Last week I heard Tanni Grey-Thompson talking about access for Disabled people at airports. Those airport stairs are steep and hard work for lots of people never mind those who can’t walk. She commented that ‘lots of people seemed to be using the special assistance service’ now who ‘didn’t really need it’, to effectively queue jump. I waited for a twitter outrage – there was none. Does everyone think that people are pretending to be Disabled to queue jump? I wondered does she just mean that lots of people with hidden impairments, who are failing to wear a placard around their necks, are daring to identify as Disabled people and benefit from the services put there to support them? I imagined her being refused access to special assistance on the basis that she is an Olympic athlete. She looks like she has got strong arms and could shimmy up those handrails no problem.
The first time I flew after becoming a Disabled person it never occurred to me to use special assistance as I could actually walk, although I did still use a wheelchair sometimes I knew that once I got to where I was going I could pace myself, rest plenty and not get too tired. I learnt within about 5 minutes of the departure gate being announced that the airport was too big. I couldn’t walk that fast, the effort to do so made me cry with exhaustion and to make matters worse when I got to the gate there was a long queue. I sat on the floor and waited for it to go down.
A year later in Rome, having got to Italy without any problem, the special assistance people looked at me, checked my ticket and refused to help. They went back to playing pushing each other round in the airport wheelchairs that I wasn’t allowed to sit in, taking pictures of each other and having a laugh. I tried to insist that I was a Disabled person (they were certainly making me feel it) but they carried on messing about.
Whenever I have been in the special assistance area of an airport the passengers are a mixed bunch, mainly older people with a few like me looking fine, but waiting for help none the less. I am relieved that I don’t have to describe what is wrong with me to get their help. It means that I can still go places and pollute the atmosphere with a trip to Poland every year like anyone else!
I think that Mrs Grey-Thompson should think about what she is saying. She went on in the interview to talk about the needs of wheelchair users as if ‘Disabled people’ and ‘wheelchair users’ are one and the same. I always had a big question mark about Disabled Olympians as role models for the rest of us. The way impairments are characterized in the different ability classes is highly offensive to me. I think she would grade anyone like me in the ‘not Disabled’ class. Bah. I just won’t ask a fit looking wheelchair user for help either and I am not going back to Rome airport ever again.
Bristol Disability Equality Forum comment:
The author of this article raises an important issue regarding the difficulties some people with hidden impairments can experience – and her own experience, described here, is clear evidence of that.
We also know she is far from alone – many of the members of our Hidden Impairments’ Group have experienced discrimination, by both Disabled and not-yet Disabled people, because their impairment[s] is not visible.
As she says, she doesn’t know whether Tanni Grey-Thompson’s views were based on who “looked disabled” or upon more reliable data. However, there is no doubt that Disabled people who have ‘invisible’ impairments are the majority – yet most of the population still doesn’t appreciate this fact.
So, if you are due to fly, will need assistance and don’t want to have a similar experience to the one described here, make sure you book the assistance you need in advance.