be mandatory. Knowing that I might have to speed up at some point because the closer I got to the gate, the slower I’d be going as the pain and fatigue caught up with me. And people would stare anyway since airports aren’t made for limping but for rushing, and my face would likely reveal how miserable I felt.

Having dealt with shame in other areas of my life and written about it, I knew facing this was important, so I did order the wheelchair. And? Well, there was no happy ending. No sense of “closure.” No soaring ballad by Adele over the credits. But at least I was comfortable and on time– and most importantly, I won’t hesitate next time if need a wheelchair.

I’ve never been a sports nut, but I’ve belonged to a health club for years. I’ve done yoga, weight training, spinning classes, had swimming lessons with a coach, and I’d taken my physical being-in-the-world completely for granted until recently. I wonder now how many times over the years I’ve stared at people in airport wheelchairs. What was I thinking?

Lev Raphael is the author of two dozen books in genres from memoir to mystery, including the travelogue/family history My Germany.

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