Checking for the fifth time that my passport hasn’t left my possession, clenching the arm rests as I imagine the plane rattling to the ground, or writing a well researched itinerary planning every minute of my trip. Those examples are not how my travel anxiety manifests itself. Instead, I worry about the extra piece of luggage I am carrying along. I worry about travelling with my disability.
As a child, I was fortunate to travel regularly with my family; sometimes it felt like we had a vacation at least twice a year. We would travel across the UK and South America, and have taken trips through the US, and in Canada. I was desensitized to flying and never experienced any stress outside of the occasional late flight, or the insistent wailing of an infant on the plane. When I lost the mobility of my right arm, this familiarity with travelling altered. I became anxious in the airport, nervous about the strangers that crowded the terminals. I worried about the security staff misunderstanding my limitations and causing me pain when they rubbed their gloved hands on my shoulder searching for contraband. I thought about the confined seats on the plane. Would my neighbor claim both arm rests causing me to tense my muscles the whole flight to avoid a collision with their arm? Or if I would have an aisle seat, needing to dodge the unbuckled passengers stumbling to the washroom, or a stewardess pushing her cart? I didn’t have a guide on how to travel with my disability, and if I typed this topic into the Google Search Bar, I wouldn’t find articles that suggested any advice to mitigate or control my type of travel anxiety. I want to fill that gap in the literature with my experiences. I didn’t stop travelling once I had learnt that it might become more difficult because of my disability, and I experienced many embarrassing or frustrating experiences with each flight, but I used them as lessons for how I could travel more comfortably with my wonky arm. My advice is biased; it is completely founded on my limitations, and my experiences while flying. However, I am not the only person who has acquired a disability and needs to re-learn how to travel with their new restrictions, and I hope that my experiences can provide some insight.
To change a behavior, you need to understand what motivates it. To reduce my stress while traveling, I had to recognize the source of my travel anxiety, and why I focused on worrying about a visit to the airport or the hours on the plane, rather than fantasizing about my trip. The root of my travel anxiety is the invisibility of my physical disability. You can’t see my scars or my deformed shoulder if I am wearing a sweater or t-shirt. I have to describe to people why my right arm can’t raise to meet their own, or why I have difficulty carrying things with what used to be my dominant arm. I often have to ask for help with my limitations, and I feel compelled to pair the request with an explanation for why I need help. It became another piece of luggage that I need to pack: A bag full of practiced sentences, concise explanations, and believable justifications concerning my disability and what I need to be comfortable. I get anxious because people can’t see my disability, and rightfully, they can’t help me without knowing my limitations. While travelling, aside from my close companions, everyone I encounter has this type of blindness to my disability, and I fear without an explanation that they’ll frown as they assist me, suspicious of the reasons behind my requests. But it is silly to think that I could walk around the airport telling my cancer story to everyone I pass, and the only solution was to change this perspective. Comprehending the source of the anxiety you experience while travelling with a disability will help you understand how you can control it. By acknowledging that communicating about my disability at the airport and on the plane caused my travel anxiety, I could focus on the areas of travelling that triggered it:
- Trouble, or anxiousness when speaking with airport staff about my disability and asserting what I require to be accommodated while in the airport and during my flight (during check-in, at security, and while boarding the plane).
- The strain that my luggage and carry-on bag may cause to my left arm from bearing the weight, and the potential embarrassment when asking for help.
- Avoiding physical contact with strangers while moving through the airport and while on the plane.
- Pain, discomfort or any irritation to my arm during the flight.
Once I pinpointed those areas, I could prepare for a trip and with the intention to fly more comfortably with my wonky arm, but before tightly rolling up my clothing and placing it into my suitcase, I researched what accommodations the airport or airline could provide to ease my experience. Unfortunately, it was easier to gain this knowledge through interactions rather than “Googling” the topic. Either way, both methods of research allowed me to understand when and from whom I could ask for assistance at the airport. I find it helpful to arrive early at my terminal to check-in for my flight so I can ask the clerk at the airline desk for a seat with my right arm against the wall of the plane to avoid contact and pain. If necessary, you can ask for a porter that will commute you and your bags to the terminal and assist you while boarding. The airline check-in desk is useful to acquire information on how you can be assisted while travelling, and to ask for accommodation with your seating. I’ve also learnt that the “priority” lines at the airport would be another mode of accommodation for me. These lines are located at a few key check-in points at the airport, and when I have asserted that I require extra time or accommodation, the staff direct me forward and have been more than helpful. It is important to understand how the airport or the airline you’re travelling with can assist you so the burden doesn’t fall entirely on you.
Although my understanding of how the airport could accommodate me alleviated some of my stress, I still struggled with communicating these needs. I didn’t have a sign on my forehead that told people to avoid my right arm. I was still self-conscious while asking for help or priority boarding, and my research didn’t dismiss the root of my travel anxiety. My solution to this barrier was to travel with my arm in my running sling. I normally wear this sling when I am exercising and need to support my right limb, or when I am in pain during the day and need to alleviate the strain gravity places on my arm. The aid makes traveling more comfortable, but it also acts as a stronger communication device than my words. I don’t feel the need to lug along an extra suitcase full of explanations, and it has helped me gain more confidence when asking for assistance. However, if you do not have an aid for your disability like a scooter, a cane, or a brace, you should fight against any anxiety you experience while explaining your needs, and be confident asserting your limitations. The task is much easier to type about than to act upon, but if you can find a device that makes you more comfortable asking others for help, you can use this as support until you are confident to express those needs independently. My sling was the foundation for building my confidence to assert what I need, and allows me to clearly communicate my limitations to others at the airport. I found that packing this item also acted as a warning signal to the strangers rushing through the terminals and boarding the plane; those who had always stood too close to me, nudging by or bumping their luggage into my arm. My sling reduced the source of my travel anxiety by calling attention to my limitations, and targeted two areas of travelling that triggered my stress: communicating about my disability, and avoiding a collision with stranger’s at the airport.
I have specific limitations when travelling with my disability that might not be comparable to someone else’s, but for most people with a physical disability, the style of suitcase or bags they travel with could be a barrier to their experience. It is rare to feel independent when you constantly have to ask for help, and dependence is emphasized at the airport. I travelled frequently when I was planning large trade shows for a defense company, and I would cringe with embarrassment as my boss would tote my feminine carry-on, or lug my purple suitcase off the bag carousel when he noticed I was having difficulty. If possible, I want to bear my own baggage. I have learnt to pack lightly into a suitcase that is small enough to be a carry-on and light enough for me to haul around. Although checking this bag doesn’t reduce any anxiety I have about losing my luggage, it does leave the majority of the carrying to someone else. The suitcase I am describing also has four multi-directional rolling wheels that let me tug it along in any orientation that is most comfortable for my left arm. I can push it on four wheels in front of me, pull it on two wheels behind me, or roll it easily by my side. For the items I want on the plane, I pack a shoulder bag because my dominant arm can easily carry it. If you’re travelling with a physical disability, you should be aware of what type of luggage can ease the strain on your limitations. If you will require help, I suggest travelling with luggage that your companions can easily carry for you, or at the very least, bags that wont embarrass them. I pack my luggage with the knowledge that they will be hard to carry and that I might not be able to rely on someone else’s assistance. That awareness requires me to be conscious of the type of bags I can comfortably travel with.
The contents of your bags are as important as the style of bags you bring when trying to travel comfortably. Travelling with my disability requires me to mitigate my chronic pain more than typical. It can feel like you lose a day waiting in the airport. You wait in a line to receive your boarding pass, you wait to have your possessions searched, and you wait in a line to wait on the plane. Being sedentary for long periods of time acts like fuel to my chronic pain, and it’s almost unavoidable while stuck at the airport, or restrained to an uncomfortable seat during a long flight. My sling reduced some of the pain I endured while travelling, but it wasn’t enough. It is obvious advice to bring along painkillers (which are vital to pack when carrying along chronic pain), but to mitigate my discomfort while travelling I had learnt to carry more. I would become bored while waiting, and my discomfort would come into focus, so packing items to distract me was important: a novel or word puzzle book, a tablet or I Pad with TV shows and movies downloaded onto it, or a play-list you can lose your mind in. Those items stowed in my carry-on helped me ignore some of the pain I felt while travelling, but I learnt that it was also important to additionally pack items that would bring me a type of comfort that a film couldn’t. I have made it best practice to pack my navy blue eye mask and plush travel neck-pillow when I fly to help me slip easily into sleep; when you’re sleeping, you can ignore your pain. My neck pillow is useful for dozing off, but also for supporting my neck and back when I start to feel uncomfortable. Recently, I brought along a single person blanket that was thin enough to roll up into my shoulder bag since I shiver easily, and the movement irritates my surgery site. Just as critical as knowing what the airport can provide to help you travel more comfortably is knowing what you can bring to travel more comfortably.
I have not travelled independently since my surgery and I have not learnt what to pack in preparation for a solo trip. I have not found a carry-on bag or purse that eases the strain on my left arm and makes my possessions feel weightless. I also haven’t designed the perfect description of my disability or my needs while hastily interacting with a stranger at the airport. I hope to have advice for those experiences eventually, but the anxiety I felt when travelling with my disability was significantly reduced by the items I had learnt to pack. I have found a stronger way to communicate my needs, I understand how the airport can accommodate me, and I have learnt the type of bag and the items to pack that will make the trip easier. I have discovered ways to travel more comfortably with my wonky arm.
Share Your Opinions
What do you pack to travel comfortably with your disability?
What situations at the airport or on the flight have helped you understand how to successfully approach negative interactions, or a lack of understanding about your disability?
What would you add to my packing list, or what advice can you contribute for those who stress about travelling with their disability?