Traveling with a Disability

People with disabilities are traveling more than ever. Although it takes a bit of advanced planning and developing a strategy, traversing the globe is much more accessible today than it ever has been, even if you have a higher degree physical disability. If you don't believe me, our friends Cory Lee and John Morris would like to chat with you. Although I am not quite the jetsetter these two are, I do a fair amount of traveling. As a power soccer athlete and broadcaster, I have been across the US, as well as Europe and South America.

When I travel overseas, it's typically to broadcast power soccer tournaments, which means I go with my broadcasting crew. This certainly makes travel a bit easier. However, when I travel throughout the U.S., I typically travel by myself. Solo. I use a power wheelchair and require a team of people to help me with my daily living activities at home. So how in the world do I manage traveling by plane without a companion? It's taken a lot of trial and error over the years, but I have developed a pretty good routine. Hopefully, you can take some of the strategies I use and apply them to your own adventures. Before I go on, I want to clarify that when I do travel within the country by myself, it is always to a destination where I know people and care has been arranged prior to my arrival. The strategies I use when traveling alone are used to navigate airports and deal with everything involved with traveling by air.

Departing on trip

Pre-Flight Preparation

Before heading out for a trip, I always ensure I have everything I need and leave behind everything I don't. Like most power wheelchair users, my chair has pouches that carry half of my worldly possessions. The night before a flight, I empty everything out of these pouches except the bare necessities; the only items left are my passport and debit card. This makes it easier to find these things when they're needed. I also attach signs to my chair which instruct airport crews on how to handle the chair and release the motor brakes. Many chairs are slightly different, so well-marked signage helps. In my backpack, I always pack a couple extra sets of clothes in case I get separated from my luggage. I also carry a battery charger to ensure I can always charge my chair, if necessary. Carrying the charger always guarantees a search by the TSA, but I have never faced any problems. The morning of my trip, I try to eat a high-protein meal to keep me full and drink minimal fluids. I also try to go to the bathroom at the latest possible moment before leaving. Remember: no help until I get to my destination.

Arriving at the Airport

When I get to the airport, I immediately head towards the ticket counter. I recently acquired a portable lift (MoLift 150) and traveling case, so that has to be checked. When asked for a picture ID, I let the agent know it's in the pouch on the side of my chair. With nothing in there but my passport and debit card, things are easy to find. Depending on how much time there is before departure, I also have a conversation with the agent and request a bulkhead seat. This is one of the most important steps to ease the boarding procedure. I have a limited range of motion and my knees don't bend very far. Since my legs are nearly straight when I sit, the extra room in the bulkhead ensures a smoother transfer to my seat. IF it's more than 90 minutes before departure, I'm usually asked to speak with an agent at the gate to make the change. Most often, agents are more than happy to accommodate travelers. However, sometimes I have to advocate for myself and stress the importance of having the extra legroom. Without it, my feet and legs are forced under the seat in front of me.

Through the Security Checkpoint

Once I get my boarding pass, it's time to visit with the TSA. First, I ask the agent checking ID to reach into my pouch to retrieve my passport and boarding pass. Next, to get my backpack to the X-ray machine, I either find another agent or ask someone in line behind me to place my bag on the belt. Then, if an agent doesn't help with my bag, I make an effort to make eye contact with an agent, so they can escort me through the security screening. Wait times vary, but when it's my turn, I'm directed to an area where they pat me down. Agents offer a private screening, but I always decline. The faster they can get me screened, the faster I can get to the gate.

At the Gate

If there is an hour or less before the departure, I go to the gate and speak with an agent. There, I will request a pink tag for my chair to signal that I would like it brought to the gate at the airport, regardless of whether I'm connecting to another flight or if it's my final destination. The only exception is if there is less than 45 minutes before the next flight. If that's the case, I request an airport wheelchair and ask to be taken to the next gate. Boarding begins at least 30 minutes before takeoff, so by the time I get to the gate, they're ready for me to board. I also answer a few questions about my chair, such as the weight (about 350 lbs.) and if the batteries are dry cell or wet cell, or lithium-ion (mine are dry cell and can remain connected during the flight).

Snack Time

If I have more than an hour, I sometimes look for something to eat, especially if I have a long flight or if I didn't eat before leaving home. If I have to eat alone, my choices are pretty limited. I need to find food that's easy to handle and relatively clean, so a cheesesteak in Philadelphia is definitely out of the question. I typically choose a fast food hamburger, chicken nuggets, or a slice of cheese pizza. To pay, I usually ask the person behind the counter, or someone in line behind me, to grab my debit card. Yes, that can seem a bit risky, but I have yet to find my card has been stolen; too many witnesses. After paying, I locate a platform that's roughly the height of my chest. If there are none, I find a high table, then use the elevate feature on my chair to get me to the proper height. The elevator has saved me on multiple occasions!

You may be asking yourself why I don't ask for help with eating, since I'm comfortable asking complete strangers to help with other aspects of my travel. Feeding someone is a very close and personal act. I have no issue with strangers helping me, and have done so on occasion, but I'm taking the other person's comfort into consideration. While many people would likely be fine with helping, others would certainly be uncomfortable. Others may be in a hurry to get to their gate. Assisting with a bag, or card, is a fairly quick and easy thing. Assisting someone with eating is a far more time-consuming and intimate act.

Time to Fly

I typically get to the gate 45 minutes before departure. Since boarding usually begins at least 30 minutes prior and I'm often the first person on the plane, I want to be available when the crew is ready to help me board. There are a few steps I take before transferring to the aisle chair. First, I request to speak to a baggage handler supervisor. This gives me an opportunity to talk about safe handling of my chair and reduce the chance of least when I'm boarding. Next, everything that is easily removable on my chair is taken off. My backpack and leg rests are first. Once I'm on the aisle chair, I ask that my seat cushion be placed on my assigned seat.

When we're ready to transfer, I give instructions to the crew on how to lift the armrest on my chair. Then, I give very specific directions on how to lift and transfer me. I have lived on my own for 25 years and have trained numerous caregivers, so I have a well-developed ability to give instructions. Getting on the plane is always the most intense part of my travel experience. Sometimes staff members will want to take charge and direct the transfer. However, it is crucial to be assertive and advocate for yourself. Respectfully make it clear to everyone that you are going to direct the group and manage how you're transferred. A firm, "I've got it under control. I will instruct everyone how to move me," usually does the trick. Remember, you're in control of how you're transferred until you are in your assigned seat and buckled in. Once the seatbelt is secured, I ask that the belt is pulled as tightly as I can comfortably handle. This helps minimize the chance of sliding when the plane lands. Face down on an airplane floor is not a good look.

In the Air

Once in the air, relax and enjoy the flight. When the in-flight service carts come around, I usually decline for the aforementioned reasons. I personally like to close my eyes and take a nap or listen to music, especially on longer flights.

Prepare for Landing

I have minimal trunk control and the force of bringing a plane to a gentle stop will often throw my upper body forward...ask me how I know this. To prepare for landing, I often chat with a flight attendant before we take off. Nearly every aircraft today has seat belt extensions. When strung together, they make an excellent chest harness. Approximately 20 minutes before landing, as the flight crew are making their final landing preparations, I request the extensions. They are connected, then wrapped around me and the seat back. Once we're on the ground and at the gate, I have the extensions removed. Depending on how well I'm positioned in the seat, I'll keep the seatbelt on to prevent me from sliding out.

The Anxious Wait

Earlier, I mentioned being the first to board, which is great! However, when we arrive at our destination, I'm always the last one off. That's a trade-off I'm willing to accept. I always request to wait until my personal wheelchair arrives before getting off the plane. Sometimes, the wait is 10 minutes. Sometimes, I have enough time to prepare Thanksgiving dinner. This is always a tense moment, because I don't know how my chair was handled once we've separated. Usually, my chair is returned to me as I left it. However, sometimes my chair comes to the gate damaged. Most damage is cosmetic and doesn't affect the chair's performance, but on rare occasions the damage is severe. If that happens, be sure to file a claim at the airline's customer service counter in the baggage claim area when you reach your final destination. Although the process can be a bit slow sometimes, the airline will cover all repair costs.

Departing on trip

Welcome to Your Destination

When I arrive and head to the baggage claim, I often find that luggage from the flight has already been delivered. So, I head to the airline's customer service counter and locate my luggage. On this trip, the only potential breakable object was my portable lift. I make sure to check everything before leaving so I can file a claim if necessary. When you find your luggage, most airline employees are happy to help you bring your luggage to the exit.

Traveling is certainly manageable when you have a physical disability, even when you're flying by yourself. While it does require planning and having a strategy in place, it can be done. The two most important pieces of advice to remember are to always advocate for yourself, and don't be afraid to ask for help. Airport employees and even fellow travelers are usually very willing to lend a helping hand. So, if you've been dreaming about getting on a plane to explore new places, go for it! Adventure awaits.

About the Author

Tony Jackson

Tony Jackson is currently the Power Soccer Coordinator at Northeast Passage in Durham, NH, where he coaches athletes and plays for the NEP Wildcats. In addition to the live stream commentary for Power Soccer Shop, he also does graphic design work for them. With ParaSportsLive, he wants to expand into more adaptive sports to showcase them to audiences everywhere. In his spare time, he enjoys discovering new music, cooking, dreaming of the next travel adventure, watching sports, and learning the arts of motion graphics and 3D modeling.

Most of the stories here on were submitted by readers. Do you have a story to tell? We'd love to hear it. Submit your story here.

Date: 11/20/2018 12:00:00 AM

Latest Comments

4/16/2024 | José Díaz
Invaluable resource! ¡Tu guía sobre el uso de GoFundMe para gastos de movilidad ofrece consejos p...

2/18/2024 | Jamie Elliott
I played in a wc hybrid tournament, Mid South, last yr. He is an amazing player and I’m sure he i...

2/8/2024 | Elaine Cook
Great article written by a wonderful Christain man. You're such an inspiration!!!

2/7/2024 | Diana Weaver
I enjoyed reading your article. I'm thankful I had the opportunity to play with you as my pi...

1/10/2024 | Mary Goldberg
Thanks to Tyler for sharing the awesome opportunities! As the MRT Program Director, I'm always ha...

How to get funding for your assistive technology