Have Wheelchair, Will Travel
Smitha Sadasivan, who is wheelchair bound with Multiple Sclerosis, recounts her challenges with accessibility, toilets and medicines at airports and railway stations while travelling.
I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 1999. I can’t sit continuously for long or sit in a chair/wheelchair which is loose or too soft/silky. I need a sturdy chair with an arm rest to support my back and hands, or else I get a back ache, neck ache and stiffness/pain in hip joints. I also require a resting space to lie down on my back during long travel. I have frequent urination and essentially need a hygienic toilet which a wheelchair user can access. I face a lot of issues while travelling due to lack of reasonable accommodation. Below, I share a few of my travails.
Wheelchair – Theirs vs Mine
While taking a flight, the airline personnel always ask me to shift to their wheelchair even after I express my preference to travel in my personal wheelchair till the aircraft. Then, I need to explain why I need to use my personal wheelchair and only after a lot of clarifications and hesitations, they allow me to use my own wheelchair.
At many airports and railway stations, the toilets, especially the disabled friendly toilets, are not clean or hygienic. I often land up getting urine infection or infection of the respiratory system. They are also slippery, due to floors being wet all the time. In some toilets at railway stations where you have to pay, the security guys won’t let me in until I make the payment even though I am in an urgency. I tell them that I will pay after using the toilet as I have poor bladder control and can’t manage taking out the money / change within the shortest span. But some persons allow and take the money later after my usage of toilet.
Battery Operates Buggies
Similarly, there are lot of rules and procedures for battery operated buggies that pose problems. Like:-
- a person with disability should show their train ticket with disability concession,
- only person with disability will be carried and not her/his luggage
- her companions will not be carried in the buggy, even if they are old passengers
- companion has to go to the office or in search of buggy to get the buggy to the place where the passenger with disability is waiting, and so on.
The porters at railway stations charge a lot of money to help a wheelchair bound passenger despite government’s directive to charge only Rs 50/- for station wheelchair.
Flying to America
When I went to the USA in 2013, the security officers there asked me to remove my shoes for screening despite my explanation that I have difficulty managing in cold temperatures. Regardless of my clarifications, they were adamant. Fed up, I told them to do as they please. They finally allowed me to go without removing my shoes. In contrast, during the same trip, the organizers of the Women’s Institute on Leadership & Disability had booked me in business class so that I could lie down and have a convenient flight.
Flying to Sri Lanka
When I travelled to Sri Lanka in 2015, the customs officer held me for failing to pay a visa charge online which was actually fixed online by the organizers of that trip to attend a South Asia Disability Dialogue on Political Participation. The customs officers were indifferent and were unwilling to help and, finally, the program organizers sorted out the issue online. Until then, I and my mother, who accompanied me as my personal assistant, were held at Colombo airport for a couple of hours.
Medicines at Airport
At the domestic airport, I have faced some issues with my medicines. The CSF officers would trace some tonic or medicine of mine through the screening process and would open my whole bag even though I would explain to them that these were my medicines. They would allow me to travel only after I would show them the medicine bottles and they were convinced about it. As I need to carry my medicine as hand luggage all the time, I face this issue. During my US travel in 2013, I carried a medicine cool box as hand luggage with a prescription from my doctor and therefore didn’t face any problems. But it is difficult for such arrangement in every local travel within the country.
Despite these issues I will continue to travel.
(Smitha Sadasivan, who has Multiple Sclerosis, an autoimmune condition, is a disability rights activist at Vidya Sagar, a centre for special education at Chennai. Her additional symptoms include exhaustion, physical pain, vision problems and other issues.)