Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Some airports working to be more disability friendly

From The Plain Dealer in Cleveland:

Ciarra Clayton had traveled extensively, but when spinal cord tumors paralyzed the 25-year-old Akron woman from the chest down, she became afraid to board an airplane.

"I'm apprehensive about going through security, apprehensive about transferring to my seat on the plane. Will it be weird with everyone looking at me?" said Clayton, who has been confined to a wheelchair for two years battling astrocycoma.

Clayton had a chance late last month to try out the process -- check-in, security, boarding and baggage claim -- at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. She was among a group of MetroHealth System patients taking part in Project Airport, a program offered about five times a year by Continental Airlines to allow people with spinal-cord and brain-stem injuries a chance to learn how to negotiate the facility.

"[The program is] very educational for the patients and their families," says Continental's Bill Burnell. "After this, they'll see that they can travel."

Burnell, manager of Customer First and Regulatory Programs, says many people don't realize the extent of services available every day to a range of travelers with disabilities. Airlines offer everything from curbside wheelchairs to personnel trained to lift severely disabled passengers into and out of their aircraft seats.

The United States has about 50 million people with disabilities -- including paralysis, hearing loss, diminished sight and more, according to government statistics. A 2005 study by Open Doors Organization, a nationwide advocacy group, found that more than 21 million adults with disabilities traveled by air at least once in a two-year period.

Jeffrey Schiemann, who sustained a spinal-cord injury after falling off a ladder in 2002, travels frequently but says getting through an airport is not easy.

"There are all kinds of hurdles to overcome in air travel. But once you're out and you realize there is a world of people willing to help, the sky's the limit," says the Gates Mills attorney, who runs the Northeast Ohio Chapter of the National Spinal Cord Injury Association out of MetroHealth.

Know the process, Schiemann says. Call ahead for services and be prepared. Most importantly: "You have to speak up for yourself. You are your own best advocate."

People with disabilities have rights and protections under the Air Carrier Access Act. The anti-discrimination law obligates all airlines operating in the United States to provide customers a long list of services including free and prompt curb-to-cabin wheelchair assistance and help with boarding, deplaning and making connections.

The act says airlines must allow customers to check battery-powered wheelchairs at the jetway and permit passengers to use FAA-approved portable oxygen concentrators and other approved medical devices during flight. Service animals are allowed on board (usually free of charge). Regulations require movable armrests, accessible lavatories and other features for new planes added to an airline's fleet.

The federal law also requires every airline to have a complaints-resolution official, or CRO, available to travelers with disabilities at all times either on the phone or in person. If a CRO is not available, an airline faces a stiff fine.

Burnell says if a person is encountering problems at any stage of the air travel process, he or she should not hesitate to ask to talk to a CRO.

Schiemann advises clicking on the prompt involving travel for people with disabilities when booking a ticket online and filling out the appropriate forms, including a section on the type of walking aid to be taken on the flight. Airline websites have detailed lists of special services, he adds.

First-time travelers may want to call and talk to airline personnel to ensure that their needs will be met and all their questions will be answered, he says.

Jonnie Ann Gresham (pictured), who has been confined to a wheelchair because of Devic's disease, an inflammatory disease of the central nervous system, was worried about going through security at the Project Airport dry run. The 53-year-old hadn't been on a plane since being diagnosed several months ago.

A Transportation Security Administration agent carefully wiped a patch of cloth down the metal rim of her chair, over the cushion under her bottom and across her hands and feet, checking for objectionable chemical residue.

"I felt a little uncomfortable at first," Greshman said afterward. "But now I know what's going to happen, so I'm definitely more relaxed."

TSA supervisor Faith Schultz offers some tips regarding screening procedures.

Travelers who cannot remove their shoes should inform the screening officer, she says. "You don't have to take them off."

Those passengers don't go through the metal detectors, but their coats, computers and carry-on bags still must be X-rayed. Ask a screener for help if you need assistance placing items on the machine's conveyor belt, she says.

Travelers with disabilities, including children, can request to be patted down in a private screening area, and a family member will be permitted to accompany them. If traveling alone, a passenger can contact the airline and the TSA coordination desk to ask for an escort.

Schultz says people who travel with their own wheelchairs are permitted to bring through security the tools necessary to disassemble and reassemble their chairs. (Schiemann recommends it, as airlines may not have the proper tools.)

Bag them separately and alert the security officer about the tools as well as any medications, liquid nourishment or other needed items that may exceed the 3.4-ounce limit, says Schultz.

Burnell suggests attaching a photo of the wheelchair to the equipment to provide a visual guide for crew members who may have to dismantle and re-assemble it before and after the flight.

Passengers with hearing, sight and other disabilities might inform both security screeners and flight attendants to ease the process. Burnell says the flight crew will make sure announcements are conveyed in writing, if necessary.

Once at the gate, Clayton and Gresham were visibly nervous about the next step -- getting on the plane.

Burnell explains that conventional wheelchairs are too wide for the cargo doors and aisles of most airplanes. That's why airlines have a special boarding chair that is 13 inches wide to accommodate the most narrow aisle on the smallest planes.

The standard boarding procedure is for passengers to be wheeled to the end of the jetway, where two trained attendants -- one at the back of the chair to lift the upper area and one in front to lift the legs -- lift people from their wheelchairs to the aisle chairs, wheel them into the aircraft and get them into their seats, says Gloria Schoolfield, a trainer for Huntleigh Corp., a company that provides passenger services for Continental and Delta airlines.

"It's a delicate process, and people have to tell us if they have delicate areas or the best way for us to move them," says Schoolfield. "If a foot gets caught or something doesn't seem right, speak up."

Project Airport participant Steven Elam of Cleveland spoke up, asking attendants to be careful with his right arm, still in a brace after surgery. The 23-year-old, a quadriplegic, was injured in a car accident a year ago and wants to fly to Las Vegas on his first-ever plane trip.

When it was her turn, Clayton crossed her arms in front of her chest (standard before a transfer), took a breath and signaled that she was ready. Attendants lifted her into the aisle chair, quickly securing the chest, thigh and ankle straps and wheeled her into the plane. Then they reversed the process inside the cabin.

"We used to travel all the time, but she's been apprehensive." Clayton's mother, Anna Davis, said, watching the transfer process. "She looks confident now."

Their goal is to attend a family wedding in Iowa in November.

Clayton settled into her seat in the first-class cabin.

"I'm realizing that even in a wheelchair, you can do things," she said smiling.