color photograph of a black woman sitting in a wheelchair, taken from a side-front angle. the frame is close, only showing part of the person's lap and their hand on the wheel. a mask hangs by an ear loop from the wheelchair armrest
(via iStock)

In October 2022, I took my first series of flights for travel since the pandemic began.  

Flying this year was not on my radar. I was avoiding it at all costs, but several things lined up for me to see the people who mattered. I could not let those opportunities slip by. 

Like many disabled people, I have been intentional about keeping myself safe from COVID-19 since March 2020. I still mask, swapping between N95s and KN95s depending on the setting and how many people I’m around; I wash and sanitize my hands and surfaces, and I avoid eating indoors if possible. These precautions have kept me safe while watching the world try to achieve some semblance of normal during very not-so-normal times. But that “normalcy” all too often comes at the cost of the health, safety, and well-being of people like me.  

In my day-to-day life, I am used to being one of the few masked people in public, particularly since I live in a state where masking and other such health protocols weren’t encouraged thanks to our state leadership. The one place I frequent where everyone is still required to mask is my hair salon, which is comforting since most of the clientele are older Black women. Outside of this space, the number of masked faces I see has significantly decreased, while the numbers of infections and deaths have not seen the same decline.  

Being out in public as a disabled person reveals how society views those at greatest risk of exposure and infection: we’re expendable. I have close friends who continue to isolate, and their loneliness is profound. I also have close friends who became infected and have seen how their lives have been forever altered by long COVID. The grave reality is that no matter how defiant one is about COVID-19, it’s still harming people, perhaps even more so now that more and more people are choosing their own comfort over the safety of those most vulnerable to the virus. We as a global society have been forever changed, and there is no going back.  

And while COVID-19 remains a distinct concern, as a physically disabled woman who uses a wheelchair, the virus is not the only obstacle that makes traveling a fraught process. Flying while disabled is stressful due to the ableist treatment we may encounter.  

I’ve experienced this firsthand. In 2017, American Airlines lost my wheelchair, and the experience still weighs on my mind when I have to gear up for trips. The reality for those of us who use mobility aids like wheelchairs is that airlines are notorious for losing or destroying them, leaving us in peril.  

According to the Department of Transportation, “[i]n May 2022, reporting marketing carriers reported checking 72,332 wheelchairs and scooters and mishandling 1,110 for a rate of 1.53% mishandled wheelchairs and scooters, higher than the rate of 1.46% mishandled in April 2022 but lower than the rate of 1.54% mishandled in pre-pandemic May 2019.” It is estimated that airlines break or lose close to 30 wheelchairs a day, a staggering statistic on its own.  

The realities of such breakages and mishandlings are not just costly and catastrophic to experience, but can literally place a disabled person’s life in danger as well. In October 2021, advocate Engracia Figueroa died from the injuries she sustained from receiving an ineffective wheelchair replacement loaned to her from United Airlines after her wheelchair was broken; her passing still haunts me a year later. Engracia’s tragic death is a reminder that the friendly skies can become deadly for us when our mobility aids are treated as worthless of the care they deserve.  

In October 2022, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg released a video stating the department’s commitment to improving the conditions of disabled travelers. That commitment is welcome, but we have yet to see how effective any implemented policies will actually be.  

All of these factors and considerations were on my mind as I prepared for my flight. There is one rule I have implemented in my life: I cannot control others, but I can control myself. I stocked up on masks, bought sanitizing sprays and wipes, and ensured that my accessibility accommodations were on file for each flight I was taking. I also brought a mini air purifier in case I needed to take my mask off. These may seem like small efforts, but for me, it allowed me to have some form of control for my behavior, if not the behavior of others.  

As I made my way to the airports, I saw that most people didn’t have masks, but a few did.  Seeing my fellow maskers gave me some form of relief as I realized that I wasn’t alone. While at my gates, I made sure to keep a distance from others and decided to find the family restrooms in each gate section. This helped me to reduce contact with many people and gave me a few minutes of solitude in crowded spaces. I did notice that the family restrooms were more readily available than before, and it was nice to see the expansion over the last few years in the airports I was in.  

As for keeping my wheels safe, ensuring that the gate attendants provided me with the appropriate tags to signify where my wheelchair needed to be and informing the accessible attendants on how to manage my chair were helpful steps. I still was nervous about letting my wheelchair go in unfamiliar hands, but thankfully, my wheelchair made it safely to the destination with no damage or issue. I let out a silent sigh of relief when it came back into my possession, and I gave it a once-over to note that no harm had befallen it.  

Though I did not believe I would travel this year, I am grateful for the opportunity to have done so, and it was a nice introduction back to flying for both play and work. Each of my trips were amazing and fun; I got to spend time with activist comrades and my partner. As I did at home, I was masked for every outing, and no one took an issue with it. It made me feel safer to see those I care for also mask up and do their part in keeping me, themselves, and others safe. While I’m still frustrated by the general lack of concern for others reflected in how mask-wearing in public has diminished, I feel more confident about traveling for certain occasions in 2023, and seeing how things continue to change for disabled travelers over time as we slowly find ourselves setting forth to fly. 

Vilissa Thompson, LMSW, is a contributing writer covering gender justice at Prism. A macro social worker from South Carolina, she is an expert in discussing the issues that matter to her as a Black disabled...