As you might have guessed by the length of time between blog posts, I’ve been away, first teaching a class in New Zealand, and then on holidays. In early November I taught at Alphacrucis in Auckland, and then shared my story at St Luke’s Church in Mt Maunganui (boy, would I love to live there!). I returned home for a week before travelling to the US. I’m not going to bore you with a detailed travelogue. It’s enough to say that I was roaming with a circus (Elly, Jeremy and Kate [GF], Jacob, Lachlan, and Elyssa, my carer). This was our first real holiday since the accident, we had a great time. I’m aware that disability is impoverishing for most people, and we are extremely fortunate to be able to take such a trip. Over the course of almost a month we racked up the kilometres, enjoying our first Thanksgiving in a freezing cold New York, cuddling Mickey Mouse at Disney in autumnal Florida, cruising the Caribbean, and chilling with the hipsters at Santa Monica in LA. Holidays are great to experience and boring to hear about, and I’ve probably already said enough to have you green with envy.
Since this blog is largely about my experience of living with a physical disability, there are a few things on that front worth describing.
I’m often asked about the travelling itself; about flying with a disability (Elly, listening as I ‘type’ using voice recognition software, shouted out, “you’re not bloody Superman.” Yes, well …). I’ve flown a few times locally, and it’s normally pretty straightforward. At the recommendation of other wheelies, I usually travel with Qantas, whose staff meet me at the door of the plane with a hoist, and transfer me, swinging in a sling, to my seat. It takes a little bit of organisation, and I’m first on and last off the plane, but it’s a pretty straightforward exercise. New Zealand was to be my first international flight. I booked with Qantas, but they informed me that the 737 plane they flew to Auckland couldn’t fit my chunky 160 kg wheelchair in its cargo hold, recommending instead that I travel on a Qantas ticket with their partner airline, Emirates. What I didn’t know was that Emirates don’t have a hoist, and their staff seemed to have never dealt with a person in a wheelchair. It took more than half an hour of pushing, shoving, squeezing, and bending to eventually get me seated, but rather than describe the ordeal it’s probably easier if I show you the video.
After a strongly worded letter of complaint to Qantas, I was given very good care in all my subsequent flights. Fortunately, the lengthy international flights to the USA were on a Qantas plane, and so I had access to the hoist and knowledgeable staff. In the US, Qantas partners with American Airlines, and to be honest their planes were rickety old pieces of junk. They also didn’t use a hoist, but strong and experienced staff facilitated smooth manual transfers. At least the AA planes managed to stay in the sky, and on our flight to Florida we had a brush with fame, finding ourselves seated behind Neil Patrick Harris. Barney (How I Met Your Mother) is Jacob’s hero (not sure what this says about our parenting), and he got to shake his hand.
What else can I say about my experience of disability in the US? New York was surprisingly difficult to get around. I was pretty disgusted with the subway system, since the majority of the stations have no elevators and are completely inaccessible. When you do manage to get onto a platform, the staff may or may not know how to get you onto a train. Luckily, I have my own portable ramp, which we put to good use. After a couple of days we gave up on trains altogether, and found the bus system to be much better – fully accessible and regular. Also noteworthy was that the sidewalks were in a terrible state; full of potholes, and far too often I rolled up to intersections with no ramped verge. After hitting one crack in the path especially hard, I broke my back wheel (that, luckily, I was able to get repaired in Florida). Florida and Disney, by comparison, was an accessibility dream – a city seemingly built for wheelchairs (and mobility scooters, but that’s a story for another time).
It is also a good thing I travelled with a strong and creative carer – thanks Elyssa. We had to hire hoists in each of the cities we visited, and in every case were surprised that they were operated manually – a hand pump to get me in the air. Elyssa “enjoyed” the exercise, but started to wonder whether Americans had heard of battery-powered technology. There was inevitably problems with hotel rooms, but that’s true in Australia also. Beds were too low for the hoist to fit underneath (so we travel with bed risers). In New York the toilet was too wide to fit the commode (no need to tell you how we solve that one). And there’s never enough space in hotel rooms for our equipment (my chair, hoist, commode, and baggage provided us with a daily jigsaw puzzle). This sort of thing is part and parcel of the fun of travel, and also provides a reason to look forward to returning home.
But all this sounds far too negative, and I need to restate that we had a wonderful time, even better than I expected. One anecdote might illustrate the point. Secretly, I’d not been looking forward to Disneyland. The idea of watching on as others enjoyed rides was depressing. What I hadn’t credited was the determined strength of my boys and the girls. With the aid of a handheld sling, they carried me onto countless rides. It demanded some huffing and puffing (I’m not light and dainty), and queues of people were forced to wait while I was manoeuvred into place. But my family took on the task eagerly, and it’s hard to describe the thrill of taking rides that I’d assumed would forever be inaccessible. On the final day of the trip, the last thing we did before heading to the airport was to ride the Ferris wheel at Santa Monica Pier. I wouldn’t have dreamed that that would have been possible, but my family/circus made it happen, and so I got to watch the sunset from on high.
Well it’s good to be home. Happy New Year to yo’all, and I pray you have a rich 2015.