“I had one dreadful experience when I came back into Heathrow Terminal 4 and my wheelchair was not brought up to the door,” recalls Anne Luttman-Johnson. “I refused to get off the plane until I knew that my wheelchair had arrived, and was in one piece.

“They brought me a wheelchair that I couldn’t push myself in. It had little wheels and I had to be pushed through the airport. It was the most undignified, humiliating experience. I hated it.”

Anne has used a wheelchair for more than 30 years, having broken her back at age 21.

In 2006 she sailed across the Atlantic, from the Canaries to the Caribbean and, in 2013, took a four-month sabbatical from work to travel around the world.

“I flew to India and sailed from India to Singapore,” she says. “I’ve sailed across the Atlantic and I’ve sailed across the Andaman Sea, part of the Indian Ocean. So next is the Pacific I think.”

Anne Luttman-Johnson

With so many stamps in her passport, Anne has seen the good, bad and ugly of air travel with a disability.

“There are certain airlines that are a lot better than others. For example, I need a lift-up armrest to transfer myself into the airplane seat. But, believe it or not, although some airplane seats have them, they differ between different airlines and aeroplanes. Basically no two planes seem to be the same!!  So sometimes it is not until I am actually on the plane that they can find the right seat for me – and of course by then all the seats have been allocated!

“Airline staff frequently don’t know which ones lift up – the check-in staff certainly don’t – so you can’t book yourself that sort of seat before boarding. So that is a bit of a nightmare.

“Of course my biggest concern when flying is that they then take my wheelchair away and put it in the hold.”

Now on a long-haul flight, Annetries to make sure her wheelchair travels first-class.

“On a long-haul flight in a large enough plane, it is possible for a wheelchair to travel in the cabin,” she says. “There are some lockers in the first-class compartment, where a wheelchair that comes apart and folds up can go. My wheelchair travels first class and I travel in cabin class in the back.

“There was one flight I did with Singapore Airlines, where my wheelchair could actually fit into an overhead locker. That was just wonderful because I knew it was straight above me, was safe, and it would be in one piece when we got to my destination.”

Anne’s concern over airlines losing or breaking her wheelchair is one activist Chris Woodknows only too well. Chris, who has two children with disabilities, set up ‘Flying Disabled’ in 2017 to improve air travel for people with disabilities.

“I wanted to do it for my children, but it’s clearly got a little bit bigger than that,” he laughs.

He has now established a campaign group made up of six people skilled in both aviation and wheelchair design to establish a solution. His goal is to make those wheelchairs that go in the hold more secure, but ultimately, to allow more wheelchairs into aircraft cabins generally.

“In America they now have to catalogue and report all the broken wheelchairs,” Chris says. “In December alone, for example, there were 701 wheelchairs smashed or broken…. they would ground the aircraft if 701 people had their legs broken. That’s the bit that the air travel industry doesn’t see. For many people these chairs are bespoke, so that could be months by the time they’ve actually got the right piece of mobility equipment that’s designed to hold their body.”

Chris has been engaging with the industry directly in an effort to help them make improvements.

“If you engage with those in the aviation industry, they are aware how bad their industry is and how far behind they are compared to trains, buses and taxis. But it seems like they don’t know how to do it,” he says.

But trains and buses are far from perfect, particularly in the UK. Chris recounts one particularly awful experience in London.

“I remember standing outside Paddington with my daughter waiting for the bus. The lady who was driving it was clearly having a bad day. I made myself known, giving her a little wave, and then pointed to my daughter to signify ‘disabled access needed’. She promptly turned around with some expletive and drove off. She had a busy bus, but there was room in there.”

Somewhat surprisingly, Chris has found transport to be much more accessible outside London. “I do go to other cities up and down the country with my kids and it is a lot easier,” he says “London, unless you know it, can be tricky. Going to Birmingham, it was good. Manchester I’ve been to and it’s good.”

Anne agrees: “Traveling around outside London is much easier. If you’ve got a car, it’s easy enough to get around. It really helps to know the place you’re going and, more to the point, where the disabled parking spaces are.”

Anne relies heavily on a car to get around, both at home and on holiday.

“I tend to go everywhere by car. It is a huge lifeline for me. If you get the higher rate mobility component of personal independence payments, you can buy a car through the Motability Scheme. It’s affordable and that’s really good. And there are some other ‘perks’. You don’t pay road tax and so on. Also, you don’t pay the congestion charge for driving into London. So there are ways that do make it easy for people to get cars and drive themselves around. And when you have that freedom it’s amazing.”

But while the UK might be good for disabled drivers, Anne believes other countries are much further ahead when it comes to other types of transport.

“Singapore has an amazingly accessible rail system, which is absolutely brilliant,” she says. “In Finland they’re fantastic. The train service has a little button by the door that you press and then a platform comes out from underneath the train to go over the ‘mind-the-gap’ bit. You can just wheel straight onto the train. I don’t know why we can’t do that in this country.”

Technology is, slowly but surely, making life easier for people with disabilities and destinations are becoming more accessible. The final hurdle seems to be enabling people to get there in the first place.

“The internet has made it so much easier to look things up about where you’re going,” says Anne. “My biggest problem is always making sure that there are accessible toilets where I’m going and that used to be really difficult.”

Chris adds: “Businesses want the custom from disability, whatever it may be. Google is mapping wheelchair access around cities and even targeting businesses now. ‘Is your business wheelchair accessible?’, it asks. Airbnb is delivering accessible accommodation and also accessible experiences on its website.

“In the current situation, we have our cities, attractions and businesses all gearing themselves up for those in a wheelchair, or anybody with a disability, and trying to get them in there. They are trying to change. However, the travel is letting us down and that needs to change.”

This change may be fuelled by increased public pressure. Anne and Chris believe there is power in numbers; the more disabled travellers getting out and about, the more the transport industries will do to accommodate them.

Anne says: “The more people that get out there, and travel, and are seen, and are using these facilities, the more the companies are going to realise, ‘yes, we do have to do this.’

“In my experience with airlines, just go, because the more people that go, they’ve got to do something about it,” agrees Chris. “Disabled traveller numbers are increasing – it’s double-digit figures, year on year. They’re having to really up their game and the airports need to work with the airlines to do that.”

“Whether you want to fly or travel, do it. Yes, there’s a little bit of work involved. But if you don’t you’re missing out. Go out. Go fly. Go travel. Go see the world.”

Chris and Anne’s discussion was part of a podcast facilitated by Irwin Mitchell. Let’s Talk About it, podcasts for people living with a disability.  

https://www.irwinmitchell.com/letstalkaboutit

 

Want to keep updated on the very latest neurorehabilitation news and insight?


Neuro Rehab Times is the magazine for all professionals involved in the care and rehabilitation of people with neurological conditions and severe injuries. Get your copy, filled with exclusive print-first content, every quarter for just £24.99 per year.