Come fly with me (or not)

THIS ARTICLE WAS FIRST POSTED ON THE PREVIOUS LIFE ON THE EDGE OF THE CLIFF BLOG IN MARCH 2015. THE SAME FAMILY IS MAKING ANOTHER JOURNEY THIS WEEK – THEY’RE GOING TO LET US KNOW IF ANYTHING HAS CHANGED

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Where would we be without air travel? Grounded, that’s where.

Travel operators make a virtue out of offering assistance to passengers with difficulties and disabilities of various kinds, but there’s a long way to go. We all know security procedures have to be stringent but too many travellers with sensory and cognitive difficulties still experience unnecessary stress and anxiety when all that is needed from staff is tolerance, kindness and a little extra time. Not every disability is accompanied by mobility issues.

It’s not good enough to leave inclusion or responsibility for support to “the support team” or “support workers”. All staff who come into contact with customers or service users should be at least aware of the facts (not the prejudices) about the needs they’ll undoubtedly encounter – and it should be part of training at every level, so everyone can respond appropriately.

We’re all responsible for making inclusion happen.

Thank you to the family who share their story below (NB Names have been changed.)

One airport, three passengers. Advised in advance one traveller has Asperger’s Syndrome and severe anxiety, the airport phone the day before travel; provide the name of the member of staff acting as escort through security; and ask what they can do to help. On the day, the escort is waiting where and when arranged; fast-tracking through security leaves no time for anxiety to build; passport control is a breeze; and within 20 minutes all are enjoying a cup of coffee and wondering what the fuss was about.

Second airport, homeward journey, same three passengers. The dark-haired woman peers at us over the check-in desk.

“Someone has booked special assistance?” We nod. “Who is it?”

“My daughter.” We indicate Lucy. She has always found airports stressful, but has been desperately keen to make this trip, and we’re so proud of the way she’s risen to the challenge.

The woman stares at Lucy, who drops her gaze. It’s been hard for her coming into the large open space with the crowds and the strip lighting, and she is beginning to feel stressed.

There is a pause. Then: “She doesn’t look ill.”

We’ve heard of this happening, but it’s the first time since Lucy was diagnosed that we’ve actually experienced it.

“She isn’t,” I say. “She has Asperger’s Syndrome. It’s a kind of autism.”

The women behind the desk consult with one another, then turn to us again.

“So why does she need a wheelchair?”

We glance at each other, then back to the desk.

“She doesn’t.”

Again the consultation and papers are shuffled. “But you requested special assistance?”

“That’s right.” Clearly more explanation is needed. “She finds it very difficult to go through security – taking off her shoes and coat can be a problem, and walking through the detector is really hard for her. Queueing makes it worse. All we need is someone to walk alongside us until we’re through passport control, to help in case we run into any problems.”

I am obviously speaking Swahili – or something similar. The woman looks at Lucy once more.

“She will have to go in a wheelchair. It isn’t possible to have an escort without being in a wheelchair.”

This is crazy. However, their game, their rules. I turn to Lucy.

“Lucy, they’re going to bring you a wheelchair to take you through security. Is that OK?”

Lucy is now buried inside herself, already stressed, mortified at hearing herself discussed like this. The shutters are coming down inside her head. And she has Asperger’s.

“No.”

I can’t blame her. Why should she have attention drawn to herself in an unwelcome and inappropriate way, when she is perfectly capable of walking on her own two feet? You could try to argue or reason, but with the frame of mind she’s now in, you’ll get nowhere. A toddler, you can manhandle. A 17-year-old, no. I turn back to the woman behind the desk.

“Please. Isn’t it possible just to have someone to walk with us and explain to your staff what the difficulty is?”

It seems that request is too special for special assistance to accommodate. It seems we are whatever is that particular nationality’s equivalent of “trying it on”. So we check in, and walk away. We have no choice. A queue is building behind us, and with every moment Lucy’s stress levels are rising.

So we stand, and wait. Airport staff beckon us forward, but it is 20 minutes before Lucy can bring herself to join the security queue. When we reach the front, and she has to take off her jacket to place in the tray, she can’t do it. We all three step to one side to give her more time. People push past us. People stare. Security staff stare, at these three people who are behaving unusually, and therefore suspiciously. Eventually Lucy manages to remove her coat and shoes. The woman by the X-ray machine glares but Lucy is staring at the floor, locked in her own panic, and doesn’t see. Her father goes through the detector first, and stands where she can see him. The guard waves Lucy forward. She doesn’t move.

“Go on, sweetheart, it’s OK.”

Nothing. I step forward to encourage her, and the guard orders me to stop. I pretend not to realise it’s me she’s speaking to.

“Go on, Lucy. Nearly through.”

The pause seems to go on for a very long time, but it was probably only a few seconds. I’m praying as she steps forward that the alarm doesn’t sound, and it doesn’t. Thank you, God.

Only passport control to go. There, the same pattern: dad first, Lucy next, I bring up the rear. But there are two desks, not one. When I indicate to the guard I want to follow Lucy, he shakes his head and points to the other desk. I have to go forward. From the corner of my eye I can see Lucy, head down, gaze on the floor. A more fragile, vulnerable figure it would be difficult to imagine. Unless you’re the young guy on the passport desk. He looks at her passport, then at her. At her passport, slowly, deliberately, then at her again. He’s spinning this out. It’s true the photo is dated, but it’s clearly her. My passport has been checked, and they’re waving me on. I don’t move. If I go through now, they won’t let me back. And if someone starts asking Lucy questions she won’t be able to answer. I have to stay, and refuse to move until she moves. If they are angry, tough. They should have given us an escort to explain and provide the support Lucy needs, rather than leaving us to go it alone.

Finally she is waved through. At the far side she is white and shaking. She can’t eat or drink. She feels sick. But luckily this is the last time she’ll have to face this on this holiday.

And the question I am left with is this. We needed no expensive equipment. Pushing Lucy in a wheelchair, or accompanying her on her own two feet, would take pretty much the same amount of time, so no extra demands on staff. A fluent language speaker could have explained the issues to security staff, so they could do all the checks they needed without problems and delay. And one petrified but courageous passenger would have had her efforts rewarded, not undermined.

Was that so much to ask?

Of course there must be a reason for such a rigid way of operating. There has to be a very good reason for not offering assistance when it’s so simple, undemanding, cheap and easy to provide – and when another airport has already proved it can be done. I don’t work for an airline, so there will undoubtedly be something I haven’t taken into account.

I just wish I could work out what it is.