Air travel can be a drag when you’re on crutches. A plane is one of the few places they can’t be laid conveniently by your side. The flight attendant will notify you that in case of possible airline disaster, or even just turbulence, they have to be stored with carry-on luggage in overhead compartments. I don’t like it much, but it’s part of the trade-off for traveling with a disability.
In the case of my first time traveling with my friend Paul, who was always protective of my freedom and mobility, taking away my crutches was a transgression on the part of the stewardess he never forgave. I watched a little black cloud form above his head when she asked for my crutches and locked them above.
“Please fasten your seat belts,” I heard the captain say while I stretched my back by inching my arms and then my head forward to the floor. I always get more tense confined to small places, so I stretch for relief.
When the stewardess came by, now checking seat belts row to row, she stopped and said to Paul, “What’s that?” she pointed to my back.
“What do you mean?” he said testily.
She repeated herself. “Who does that belong to?” she pointed to me.
“That is my girlfriend,” he said defensively.
“It’s your girlfriend’s?” she asked.
“No. It IS my girlfriend.”
“Oh!” I heard her say. “Is she o.k.?”
“No, she’s in pain,” he said, irritably.
“Now, why did he have to say that?” I thought. The fact is I have chronic back and phantom pain; it’s a hidden handicap I’d rather keep hidden. I heard their exchange while I was stretching, and I thought at that point, “God, he’s not going to give her a break.”
I then heard her whine back, “I’m sorry. I thought she was a duffel bag!” I have encountered many attitudinal barriers as a person with a disability, but I’d never been mistaken for a piece of luggage before.
I raised up to catch her eyes and to say “I’m ok,” and also to help her laugh a little at herself, since everyone had heard her. I smiled broadly.
“I’m sorry,” she said, batting her eyelashes and stretching her voice further, “I thought you were a duffel bag!”
Unfortunately, she was a humorless person, but many heard her and one man was sniggering, so I just chalked that one up to traveling with Paul. When Paul and I had another encounter at our destination, I realized attitudinal barriers come in all shapes and sizes.
At the Denver airport, you aren’t given wheelchairs, but utility carts, to take you to the baggage area. We were informed by the porter once I was seated, however, that Paul wasn’t allowed to go with me; it was just for the handicapped. (So much for mainstreaming the handicapped.) Paul, who was so loaded down with take-on luggage, his guitar and my artificial leg–which was stored in a garment bag)–that he looked handicapped, suggested we at least let all our “stuff” ride with me. Keeping his guitar, Paul passed all the bags over to the porter.
Loading the wardrobe bag, the man said to me, “What’s this? This your bone?” He had a foreign accent.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “What did you say?”
“This your bone?” he repeated.
I thought this was the most ridiculous word to describe the leg. Perhaps because he wasn’t a native speaker the closest he could get to orthopaedic appliance was “bone?” I laughed to myself while we rode to baggage. I was looking forward to telling Paul. I think he’d enjoy the thing with the duffel bag once it was over. My traveling buddy was by now way behind us walking to the luggage area, the little black cloud reappearing.
When we got to the escalators, the man expected Paul to be behind us, but Paul had gone below to the baggage area. The porter then went to the elevators, leaving me upstairs. I was speechless. What am I? A piece of luggage?
When Paul spotted the man at the baggage area without me he asked where I was.
“She can’t come down.” the man said.
“She can come down,” Paul informed him, as though the man thought I was an invalid.
But the man furrowed his brow and said, “She couldn’t leave her bone.”
“What!” Paul said, exasperated.
With a musician’s reverence the man exclaimed, “She couldn’t leave her trombone alone up there!”