Travelling with a disability

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Recently, a disability advocate was forced to leave her specially designed wheelchair on the ground so she could board her Qantas flight.

Qantas staff said the wheelchair was too big to fit in the plane’s hold.

“It was only discovered at check-in in Melbourne that her wheelchair was too large for the aircraft hold,” said the Qantas spokesperson.

Monica McGhie’s information had not been properly processed by the airline’s booking system, which meant the wheelchair stayed behind.

“Our staff at Melbourne were able to offer a solution and Ms McGhie was able to travel on to Canberra,” the spokesperson said. “We have contacted Ms McGhie to apologise and will be reviewing how this can be avoided in future.”

While flying with a disability may be difficult, it’s far from impossible. It just takes a little forward planning. Call your airline well in advance, to inform it of your, or your companion’s circumstances.

According to the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA), travelling with a disability “requires careful planning, persuasive skills and occasionally, assertiveness. When you fly, know your needs and be prepared to describe them calmly and with confidence to someone who doesn’t.”

“Generally speaking, people with disability are often required to take additional steps to prepare for travel, which can be very time-consuming,” Samantha French, Senior Policy Officer for People With Disability Australia told Skyscanner.

“For example, a person travelling with a wheelchair will be required to phone the airline ahead of travel to provide additional details such as: weight and measurements of the wheelchair, if they are able to self-transfer on to the seat of the aircraft, if they are able to independently use the bathroom and eat or if they will need some assistance, if a person needs ‘meet-and-assist’ at the airport i.e. assistance to move through the airport including filling out paperwork, checking in, going through customs, and does the person need an aisle chair or hoist to transfer to the aircraft seat.”

The above situations may have been avoided with a follow-up call. So, call again much closer to your departure date, with a list of questions to make sure the airline, or cruise line, has the necessary procedures and precautions in place for your journey.

Anyone travelling with a guide dog may need to make additional preparations.

Guide Dog owners should inform the airline at the time of booking that they will be travelling with a Guide Dog and request a “Meet and Assist” service at departure and arrival if necessary, says Samantha McGill from Guide Dogs NSW.

“‘Meet and Assist’ is available at all airports. It is a service where staff assist people with disabilities to negotiate airports and ensure that the experience meets the individual needs of the person,” said Ms McGill.

Airlines and airports are legally bound to provide sufficient services for people with disability. Most airlines have detailed information about services available to assist a person with a disability. Services can include:

  • assistance checking in and navigating the airport
  • assistance filling out paperwork
  • assistance with boarding an aircraft
  • locating a seat on an aircraft
  • transferring into an aircraft seat.

People with disabilities will undergo the same security screening as other members of the public, but are usually permitted to board an aircraft before other passengers. This is the perfect opportunity to speak with cabin crew to reiterate any special requests.

“Explain to the cabin crew exactly what they can do to help. Chances are they have just as much anxiety about transferring assistance and boarding as the passengers do. Cabin crew are more likely to be co-operative and happy when they are aware of what is needed and expected,” CASA advises.

Cabin crew should provide assistance with moving to and from a seat during boarding or disembarking. Staff can also open packages and identify food, help you move to and from the toilet, or load and retrieve carry-on items. However, they are not required to feed passengers, help them in the toilet, or lift and carry them.

Ms McGill emphasises that more planning may be required, but help is available for a person with a disability through all stages of the travelling process.

“There are no barriers to airport travel. There is assistance at every step of the journey as long as a person requests assistance in advance and can articulate their individual needs.”

Read more at CASA

Do you have a disability that makes travel difficult? Can you share any tips for our members?

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Written by Leon Della Bosca

Leon Della Bosca is a voracious reader who loves words. You'll often find him spending time in galleries, writing, designing, painting, drawing, or photographing and documenting street art. He has a publishing and graphic design background and loves movies and music, but then, who doesn’t?



Total Comments: 7
  1. 0

    If you have a wheelchair or obvious disability, it is there for all to see. My disability is not obvious, I have joint issues and a heart condition, which makes it difficult for me to negotiate steps etc, sometimes I need physical help to do this. But i was able to get some assistance on a recent overseas trip, which was so helpful. No way could I have done the distances without help, especially at Changi airport. My travel agent arranged everything. So grateful to him

  2. 0

    Only yesterday I needed to go interstate for some tests, and was stunned at the distances from airport to actual gate was. I’m not really wheel chair ready, but had to walk huge distances which really exacerbated my condition. Travellators would be a good suggestion.

  3. 0

    I am totally dependant on crutches to walk and even with this assistance can only walk very short distances. I can get up steps that are shallow but not high steps. The last time I needed to board an aircraft from my small country town, I did all I could to prepare in advance even visiting the airport beforehand to check it out. I knew they did not have a lifter to aid boarding but was assured the steps were shallow. However, when it came to boarding time, I could see that the first step up from the ground to the actual aircraft steps was higher and I asked for assistance. This was refused and my husband in his late 70’s was left to try and assist on his own. I ended up with a fractured spine. So I have issues with the statement “Airlines and airports are legally bound to provide sufficient services for people with disability”. My local airport and airline have obviously never heard of this and totally denied any responsibility for providing assistance. In addition to the boarding issue, when I arrived at my destination, the prior arrangements I had made with the airline for assistance from my daughter to disembark were also completely ignored and my daughter was denied access to bring a wheelchair to the plane and help me get off the steps. I ended up spending time in hospital and unable to walk at all for several weeks. I have been told this is quite common at the smaller airports around Australia. Where are our disability advocates and why is this situation allowed to continue? I am effectively trapped in my small town unless I can make my own arrangements for someone to drive me to the nearest larger town (500 kilometres), because Greyhound also have no disabled boarding access and they are the only long distance bus company offering a service where I live. We are ‘encouraged’ to stay in the small towns to retire rather than leave and move to the larger coastal towns, yet very little provision is made to provide for the inevitable increase in need for special services to accommodate this. We live in a crazy world.

    • 0

      I have sympathy for your situation but equally it is unrealistic to expect personalised service, equipment or status from a mass transport facility. Complaining about the steps on a plane walkway because of your personal circumstances is pretty fruitless given the number of different planes all at different heights from the ground and all different sizes, width and even stability.

      If you need such specialised individual attention then you really do need to be able to make your own arrangements and not rely on standardised processes and procedures and indeed untrained people to give assistance.

      This often comes up particularly with flights; people complaining there is no equipment to get them to the toilet, no assistance in the toilet, having to crawl along the floor because their wheelchair doesn’t fit in the aisles etc. I agree its degrading but much like the blind person who dreams of being a pilot of a supersonic jet, sometimes people have to accept there are things they cannot do, or they have to make their own personal arrangements. Planes are inordinately difficult even for fully able bodied people, never mind those who are differently-abled.

  4. 0

    I cannot sit on most chairs due to a back issue which means I would need to fly business class which I cannot afford sadly.

  5. 0

    My wife has MS and I am her Carer. So far, we have made 3 overseas trips, taking one of her her mobility scooters, which has a Lithium battery . I send all the details and specifications, to the airline/travel agent well in advance, and the only issue we had was with Virgin, who insisted I take the battery onto the plane as hand luggage (no problem as it only weighs 4 Kgs). Delta carried it in the cargo hold, without any problem. We are going to the USA in August and have already sent details to our travel agent. Don’t leave things till the last minute, and everything should be OK. The scooter does fold up, and weighs 25 Kgs in total. The airlines always have a wheelchair waiting at check in/boarding because we give plenty of advance notice.

  6. 0

    Having a disability and food allergies, I contact the airline as soon as the booking is paid, advising them of the requirements from check-in to arrival.

    As for the food requirements, I give the airline a list of the foods that I can eat, so that meals can be prepared around my OK foods, and keep a hard copy of the contact information so that if anything goes wrong, I can prove that I’ve notified them of the requirements.

    I also re-confirm the assistance and food requirements a week out from travel.



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