Fly me to the moon, fly me to the stars, just don’t fly me to JFK airport. Again. At all. Ever.
Emily, my daughter, her wheelchair, myself and wife Aimee took to the skies via Virgin Atlantic, on a working jaunt to America to host America’s first Disability Led comic con. While this country and the wider world seems to be determined to marginalise disability, Virgin probably provided the best disabled care anywhere on Earth. Even though we were not, technically, ON Earth.
The flight and the crew were delightful, caring, but not demeaning to Emily in the slightest, nothing was too much trouble and the usual rigmarole we face over her toileting was nowhere in sight high above the Atlantic. In short, the Virgin crew were the most inclusive people we have ever met, second only to the team behind Parallel London.
Our dreamy flight however probably lulled us into a false sense of security. Were all flights and airports as inclusive and comforting as this? Well, after we entered security at JFK that illusion disappeared faster than a UKIP local election seat.
Security, I know, the clue’s in the name, adopt a grim, soulless philosophy like they have woken up in a world where someone has stolen all the smiles and manners. They prodded, poked and even swabbed Emily and her wheels, making her feel like the world’s most vulnerable, polite terrorist. Emily was as usual, an exceptional ambassador for disability, but she was apprehensive, feeling nervy while security made no attempt to make her situation any less intrusive. The whole security scenario was playing out like an overly intense remake of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but replace the Oompa Loompas with hard faced, world weary wannabe CIA agents and you get the general picture.
That done, the next step was locating a toilet, anywhere that Emily could use. Accessible toileting is something I regularly bang on about to the point where a planner or council may one day get their head out of their little box of insular sand and make all toilets decent changing places, and we were hoping that in this futuristic, shiny palace of wonderful culture that a loo would be easy to locate and staff assisted.
We looked around, plenty of ladies and gents signposted and even pet relief stations, which should have given me a sign of disabilities worth in the scale of care. We approached some employees to enquire about toilet locations and I was reminded of being in the film, Sixth Sense as enquiries were met by ignored people or those just staring and walking away. Others shrugged shoulders and looked about as interested as someone watching a film premiere of ‘cardboard, and why it is’. Emily was becoming quite desperate and my usual British cheerfulness was running dry. Aimee finally in tired, frustrated desperation put her shoulder to an unmarked door between toilets, and behold, a hidden disabled loo, making us feel like ablution archaeologists.
Right, connecting flight, easy, yes? No. Before we left, all our arrangements for care and wheelchair had been forwarded to relevant flights, but the chain of information had broken much like a political promise. I enquired politely what had gone wrong and explained the lack of accessible toileting, but I felt like I was explaining our situation to someone who if confronted with the end of civilisation, would stare blankly muttering apologies as convincing as an East Enders plotline.
No isle chair for Emily, no apology for the toilet debacle and no dialogue about what we should do if the aisle seat failed to materialise. So, we waited as our flight boarded and was about to leave before the chair finally arrived and Emily was literally manhandled aboard. Once again, staff with as much care for her situation as they would have for discarded chewing gum.
This was just the outward journey, sadly I would need at least a word count resembling War and Peace to detail the comedic events of our return to the village of the damned two days later. The story would weave a storyline a sitcom writer would be proud of! A cold-hearted tale of lost luggage, lost flights, asthma attacks and deadpan looks that made our journey home as disability friendly as Hannibal lector buying you drinks at the pub.
JFK airport, not a good ambassador for the rest of America which we found to be gloriously friendly and wonderfully inclusive. Ours is not the only story of abject rudeness and being made to feel as worthwhile and loved as Ian Beale, I assumed it was just us that were singled out for special unfriendly treatment, but no, I have been hearing more stories of airport ignorance from the incredible community we love and work with. Perhaps gleaming, utopian airports such as this need CEOs and staff not trained in inclusive care by the Klingon Empire….