The day of departure has finally arrived. Let’s skip the description of the journey to the station or airport, which depending on the city and the accessibility of its public transport, can be a saga by itself. But let’s save that for another time.
Patience, the mother of all virtues?
Overall, the keyword, whether at the station or the airport, is patience, patience and even more patience. Because travelling in a wheelchair means a lot of dead time waiting for someone to take you from one place to another, even more so when you’re travelling by plane. Travelling is one of the times when I feel most dependent, just because I can’t or don’t have the right to go through certain stages alone. This doesn’t mean that I can’t travel alone, contrary to what many people believe, it just means that I can’t travel without assistance.
It’s all the more tangible when you travel by plane: you start by checking in your wheelchair, which I keep until the boarding gate, but which will then travel in the hold. You then go on to the assistance desk, which helps you get through security, often in a special queue. Except that going through security in a wheelchair isn’t great. I would not recommend it. Because as you’d expect, when you go through the security gate with your wheelchair, the machine beeps, so you have the right to a full body check… After that, you arrive in the boarding space and wait before boarding the plane, even though it’s usually your turn to board first. Boarding in the middle of the other passengers, or last, always slows down the process and is inconvenient for everyone, especially if you’re at the very back of the plane. Yes, in a rather incomprehensible way, some airlines automatically allocate seats in row 27 or 29 for their passengers with reduced mobility. It’s true that it would be so much less fun if we were in row 6…
The process is simpler on the train, because there is no need to check in your wheelchair and go through security: you go straight to the assistance and then to the train. In France, this only works if you arrive at least 30 minutes before the train’s departure, otherwise no assistance… In Switzerland or Austria, where I have travelled quite a lot, it’s more relaxed: you meet the assistance on the train platform 15-20 minutes before departure, as the platforms are indicated in advance on the train tickets. There, the assistance service puts you on the train with an adapted platform or simply a ramp, depending on the gap between the platform and the train. In France, the platforms are electric and sometimes the battery is empty, so the assistance person has to go and find another battery to power the machine. In spite of it all you usually always end up in the train.
Travelling and enjoying it?
On the whole, once you’re seated on the plane or train, it’s fine. Well, except if you want to go to the toilet. That’s when things get tricky. I admit that on the plane, as it’s more stable (as long as there is no turbulence), I generally manage to get there on foot, even if it takes a while. If you’re on a train in Switzerland, Austria or the UK, it’s fine, the toilets are big enough for you to make a half-turn in a wheelchair. In France, it depends on the train. The disabled toilets on some TGV trains are a complete joke. Clearly, fitting a wheelchair in there must not have been a priority…
Another peculiarity of older TGVs is that one of the two wheelchair seats is generally taken as luggage space by the other passengers. Firstly, because it’s right next to the luggage space and secondly because it’s more or less in the way. It’s a bit like being stuck in the corner, but in first class at second-class prices, so what’s there to complain about? Actually, we’re lucky that the SNCF has deigned to provide two wheelchair spaces on the whole train…
Arrived at last?
I have to admit that the arrival is generally easier by train. In theory, someone from the assistance service is waiting on the platform with a wheelchair lift or ramp and it’s over in a few minutes. Even if most of the time, the person from the assistance has to ask the other passengers, who are more or less understanding, to use another door to get out or simply to wait a few minutes. That’s when you realise that patience isn’t everyone’s strong suit…
When it comes to arriving via plane, it’s often a different story, as you have to wait until all the other passengers have exited the plane. When it comes to patience, one becomes a real expert when travelling in a wheelchair.
While you’re waiting, you hope that there hasn’t been a communication problem, that the assistance staff have been told to collect your personal wheelchair, and that the flight attendant will not say to you as you get off and see that your wheelchair isn’t there:
“- Ah but you should have told me…”
Like, they did not see me get on the plane… Often, all’s well that ends well: the wheelchair is there and all you have to do is make your way to the exit, via the corridor or by minibus from the assistance service.
However, in some airports, notably Paris CDG, it seems to be systematically impossible to retrieve the wheelchair when you exit the plane. A mystery that remains unsolved to this day… Among those I have experienced since I have been in a wheelchair, Paris CDG is probably the worst airport (especially Terminal 1). It would seem, however, that it is ranked among the best airports in the world. Clearly, the rankings do not pay much attention to accessibility issues… Overall, every time I arrive there, there’s a problem: wheelchair nowhere to be found at the baggage reclaim (finally found after a 45-minute wait), broken-down conveyor belt, broken-down lift, etc.
A few months ago, I arrived at Paris CDG from Vienna. The assistance person took me very relaxed towards the exit, only to realise when we got at the conveyor belt that it wasn’t working. So, we had to take another route, a secret one. Off we went to security again. Yes, because in the end it’s so much fun to go through security, it would be a shame to miss out on it… That day, it took no less than 1h30, three lifts and a conveyor belt (that one worked) to finally pick up my wheelchair…
Even if it’s sometimes full of twists and turns, you always end up finding the way out and your wheelchair, hoping that it’s not too damaged (because that happens too, unfortunately). From this point of view, and generally speaking, travelling by train in a wheelchair is easier. There are fewer unforeseen events and, as a result, they are less frustrating than when travelling by plane. Even if they do exist, such as when the night train you were supposed to travel on suddenly has no wheelchair compartments and they explain to you, nicely of course, that they’re sorry, but that you can catch the next train in three days’ time… Which just goes to show that you really do have to be prepared for the unexpected when travelling, especially when you do so in a wheelchair.
If you want to support and promote this blog, do not hesitate to buy one of my books: Un bac sous perfusion (available in paper format and as an e-book) or Wheelchair hop on hop off (also available in paper format and as an e-book).