Travel is unpredictable. Moving from one place to another is chaotic in its very nature. When you feel solace in the routine, even a 15-minute delay is derailing. The entropy is agonizing. Will I make my connection? What if my bags are delayed and I miss the shuttle, and must wait 40 minutes outside with strangers? But then it gets beyond logistics and moves to interpersonal: What if someone sits next to me and accidentally triggers something via a scent, sound, or accidental touch. There I go again—these are all the voices of a 25-year-old me, who was scared because no matter where I went, I was traveling with fear as a companion.
For me, traveling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) involves being on your guard all the time, because so much is out of control. Travel is vulnerable because you encounter elements of long lines, strange people, close quarters, and unpredictability. Once, I did have a panic attack on a less than hour flight from Newark to Washington, DC in 2014. Newark is a bustling airport, but every time a stranger would catch my eye, I was nervous they were going to hurt me. PTSD often distorts reality. But still, I felt people on me, and it didn’t feel safe.
Mistake #1: my antianxiety medication was packed under the airplane. All I had with me was Dramamine, which I hoped would calm me down. I took four. It didn’t sit well. I panicked I was going to get sick. A self-fulfilling prophesy: I did get sick to my stomach. Cue a freaked out, albeit professional flight crew. And that led to Mistake #2: getting checked out in the emergency room without telling my boss who was supposed to pick me up, or my family. When I was more stable, I was filled with guilt.
What did I learn between then and now? Traveling with a mental health disability involves grounding yourself, which is weird to think about when you fly above the clouds. To balance, I look at pictures saved on my phone, whether mid-air or in the terminal. I’ll hold a small stuffed animal while employing deep breathing exercises. I practice mindfulness when I feel stifled. I count how many people wear sneakers, or make anagrams on the flight boards from the letters in Tallahassee or Fort Worth.
What works for me doesn’t work for everyone, so I reached out to an expert colleague. Kathy Flaherty is the Executive Director of the Connecticut Legal Rights Project, Inc., a statewide non-profit agency which provides legal services to low income individuals with mental health conditions. Kathy recommended that arriving early can be your best accommodation to familiarize yourself with your surroundings. Word game books, coloring books, or crossword puzzles are especially grounding, and inexpensive accommodations.
We then discussed the Air Carrier Access Act, which prohibits travel discrimination by passengers with disabilities. A hot issue these days are service animals, such as emotional comfort dogs, although now we are seeing goats and ducks fly the skies. According to Kathy, “If you have a legitimate need for a support animal, you should find out what kind of documentation you need to get and be assertive in protecting your legal rights. If you are reading this article and you do NOT have a disability, please do NOT order a service dog vest and papers [online] to sneak your pet on board the plane. When you do that, you ruin things for those who have legitimate needs. Board your pet at home”.
With an uptick of legitimate accommodations requested that enable people with disabilities to fly, coupled with reduced stigma of mental health, Kathy and I cautiously optimistic that other passengers and crew will be more accommodating. Still, more people need to fly and airlines must maximize their smaller spaces for higher profit margins. It’s a business, after all, but that’s rife with anxiety for anyone. We recommend being proactive and advocating for yourself. Work with a therapist to determine your triggers and roleplay. Or, travel with a companion. You’ll fly in clearer skies when you’re prepared.
Sharon Rosenblatt is an accessibility professional and advocate working to improve the overall web experience by a user with disabilities. With her tendency to be ‘hands on’, Sharon feels that accessibility is a human right, and not a ‘nice to have’. She has been a part of the Accessibility Partners team for the past seven years, and specializes in document remediation and web/software compliance testing. Her efforts have enabled developers and manufacturers to see the tremendous potential that accessibility has not just for users with disabilities, but of all abilities