Sunday, May 13, 2018

Flying with Baba Baxter

Being the primary caregiver for a Disability Justice activist = never a dull moment! 

Our latest project entailed a journey for the Poor People’s Campaign, from Detroit to Washington, DC. Baba Baxter Jones, a TBI and spinal cord injury survivor and wheelchair user, discovered that airlines may require some passengers with disabilities to travel with a “safety assistant.” This law would apply to certain cases of severe disabilities preventing the passenger from independently evacuating in case of emergency. In these cases, if a safety assistant was deemed necessary by the airline, the safety assistant could not be charged to fly.

Baba, who experiences dementia due to his brain injury, and cannot move his legs due to the spinal cord injury, fit 2/3 of the criteria (the third criteria being severe vision/hearing impairments). However, in extensive phone and in-person conversations, the airline refused to require him to bring a safety assistant. Instead, they insisted repeatedly that they were trained and fully available to meet his every need from curb to curb. They reassured us over and over that Baba would be able to travel independently with their accommodations. Left with no choice but to take them at their word, the campaign bought a ticket for me, knowing Baba would need assistance in DC, and we embarked.

The public paratransit van was over an hour late picking us up from home, but we still managed to arrive at the airport by 7:10am for an 8:25am flight. Airline representatives told us we could check-in curbside, then be escorted through security, to the gate, and onto the plane. Instead, it turned out the Wheelchair Assistance counter was inside the building, which required me to leave Baba with the transport van, go inside, and ask a Wheelchair Assistant to come outside and help us. This would have been impossible if Baba was alone. Rest assured, the beleaguered paratransit van driver was NOT interested nor required to navigate airport logistics, handle baggage, and stay with his client until the airline’s assistant was secured.

The airline assistants accompanied us through the arduous security process, which was complex due to all the medical equipment Baba carries and wears, which includes back and leg braces, a medicine bag, breathing machine, and much more. Since he cannot stand nor easily leave his chair, he needed a pat-down. The airline assistants stood by, but due to space constraints, were about 15 feet away, and could not be easily called. With considerable effort and my help, Baba “recombobulated,” and we were on our way.

At the gate to the plane, we were met by two men who were assigned to move Baba into the narrow on-board wheelchair and to his seat. Baba was told earlier by phone that the airline had a mechanical device to facilitate transfers. But when we asked the staff, they had no clue what we were referring to. As could be expected, the folks who are assigned heavy lifting, the most risky work, and probably among the lowest paid employees with the least control over their work environment, are almost always Black and Brown folks. When Baba checked in with them and asked them if they were prepared to take full responsibility for what they were about to do, they started to realize the risk involved in moving someone with severe spinal cord damage, and called in two more men to assist with the transfer. 

With considerable, cumbersome effort the four men lifted Baba from his chair onto the onboard chair and strapped him in. Getting him through the wide-aisled first class section was manageable, but the twist to get him into the narrower economy section required much jostling and squeezing, which was jarring and painful for Baba. The four men then awkwardly lifted Baba over the bulkhead armrest and into his seat. By this point, Baba was writhing with back and neck pain, breathing heavily, dizzy, and feeling humiliated and disrespected. He felt dehumanized, like a piece of luggage. Nevertheless, he was eager to move on and get to DC on the already delayed flight. Against his wishes, EMS was called in. They checked his vitals, he declined to go to the hospital, and we were on our way, an hour late.

For some mysterious reason, the airline had assigned the bulkhead seat for Baba. Every other row in the airplane has an aisle armrest that can move, but not the bulkhead. How much easier and safer it would have been to be in another row! We were befuddled about both the intial seat assignment (why wasn’t Baba given the option of being lifted over the bulkhead arm or being slid into another seat?) and the last minute lack of common sense of requesting a passenger in another row to trade seats.

By this point, Baba needed to relieve himself.

“Ummm, how do you accommodate wheelchair passengers who need to use the restroom???” we asked the flight attendants.

They stared at us blankly, then sorrowfully and guiltily. “Well, we have an onboard wheelchair, but we don’t have staff to transfer you in and out of your seat.”

Once again, the airline had given us a promise impossible to fulfill, that they would be able to accommodate his needs on the plane. Humiliated and dejected, Baba had no choice but to use his relief bottle under a blanket in his seat, in public view. The flight attendants were not even able to empty his relief bottle for him, because they’re not equipped to handle bodily fluids. What if he had had to urinate again on the flight?
Baba Baxter at the end of the flight to BWI
All the while, the full plane was silent and tolerant. The other passengers knew better than to express frustration, anger, and impatience  due to a delay caused by a person with severe disabilities. To fly at all requires financial means, and predictably the plane was majority white and white-passing folks. A few Black and Brown folks gave us empathetic smiles and props on their way out, but for the most part, the passengers did the white-polite thing, of averting their eyes, pretending Baba did not exist, and going on their way with suppressed frustration. 

The overwhelming impression I got was that they pitied Baba. He got lots of sympathetic side-glances. But what I wish they could muster is outrage! Anger that the airline handled the situation so poorly. Anger that Baba was manhandled, put in harm’s way, and injured. Anger that a passenger would be denied the ability to use the restroom. Anger that the airline's lack of preparedness and poor handling caused a one hour delay. Anger that our brothers are required to obey orders and commit harm to someone with disabilities. 

Until able-bodied folks are able to empathize our way to solidarity with PSWD (People Surviving with Disabilities), and demand change, corporations, institutions, and governments will continue their harmful policies and practices. Have you ever been on a plane with PSWD with paraplegia? Or are you such a person, who travels by air? I’m guessing most of us would answer no to both questions. We need to understand why this is so, and what we all can do to correct this injustice. Join us in our fight!