Something great is coming to The Base at Virgin Atlantic on 22nd September 2017. Being held near London Gatwick Airport, is the inaugural Wheelchair in the Cabin Symposium supported by Virgin Atlantic Airways. This is a new event for an important group of passengers.
Flying Disabled is a positive campaign by a new British activist, Chris Wood to help enable wheelchair users fly with dignity and safety. He intends to do this by working with the airline industry, government bodies, wheelchair users and designers to be able to have a wheelchair board an aircraft easily, as well as have seat spaces in the cabin for a wheelchair user to remain in their own power or manual chair. This would remove the pain of the transfers, the use of an unsuitable aisle chair (not supporting some delicate back conditions) and the very real risk of wheelchair damage when chairs are placed in the hold. It is a complete lottery when I travel that my chair will make it without damage or even total loss. Chris also wants to see an improvement in the on board toilet facilities, which are extremely difficult to use due to restricted space, especially if a personal assistant (PA) is also required to work in that tiny space. This alone would be an amazing change, improving the experience for all passengers. Flying Disabled founder Chris Wood is a single parent to his son Jordan and his daughter Tayla, both are disabled, powerchair users and have a real zest for life. After a trip to Mexico in 2015 with his daughter and watching her struggle to access the aircraft, then sit in discomfort in an airplane seat for many hours he decided to research into why air travel is so far behind travel by land and sea. Chris can be found online at http://flyingdisabled.org.uk.
Air travel has grown steadily in the region of 5–6% every year since 1970 meaning that in the UK alone, around 750,000 people use flying as a means of transport every day. Disability rates are also increasing in the UK, with over 13 million people having at least one. Air travel for the mobility impaired has been relatively unexplored, but with increasing rates of disability and passenger numbers, more research is needed to ensure the industry is prepared. For my previous career in payments software, I travelled for business, worldwide, for 20 years, often alone. This is a project very close to my heart based on my own experiences, personally and professionally, and those of my exploring friends. Now I work as a coach and I want to empower people in crafting their ideal life, often including experiencing travel and not to be held back back by the current hurdles.
This project is only two years old and Chris has already engaged some of the greatest business leaders in transport, customer experience and government, and it’s a pleasure to support him by sharing this article. Safety is of course paramount, and it’s good to know that future air travel could be much safer for all parties without the transfer and the walk of shame when staff roll you down the aisle on the aisle chair trussed up like a public menace.
Chris is approaching this campaign positively. He believes by working alongside the airlines, stakeholders and the benefiting community there is a way of creating inclusion, dignity, increasing safety and offering airlines a whole new customer base, most of which will just not use or are anxious about using an airline to travel.
The UK Disability Discrimination Act 1995 did reference transport but not airlines specifically, and I expect this is why it was so hard to invoke change (although I am not a lawyer, this is my own opinion). This act has since been replaced with the Equality Act 2010, and from my own basic research, it appears again, air travel is not explicitly included.
Being an airport enthusiast (ok, I’ve just outed myself in public), initially I was very excited by the project but also skeptical about how much could be achieved and Chris reminded me how far public transport has improved access in the last 20 years. Although not perfect, taxis, buses, railways and the tube network have made improvements so we can access more of the cities than we could previously. And one of the interesting parts is regarding the subsidised tickets which are available for disabled people and sometimes PAs. In an ideal world that would be extended to air travel too, as Chris will tell you, being a parent of two adult, disabled children requiring support is extremely expensive when it comes to air travel for a family holiday. The only information I can find regarding a reduced air fare ticket for a PA, is via www.reducedmobility.eu and nothing has changed since then. It would seem that is a possible campaign for the future.
He has also seen progress from design hackathons. These marathon brainstorming sessions have people who are competing/collaborating to create prototypes that innovate on a theme or improve upon an existing project. These hackathons are often held at educational establishments to generate ideas, and Chris is connecting with many of these universities.
He shared a recent and interesting study with me: “Open Access” funded by the International Association of Traffic and Safety Sciences, which tackles the experiences of wheelchair users as aircraft passengers. Although to any disabled passenger these report highlights are unlikely to be a surprise, I am pleasantly surprised that this study even took place. It does give me hope that things can change for the better.
- Poor manual handling of wheelchair users has resulted in physical pain or injury.
- Wheelchair users describe transfer equipment described as being uncomfortable and providing poor trunk support.
- A lack of accessible toilets on aircraft has resulted in tactics to avoid using the toilet.
- Wheelchair users experience humiliation, embarrassment, pain and undue anxiety as a direct result.
The full report, “An exploratory study of the experiences of wheelchair users as aircraft passengers – implications for policy and practice”, is well worth a read and can be found here www.sciencedirect.com/science/.
Travelling by air as a wheelchair user can be daunting regarding the need to use the bathroom. However after 20+ years of international travel I can now do it with my eyes closed (so to speak). Airports are my happy place. There is a wealth of information online from travel sites like https://twitter.com/tripability and this handy FAQ from www.wheelchairtravel.org. The process of how disabled passengers are catered for with dignity from terminal arrival to terminal exit (at the destination) can still be intermittent, dependent on the level of disability awareness training and experience held by the airport staff and the internal processes in place between the airport, airline and the special assistance teams.
Entrepreneur and passionate advocate of Social Justice, Kay Allen OBE, has produced a study recommending more collaboration between airlines, airports and service providers in the UK. The 2016 report based on the experiences of 543 passengers recommends more collaboration between the three groups to improve the accessibility of UK airports. Facilities management company OCS Group commissioned the report to support the fact-finding phase of a long-term improvement programme, in order to gain a better understanding of disabled passengers’ needs and how to address them.
Challenging for Change: Airport Experiences: How disabled people feel about the service they receive can be downloaded as a PDF from OCS.
Being a travel and disability geek, I am aware of multiple complaints and lawsuits in progress against some airlines, and I too have had shocking treatment on three separate occasions, which caused me to boycott one particular airline for a decade. That’s for a different article.
For now I want to celebrate what Chris is proposing, since the “Flying Disabled” campaign is fascinating to me as it has started the dialogue, and is making progress in three important areas: the comfort of wheelchair users, the safekeeping of our precious wheelchairs, and the accessibility of the onboard toilet. These potential changes in aircraft interiors would be a landmark in accessibility for future generations. This would also be extremely useful given the population is living longer and therefore more age related disabilities will exist.
The conversation has only just started. We need further discussion on the other types of disabilities passengers have and how their travel experiences could be improved by re-designing other parts of the aircraft, or introducing adaptive technology. For other customers who still want to travel and may have visual or hearing impairments, communication difficulties, or any disability. I have been very fortunate that I am highly mobile, resilient and tenacious, and I would love for other disabled people to be able to travel the world in comfort (and indeed style). This is an exciting time for airline travel, and Chris Wood is a pioneer in a much needed space.
If you would like to offer your support by lobbying your MP, create awareness or simply giving a financial donation please contact Chris online. If you want to attend the symposium, details are also online.
You can follow Chris Wood’s campaign on Twitter @flyingdisabled