What is so different about travelling with a wheelchair? Read on and you will find out.
For the purpose of illustrations I will use a trip by air to Holland that I took in 1988, though not a great deal has changed in the years to 2002.
Firstly there is the inevitable extra planning - for example telling the airport you need to have assistance on and off the plane and making sure the airline is aware there is going to be a wheelchair-using passenger on your specific flight, just to name two extras. Not a problem you might think, but it can cause major complications if you turn up to find that no-one is expecting you!
Then you have to get on the plane first - and off it last. This frequently involves seeing parts of the airport that the general flying passenger does not see, like the loading/unloading cargo areas, cargo lifts or simply long passageways through which you are whisked by an airport employee. When you get to the plane, there are 4 ways of getting onto the plane and into your seat.
1. If it is a large plane, such as a 747 or larger, you might be able to go down the walkway that 'ordinary passengers' use, then transferred to a carry-chair to get to your seat, before you are "humped" into your seat. The fact that it is so often halfway back and your seat is regularly on the window end of the three-seat arrangement just makes it more complicated!
2. An alternative is to be put into what is called an 'Ambi-lift'. The Ambi-lift is essentially a transit-type vehicle where the body of the vehicle is able to be raised or lowered to any height and the wheelchair-using passenger is transferred to the plane by the door opposite the normal front egress. The carry-chair is then used to transport one from the door of the plane to the seat as above. If it is a smaller plane (or a small airport!) the process can be far less dignified!
3. If one relies on airport assistance you are put onto the infamous carry-chair and carried up the steps to the plane - a process which I loathe as I am not famous for my balance!
4. If one has a friend who is strong enough to carry one, it can be a case of being bodily carried up/down the steps - a process only a little less hair-raising than 3!
Once you arrive at your destination the wheelchair using tourist has to contend with the likelihood of stairs and other such complications. Whilst in normal circumstances a wheelchair-using person would not knowingly put themselves into an environment totally wheelchair inaccessible, the photo of me being carried down a spiral staircase illustrates how undignified life can get if the traveller is foolish enough to do so!
Being a tourist on wheels in a place like Amsterdam throws up some interesting conundrums too. For example, the tourist attraction of viewing the city from the canal is virtually impossible unless you are with someone strong enough (and mad enough!) to be able to lift one and the wheelchair into and out of the tourist vehicle.
In the late 1980s once the traveller returned to Britain there were few trains with accessible coaches. This meant the four-wheeled traveller would be automatically put into a cattle-truck-style guards van. These (and their successors) have nowhere for the wheelchair-using passenger's friend to sit. It wasn't too bad if there were mail-sacks in the van, but when it was totally empty it was a choice of either standing or sitting on a very dusty floor!
Unlike their successors, these old-style guards vans (still to be seen on some rail networks!) had no effective heating so one froze in winter or boiled in the summer heat!
Remind me to tell you the tale of travelling in the old style guards vans between Milton Keynes and Edinburgh on 30 December when there was snow everywhere or down to London on the day of the Israeli Embassy siege. Now there you have two extremes of temperature.