I was so excited when I got the invitation in the mail. It was a chance to mingle with other poets, swap ideas, and have a good time in general. Sounds easy, right? I thought so, until I began to actually experience travelling as a disabled individual. On the day of our flight, my traveling companion made sure I was up early, dressing me in comfortable clothing and making sure I was physically prepared for the journey. I was still excited, and he was excited for me. I was being honored for a poem I had published earlier that year. Little did I know that this trip would turn into a living nightmare.
I had never flown before, and our first leg was from Syracuse to JFK. Once we were all checked in and the batteries from my chair were tagged separately and removed, it was time to transfer me from my personal wheelchair to this narrow chair on four wheels with a very tiny platform for my feet. I was told that this was the chair they used to get folks like me onto the plane and to my seat with relative ease. I was then strapped in and wheeled out onto the tarmac. The plane loomed ahead and I felt a lump in my throat. This was it, I thought, my first flight. Here’s hoping I don’t get sick, and that I arrive in one piece.
I was then loaded onto the plane and wheeled to my seat. It took both my companion and the crew member to lift me into my seat. I was buckled in and tried to settle in for the ride; the props from the plane roared in my ears and made it impossible to think straight. My stomach sank to my feet when I realized that this was only the beginning.
By the time we arrived at JFK, I had a splitting headache and my ears were still ringing from the sound of the turbo props. My muscles were starting to ache from all the tension I was feeling, and I just wanted to get there already. I groaned inwardly as we began to navigate the noise and constant activity that is JFK airport, my head pounding. Miraculously, we and our luggage made it there early. We waited a short while, then boarded for the final leg of our journey.
A short, agonizing voyage later, we arrived in Washington D.C. As I was being unloaded off the plane, the left wheel of the chair I was in broke off, causing some of the crew to lose their grip on me. I let out a bloodcurdling scream as the chair perilously tilted to one side. Within seconds, they had regained their hold and I was unloaded and transferred to my power chair. After we explained the situation to the ticket agent, our flight home was changed to a nonstop one for free.
When we went to collect our luggage, to our horror, we discovered it had gotten lost. More waiting, crying, and red tape ensued, but we were assured our luggage would be there by the time we checked in. At this point, all I wanted to do was turn around and go home. No award was worth this. But our tickets couldn’t be changed(we didn’t have that kind of cash laying around.), and we had made it there, so we decided to stick it out. A decision I regret to this very day.
We caught a wheelchair accessible cab to the hotel we were supposed to be booked at, and when we went to check in, we asked about accessible transport to the convention, we were told that a shuttle bus would be coming shortly to take us. Well, it came, but it had no lift or tie downs to accommodate an individual in a chair. The hotel staff made every effort to try and help us find accessible transportation, but the vendors were either too far away, too expensive, or both. By this time, it was around six in the evening, and we had no choice but to take the local city bus. By this time I was defeated, discouraged, and approaching 24 straight hours of being awake and in my chair. I ached all over, and my feet and ankles were badly swollen.
We finally made it, but there was more waiting and negotiating, more tempers flaring, and me at the absolute end of my rope. Both of us were exhausted and just ready to drop. The convention hotel finally agreed to book us there so we could try and enjoy the rest of our trip. All in all, we did have a decent time, but my experience will be forever tainted. I made a vow to never return, and to never fly in an airplane again. My health and sanity is more precious than any award will ever be.