≡ Menu

Should We Get a Wheelchair? Traveling With Disabilities

Airports, Wheelchairs, Disabilities and Other Random Stuff

What disability? No, it’s not my disability of ADD and general stupidity. That will come up later. When Bonnie was 14 years old, a pain in her thigh that wouldn’t go away turned out to be osteosarcoma – bone cancer that typically occurs during a teenage growth spurt. A year and lots of treatments later, she was the cutest bald one-legged girl at the Mayo clinic in Rochester, MN. She can walk a mile or so on her prosthetic leg or on crutches, and has no problem doing just about everything we ever want to, but due to the very short length of her stump she can’t run or walk faster than a typical pace for most people. Her prosthetic leg is a high-tech work of art that does a great job of preventing her from falling, which would happen at least a couple times a week without the computerized knee she now uses. Which leads into

Kind of a funny story.

In February we went to Roatan without the boys for our anniversary, and forgot the charger for her knee. As soon as we got there her the battery died and her leg spent the rest of the weekend locked up, which was no problem because we basically spent the weekend on the beach where she uses crutches since the prosthetic leg can’t go in the water. We were able to limp along through Houston airport on the way home and it was no more than a little nuisance.

Then in March, we flew to San Diego for a weekend with family. Southwest is the only airline with nonstop service from San Antonio, and the companion pass made the best deal for award seats even better. We took the 5-minute taxi ride to the airport rather than have to worry about parking. Standing in the line in security, I said “You got your leg charger, right?” Sure enough, we had used it the night before and left the charger at home. This was definitely not going to work with a trip to the San Diego Zoo planned, and I did my best to go into hero mode. I told them to go ahead through security and to the gate, took my boarding pass and wallet, ran out and jumped into a cab that someone else was getting out of. The driver said he didn’t have another call and a few minutes later we were at home, where I realized I hadn’t taken my phone or house key! Fortunately the cab driver seemed preoccupied with something on his phone since I had told him to wait, and I climbed over the privacy fence to check the back door and windows. All locked. I knew I didn’t have time to get back to the airport, go through security, get the key and start all over so I did what any sensible person would do: I broke in. We have a few single-pane windows that should be replaced but I decided one of those would be the cheapest to fix, so I grabbed a paving stone, broke the widow, opened it and climbed in. Back out and over the fence, 10 minutes later I was in line for security again and we had an awesome trip with the kind of 5-star accommodations, food and fun that you can only have with family. I didn’t tell Bonnie anything about the key or the window until we got home and I told her our house had been broken into. Some tape held until I replaced the pane of glass a couple weeks later. Total cost: $25 for the taxi and $13 for the glass, with 5% back from Discover.

Back on topic, maybe

On Wednesday we flew from San Antonio to Chicago and on to Anchorage on United, booked with United miles back when Alaska was not its own zone that costs an extra 5K miles each way. Our flight to Chicago was on a CRJ700 regional jet – basically a school bus with wings, right down to overhead bins that won’t hold anything bigger than a backpack. The gate agent in San Antonio did a great job of getting all the bags gate checked, but for whatever reason we left a few minutes late and arrived in Chicago about 20 minutes late, only to wait 15 minutes for our gate to open up and 5 more for our bags. By the time I made it into the terminal it was 12 minutes before our flight to Anchorage was scheduled to depart, and I had a text message from United saying that if we didn’t make our flight we were confirmed on another one – 8 hours later! I told Bonnie to flag down a cart if she saw one (she didn’t) and ran to the gate which was thankfully in the same concourse. Sure enough the gate agent was still there, ready to hurry me onto the plane, and then asking where the rest of my party is. I explained to her that Bonnie couldn’t run but was coming as fast as she could, hoping my presence would keep us from having to spend the day at O’Hare airport instead of Exit Glacier. She (the gate agent) proceeded to print boarding passes identical to the ones I was holding and some other United employee came up the jetway, all disgusted looking. “I have to close the door.” I stood in the doorway with our boarding passes and said she’s on her way, but she’s an amputee, walking as fast as she can from a delayed flight, and it’s still 9 minutes before departure time for a 6 hour flight. Surely I can buy a minute. The gate agent tried to assure me we were fine but this other clown kept at it – “Why doesn’t she have a wheelchair?” Dude, she can walk fine, she just can’t run. And if we had ordered a wheelchair it would have taken just as long. At this point I was happy to engage him until they got to the gate. The gate agent asked if they (Bonnie and the boys) were together and then HE started again “We can wait a minute for her, but your children should be with you. They’re able-bodied. They’re late. I have to close the door.” Finally Bonnie and the boys walked into the gate while he kept chewing me out for not getting a wheelchair, and then for not just leaving her behind, I guess. I hope he had a great rest of his day and doesn’t ever work in any position that puts him in front of a customer again.

We sat down in our seats 4 minutes before the scheduled departure time, were in the air 20 minutes later and arrived in Anchorage 3 minutes early.


A humpback whale waving to us near Kenai Fjords National Park.

Anyway, maybe he had a point. Maybe I should order a wheelchair for Bonnie and play the sympathy card. I’m pretty sure it would make any issues like that go smoother as no one wants to fail to take care of a disabled person. Even though it wouldn’t save any time, and Bonnie hates the extra attention and simply doesn’t need it.

Now I wonder if I can get a sympathetic ear for my own disability, which I blame for the fact that I have two prepaid nonrefundable hotel reservations for Saturday night in Anchorage. At different hotels.

Disclosure: No credit cards weaseled their way into this post.  Alaska is awesome. Take your kids! And if you need a room in Anchorage this Saturday, let’s make a deal. 

{ 10 comments… add one }
  • Jen July 4, 2014, 10:09 am

    Loved this post!

  • Sam July 4, 2014, 11:53 am

    Can’t get enough of that first story. In reading it again I flashed to you leaving your wallet in the cab, and one of your neighbors calling the police, and then you being arrested for breaking into your own house… Much happier ending in real life.

    Glad the flight to Alaska worked out, and I’ll add my 2 cents: Maybe it’s the American pride on this 4th of July coming out but you have to make your own luck in situations like that. Your quick thinking surely saved you from a nasty 8 hour delay. A more proactive airline agent might have had a golfcart waiting for you and called the other gate to let them know of the situation. If you’re expecting that and it doesn’t materialize then what? Plan for the worst, hope for the best….Hmm now that I think about it that could be a great new slogan for United. 😉

    Should the United agent have been a little more compassionate? of course; your wife wasn’t coming from another terminal, just a few gates away. The comment about your kids being able bodied was just a low blow. We all get that they have a schedule to keep–but an ounce of compassion would have given United a little bit of online good will here…not exactly “Flyer Friendly.”

    Enjoy Alaska, looking forward to more about it to come.

  • Narayan July 4, 2014, 2:32 pm

    Absolutely loved this post..

  • Leana@Milesforfamily July 4, 2014, 8:56 pm

    Kenny, thanks for this story! I really enjoy your posts. As far as United agent, I think you should put in a complaint. It’s completely justified, and could get you some free vouchers. My sister-in-law just complained about some rude flight attendant’s behavior, and bam … three $50 vouchers for the trouble.
    As far as Alaska, it is indeed beautiful and I hope to go back there in 2 years via cruise.

  • Kim July 5, 2014, 10:16 am


    Liked the post. Not sure what to do about the larger questions you raised, but I would see how much an extra charger would cost, to put in the travel kit, and use tripit, hopefully the free version, to keep from making multiple prepaid reservations. 😉 It was nice to meet you at CLT.

  • Kenny July 5, 2014, 10:33 am

    Thanks guys!
    @Sam never let the truth get in the way of a good story!
    @Leana I know I could complain and get something, but complaining isn’t really something I do. We’ll see.
    @Kim A charger from the manufacturer is like $400 plus a doctor’s visit (have to get a prescription. Really.) Occasionally there will be a used one on ebay for $200 but Bonnie says the one we got that way is on its last leg. Pun intended. And we do have a TripIt Pro subscription from the Arrival cards but I’ve never used it. When you book a trip 11 months in advance it’s easier to forget exactly what you’ve done.

    • Leana @milesforfamily July 5, 2014, 11:53 am

      Kenny, I totally understand how you feel. I HATE frivolous complaints just for the purpose of getting freebies. However, this is something else entirely. It’s a clear case of discrimination and just being a plain jerk to a customer. Your feedback will insure this doesn’t happen to someone else, even if you don’t get anything out of it.

  • Ripper3785 July 7, 2014, 1:05 pm

    Great stories Kenny.

    Part of United’s recent flyer friendly campaign included “From take-off to landing, putting the customer first.” I guess they forgot the “Before and after that, **** you.” You could maybe make it a big deal on social media(and perhaps boost your readership in the process), but I probably wouldn’t either. Awesome @ wishing the guy had a great rest of his day.

    @Leana – I don’t think feedback will insure it doesn’t happen to anyone else. It *might* stop this individual from doing it again, if Kenny has their name and complained specifically. Bad apples exist in all sorts of customer facing positions with airlines and businesses. I find United has more than it’s share. The agents are pressured to close on time and probably not given any discretion.

  • girlmeetsworld July 7, 2014, 5:35 pm

    I had a similar experience connecting in PHX recently on US Airways and also ask myself the question you pose in the title when I travel with my mother. She was born with a congenital hip abnormality and is lame. Like Bonnie she can’t run or walk fast but she’s never let that get in the way of doing everything she’s wanted to do. I’ve never asked for her to be treated differently and nor has she when she is traveling, but in the future, after having a huge problem with US Airways allowing us to board our connecting flight I am considering requesting a wheelchair when we have connections. I know she will find that more painful than anyone else, but I am certain we’ll get less attitude if we have one, which is a shame.

Leave a Comment