Posted by: ElliptiGO Girl | August 18, 2010

SFO: “No, ma’am. I DON’T know what ALS is – and I don’t need to!”

Whew. Another experience with ignorance and downright meanness.

Hal and I traveled by plane to San Francisco last weekend. To attend a conference. The Singularity Summit. The conference was put on by the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence (AI), a nonprofit that promotes research and exploration into the fields related to development and benign use of AI. Hal was specifically interested in how an enhanced Computer Brain Interface might help him to communicate once he completely loses all voluntary movement.

The conference ran Saturday/Sunday. We traveled from Santa Barbara to San Francisco Friday evening, with our scheduled return flight Sunday at 10:40pm. The last Santa Barbara bound flight out of San Francisco that night. Since Hal needed to take his heavy motorized wheelchair, we planned to use BART for transportation in San Francisco – no car or taxi would be able to accommodate the large wheelchair.

Our trip out went relatively smoothly. We arrived for our 6:20pm flight around 4:30pm, and were all checked in and put through security by 5pm. United Express was able to handle the 300 pound chair in their cargo. The Santa Barbara Airport folks were very nice. One downside – in our tiny Santa Barbara Airport, there is no restroom once you go past security. Since Hal needed to use an “aisle chair” – the name give to the narrow chair that carries disabled people up the ramp and into the plane – we boarded the plane first, and left the plane last. By the time we de-planed in SFO, we were both ready for a restroom break. Hal wheeled into the handicap access bathroom on his own. I waited for him, and once he was done we took off for BART.

Hal can still get out of his chair to move around the room, use the sink,etc. At home he uses a walker. While out of the house a cane is easier – he can carry it on his chair. While we were riding on BART Hal noticed that he did not have his cane – he had left it in the airport bathroom. Oh no! It was already late – almost 9pm – and we had not checked into our Travelodge hotel or had dinner. How would Hal move around our hotel room, use the restroom,etc?

We checked in, found a pharmacy within walking/rolling distance of our hotel, and bought a new cane. Hal chose a bronze cane – and said he would try to get his old black cane back on the return trip through SFO. We had a hurried dinner at 10pm, at Wendy’s (on the way back to our room) and fell into bed – setting the alarm to wake us up at 6am for our BART trip to the conference.

The conference itself was really interesting. No major mishaps on the ADA front, although we did encounter entries, passages, and other areas marked as “wheelchair accessible” that were blocked by planters or other large objects. But people at the conference, and at the Hyatt, where the conference was held, were very helpful and considerate. Both days were great. Very worth our trip.

The return trip was not so great however. First mishap: On BART, with all of our luggage, heading back to SFO. We attempted to enter a car with the handicap logo – but the space for a wheelchair was taken by a bike. Hal proceeded to move on to the next handicap accessible car, confident that the conductor would hold the train, since the BART website says if the handicap area is occupied, people needing a wheelchair spot should proceed to another car, and the conductor would hold the train. I hurried after him. Our conductor did not hold the train. The doors closed as Hal attempted to enter, despite my yelling. We had to wait for the next train.

It gets worse. Much. We arrived at SFO, checked in, and were told to go to the boarding gate. We proceeded through security, checked in at the boarding gate, were given seats, and were ready to go – except that we had not had a chance to look for Hal’s old cane. Hal’s wheelchair battery was almost dead – so I suggested he wait at the terminal while I went on a “cane hunt.” I left him with the carry-on luggage, so I could move faster.

I will spare you the details of that hunt. Key points: 1. I did not find the cane. 2. I accidentally exited from the security area. Without ID or a boarding pass.

When I realized I could not get back to the gate, I tried to talk with one of the guards who was checking passengers through. She was very unwilling to listen to me. As soon as she found out that I had no ID, she was ready to call the police. I asked her if someone could go get the ID from Hal. She said they could call him on a cell phone. Unfortunately, the only working phone Hal had was my cell – buried in my carry-on backpack. Hal would not be able to rummage through the backpace to get the phone – ALS has weakened his hands too much. I tried to explain that to her. I told her Hal has ALS/Lou Gehrig’s disease. That he was weak and in a wheelchair. The woman was very angry at this point. She said “Ma’am – I don’t believe your story! I need you to leave! If you don’t have ID you need to leave the airport! Or I’ll call the police!” I forced myself to stay calm. I asked her “Do you know what ALS is? Do you know what Lou Gehrig’s disease is?”

She said “No, Ma’am! And I don’t need to!”

I stood their quietly, and did not leave. She called out to a co-worker. The co-worker called their supervisor, who listened to my story, and then went out to the gate to get my ID and boarding pass from Hal. By the time I had gone back through security and re-joined Hal, it was time for us to board the plane. Thank goodness we made the flight. But I was shaking.

Bottom line – it was my inattention that created the mess – I should not have passed out of the security zone. Or at least I should have had my ID, etc. on me. But given that people do make mistakes, just a tiny bit of compassion form that woman at SFO would certainly have been much appreciated.


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