Early last week I wrote a long post about my first experience of airport wheelchair assistance during my recent trip to the US. The following day I wrote to Bruce P. Heppen, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Coordinator for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA), as the incident where the wheelchair assistant had inappropriately tried to help me with Global Entry had occurred at Washington Dulles Airport. Here’s what I wrote:
Mr. Heppen replied very quickly, apologizing on behalf of MWAA but saying that under Federal law it’s the airline’s responsibility to provide wheelchair assistance and the airlines have subcontractors for this service at each airport.
Now, I have no clue how individual airlines could be responsible for hiring their own wheelchair service providers, and I really thought it was the service provider that needed to be providing the training. But he said he would pass it along to BA, so I waited.
Tonight I heard from British Airways. They completely misunderstood my complaint — they apologized for the behavior of the wheelchair handler, and they got her to apologize too. I will grant them an attempt at empathy — they said they understood “how upsetting this must have been” for me — but even this statement misunderstood the issue. BA got in touch with Air Serv Corporation, the service provider, who had the assistant’s manager talk to her, and they all relayed to me an apology from the assistant, who “was just trying to help” but “now understands she overstepped her boundaries” in assisting me with Global Entry. BA told me that if I didn’t feel the matter had been resolved I could file a formal complaint with the US Department of Transportation. BA told me that according to my account her behavior
…did not comply with US Department of Transportation § 382.141 which states (a) As a carrier that operates aircraft with 19 or more passenger seats, you must provide training, meeting the requirements of this paragraph, for all personnel who deal with the traveling public, as appropriate to the duties of each employee. (2) You must also train such employees with respect to awareness and appropriate responses to passengers with a disability, including persons with physical, sensory, mental, and emotional disabilities, including how to distinguish among the differing abilities of individuals with a disability.
Hmmm… The regulation says that the carrier must train all staff in how to treat people with disabilities, but it says nothing about a requirement to train them in how they should behave while a traveller is using Global Entry.
Admittedly, I did not convey to Mr. Heppen that I thought the responsibility belonged with the assistant’s employer, who had failed to provide adequate training for her regarding this area of assistance. And I really didn’t mean to get the assistant in trouble! I suspect it had never occurred to her that she should not even be watching me use Global Entry, let alone helping me with it, and I don’t blame her in any way for not being aware of the privacy and security issues. The only thing I fault her for is intruding into something that was none of her business, but that pales in comparison to Air Serv’s failure to train her properly.
So here’s what I sent to British Airways in response to their email:
The “update” I mention at the end of my letter to BA is the one you are reading right now. Stay tuned.
Note to Air Serv: Your website is dreadful. And have you noticed that your logo and typeface look eerily like Global Entry’s? Hmmm…
I’ve just had the idea of collecting a list of songs that describe experiences of awe and wonder, of self-transcendence, in ordinary life, outside of a specifically religious context. This came to my mind as I listened just now to Luca Carboni’s “Alzando gli occhi al cielo” (“Raising the eyes to the sky”, see YouTube video below), which expresses amazement that mafiosi on their yachts can look at the sky and manage not to shit themselves (his words — “come fanno a non cagarsi sotto”) with awe, how they manage not to feel remorse for the harm that they do. Carboni is not describing an actual experience that someone has had, or even inventing a fictional one. He is talking about such an experience as a normal response to such a sky, and I’m inclined to think that he himself has had a self-transcendent experience in contemplating the sky.
I invite readers to post comments that describe songs that you think portray experiences of awe and wonder, experiences of self-transcendence. I’d love to know what it is about the song that leads you to see it this way.
I recently travelled to the US and back, spending time on the East Coast with family and friends and then going to California for a conference. My trip involved six flights total, two for each change of location. Since the last time I flew I’ve developed osteoarthritis in my left hip, which restricts my movement somewhat and makes it painful to walk, and most of the time I use a cane (UK: stick). When I’m not burdened by luggage (even a rolling bag can make things worse) I can usually walk short distances with little pain, but transatlantic travel involves both a carry-on bag and a checked bag, and many airports (especially London Heathrow) require substantial walking. (I’ve learned that when I use Heathrow I often end up having walked a total of five miles on that day.) So I decided to request wheelchair assistance in getting through the various airports. Although this was a necessity for me under the circumstances, it wasn’t all roses.
Herewith the story of my experience.
Newcastle to Washington
For a noontime departure I would ordinarily have taken public transportation (bus and Tyne and Wear Metro) to the airport, which with my senior pass would have been free for me. With two bags and a cane, however, I needed to take a taxi, which cost me about £15 each way.
I managed to get my two bags to the bag drop, walking gingerly, and went to traveller assistance to request a wheelchair. The agent asked for my boarding pass, did something on his computer, and gave it back to me and directed me to a waiting area. Not long thereafter a woman arrived with a specialized wheelchair for airport use (see photo), which was narrow and with a shelf underneath for a carry-on bag. The arms lift to let the person sit from the side, where access is easier. It has a basket in back for a small handbag or something, but mine was too large for it and in any case I also had my cane and the poster I was to present at the conference. The wheelchair got me fast-track through security and boarding. The aide wanted to help with my security baggage management, but this is the sort of thing I have to do myself because I know where my electronics and liquids are and I needed to get them out and put them into the security bin myself. I guess they don’t expect wheelchair passengers to have a laptop, a tablet, a pedometer, and three cell/mobile phones. :-)
London Heathrow (transfer – leave UK)
Wheelchair assistance passengers are asked to wait until all other passengers (I hate hearing transportation companies call them “customers”, but that’s a rant for another time) have deplaned before they leave the aircraft. I guess they think we’ll be slower to get off and will slow the others down, which is probably a reasonable assumption. But they give us aisle seats, which means we have to get up to let our seatmates off and then sit back down to wait. I don’t know what I would have done if I had been completely unable to stand.
I was pleased to note that the wheelchair assistance agent at Newcastle had arranged for assistance at Heathrow as well, and they were waiting for me at the entrance to the jetway (UK: air bridge). That part, at least, is well organized. One aide pushed me to a waiting area inside the airport, where I sat for about 15 minutes, then another one came to get me; he took me to the Special Assistance Lounge in Terminal 5, where I waited for more than two hours for boarding. The description in the airport guide (see link above) is not quite right: the lounge is not “fully catering” because they have a very small number of electrical outlets/sockets in one area of the lounge and because all they have to eat or drink is water and you have to go around the corner a hundred feet or more to get anything else. I didn’t find out about the outlets until I was about to leave the lounge, as the aide didn’t mention them but just placed me in front of one of the TVs. Sigh.
The aide who took me to the lounge insisted that I needed a paper boarding pass (I had checked in online and had a mobile one), so he got one printed. That was probably OK, though, because the lounge staff held onto it while I was there, so that they could ensure another aide was available when my flight was about to board. This time I needed to go to a different area of the terminal, so they sent me with another passenger in a beeping electric cart. We descended in a large elevator to the bowels of Terminal 5, where the ceilings were full of pipes and tubes and the walls were replete with doors that required a badge to open. That was the most interesting part of this experience — getting to see a part of the airport that must be off-limits to most passengers.
I showed the gate agent my mobile boarding pass, and she exclaimed at how high-tech I was. Nobody has ever made such a comment while I was walking without assistance; did she expect me to be senile as well as disabled? Grrrrr…
Washington Dulles (arrival – enter US)
Again, an aide was waiting for me when I arrived. I told her I had Global Entry, and she seemed to know what that was. We got there and she wheeled me up to the kiosk. I know the kiosks accommodate travellers with various disabilities, but I didn’t see any that were low enough to accommodate someone in a wheelchair, so we used a regular one. Because I wasn’t standing, the photo that was supposed to show my face showed instead the crowd in the background behind me. Oops!
Two or three times while I was using the kiosk the aide tried to tell me what to click. The second time, I assured her I was very familiar with how to use it, but I’m not sure she believed me. The third time, I had been thinking about whether what was displayed was correct (I decided it was), but evidently she thought I was confused, and when she said “Click ‘Next'” I lost my patience and said “Don’t rush me!” It later occurred to me that she shouldn’t have been watching at all, let alone telling me how to answer — it’s a matter of both traveller privacy and national security — so when I had my Global Entry renewal interview a couple of days later I reported the incident to the CBP officer (who strongly agreed with me) and said I thought it was probably an issue of airport training of wheelchair aides. I hope they manage to do something about it. In any case, if it ever happens again I’ll be prepared to insist that the aide not even watch. (I hope I don’t need to cross the Atlantic again before I get my hip replaced.)
The same aide got me to the Hertz shuttle bus, whose driver asked if I wanted to give her (the aide) something. It had not previously occurred to me that I needed to tip these people in the US, and I’m afraid that what I gave her was a wee bit less than what is customary. I later looked it up, and the consensus in the discussion forums was for at least $20 for this amount of service. Yowza!
Washington to San Jose
The wheelchair assistance folks were expecting me, and they didn’t have to enter new info into their system. Kudos to the Newcastle folks for arranging the whole shebang.
Washington to Dallas / Ft. Worth (outbound)
This time they were using a regular wheelchair, and the aide placed my carry-on bag between my feet and I had to hold it with my knees. I sailed through security because for this flight I got to go through the TSA Pre-Check line. (Note to readers and especially to the Transportation Security Administration: Pre-Check has the stupidest logo in all of government (see image). The graphic checkmark fails to convey the word “check” and leads most people to call the program “Pre”. Also, not everyone calls that graphic a “check” — Brits call it a “tick”, for example — so even if it did imply a word it wouldn’t necessarily be “check”.)
Except for the logistics of the carry-on bag, this was the smoothest of all my wheelchair adventures so far. My tip this time was, I think, commensurate.
Dallas / Ft. Worth to San Jose (transfer)
A long ride in mostly regular wheelchairs, again with my carry-on between my knees, and with two different aides. The first one was surprised at how far I had to go to my next gate, and he started weaving quickly in and out of the foot traffic, trying to get me to my gate as fast as possible. I asked him not to do so much back-and-forthing, and he said he had to hurry back for another passenger. I pointed out that that was no reason to make me uncomfortable, and he agreed and stopped doing it. The next trip was just from the gate to the door of the plane (down two ramps and a jetway), and I tipped both aides according to the length of the trip.
San Jose (arrival)
Regular wheelchair, as I recall, to the airport shuttle pickup point. No problems.
San Jose to Newcastle
San Jose (departure)
This was the best of my airport wheelchair experiences — although the aide was new and somewhat inexperienced, she was so nice and not in the least patronizing, and as she pushed me we talked about our respective studies. This one I tipped a little more than what I understood was customary for the work and she appreciated it very much. At the gate she put me where I requested, next to an outlet, and I got an hour’s worth of work done. The same aide came back to wheel me to the plane, and after I boarded I felt bad that I been so focused on getting myself to my seat that I hadn’t said a final good-bye to her. What a lovely young woman.
Unfortunately I didn’t get to use Pre-Check this time, as I was on British Airways and they don’t participate in the program. That will make me think twice about using BA for future travel to the US.
London Heathrow (transfer – enter UK)
Again, an aide wheeled me from the plane to a wheelchair waiting area. Since I had four hours before my next flight, I waited there about an hour before they got someone to take me to the Terminal 5 lounge. People kept arriving who had flights earlier than mine, and they were taken first. I agree that people should be taken first who might otherwise risk missing their connections, but I don’t think that someone who has 3.5 hours should be taken before me at 4 hours if I got there half an hour before they did. This waiting area had no sockets and no amenities except toilets. The staff member asked if I had any liquids, and when I said yes she started reciting a list. I looked at her blankly, wondering why she was going on about it, especially as most of the ones on her list are not the kinds of things I carry (odd that she didn’t mention contact lens solutions :-), and she must have thought I didn’t know what she was talking about. I assured her that I was accustomed to flying, saying that I had crossed the Atlantic more than a hundred times (this is true), and then I showed her the plastic bag of fluids from my handbag, which is the way I always carry them. (Strictly speaking they aren’t all liquids, but why quibble with airport staff over physics? :-) I wanted to say to her, “Look, I’ve got arthritis, not dementia.” Grrrr…
The first aide who came to get me in that waiting area was smallish, and she complained about the heaviness of my carry-on bag, so a manager came along and insisted to me that my bag was too heavy and her people were pushers only and not lifters of bags. She said I’d have to lift it myself through security and advised me not to bring so much stuff in the future. This was the only time anyone had complained about having to lift my bag. It doesn’t make sense to me, as most people have carry-on bags and I’d think wheelchair assistance would automatically include assistance with the baggage. The aide didn’t ask what kind of passport I have and automatically took me through the “normal” (UK/EU) side, but fortunately the Border Control agent was understanding (no doubt because I was in a wheelchair) and everything went smoothly from that perspective.
I finally got to the Terminal 5 special assistance lounge, but as I had a lot less time there than I had expected I decided not to dig out my laptop and try to work. Having just come off the longest flight I’d ever had and not having gotten the 3+ hours of sleep that I usually manage to get on transatlantic flights, I was rather jetlagged.
This time it was a shortish distance to the plane from the gate, so I agreed to walk while a BA gate agent wheeled my bag on board.
The aide here was chatty and pleasant, and everything went smoothly. He wheeled me out to the passenger pick-up area and helped load my bags into the taxi.
The pluses of this service were more or less what I expected, except for the first one on the list below. The minuses were much greater than what I expected.
- Having to arrange the service only once, not at each airport for each flight
- Fast-track security and boarding
- Speedy movement through airport
- Not having to do all that walking (duh!)
- No real way (as far as I could tell) to arrange the service to begin on arrival at airport, had to get to bag drop first
- Tips in the US (I think I spent at least $75 in total)
- Waiting in areas and “lounges” with no real amenities
- On landing, being last to deplane
- Heathrow wheelchair assistance manager requiring me to lift my own bag
- BEING TREATED LIKE AN IDIOT
(not all staff did this, but even if it had been only one it would have been too many)
I’d also like to say that on all six flights all of the flight attendents were wonderful. They cheerfully stored my CHI poster in the closet up front, and they treated me well. Thanks very much to British Airways and American Airlines for their great staff.
On the whole, I don’t think I could have made this trip without wheelchair assistance. But I do wonder how I would have managed if I hadn’t been able to stand or walk at all. Something to ponder.
I’ve just returned from just over two weeks in the US — ten days with family and friends in Maryland and North Carolina, and five days in California at the CHI 2016 conference (more on that later). Good thing my passport has more than six months left on it, but it is time to renew it. Fortunately, I can do it mostly online via the US Embassy London. The online renewal process seems quite straightforward (they seem to have been taking lessons from the UK’s Government Digital Service in their Citizen Services web design) but the requirements for US passport photos differ from those of the UK and EU. The bad news is that I can’t get mine done at an automated photo booth; the good news is that the US lets you smile. Fortunately, I’ve found a chain of photo stores that do them, and they have a convenient location in the Newcastle City Centre. It takes approximately four weeks for processing and return, so it’s as well I’m not planning to travel outside the UK in that time. I’ll get my photo done and my application sent off this coming week.
Last night I received an email from another graduate student doing research in techno-spirituality. This woman is in a different university, in a different country, and in a different area of techno-spirituality — her research involves Islamic applications, mainly for helping elderly people conduct their spiritual and religious practices. She has asked my input from time to time, and now she’s finishing her thesis. She wrote me last night that the alt.chi paper that my supervisor and I published three years ago — “Spirituality – There’s an App for That (but not a lot of research)” was the primary motivation for her study.
It’s a nice feeling of accomplishment to be considered and cited as an expert in my field. I find it far more gratifying, though, to know that my work inspires and motivates others.
I love this work.
In my last post I wrote that I had submitted a thing to the Late-Breaking Work venue of the CHI 2016 conference. For some reason I neglected to add a post saying that my submission was accepted. Odd that I would forget something like that.
Anyhow, it was accepted. LBWs are presented as posters, and I’ve just finished preparing mine. You can find the “paper” on the “Papers” page of this blog and you can see a larger version of the poster (one where the text is actually legible) by clicking on the smaller version on this page. (I put “paper” in quotation marks because it’s not considered a paper in the CHI sense of a full research paper that gives quasi-maximum kudos and counts toward academic tenure.)
I’m on the schedule for the Wednesday and Thurssday, so if you’re at CHI I hope you’ll stop by and talk to me during the conference reception or one of the relevant coffee breaks. See you there!
Earlier this week I completed and sent off a submission to the late-breaking work venue of the CHI 2016 conference. (I got it in about an hour later than I had hoped, but a good 45 minutes before the deadline.) I’ll find out in about three weeks whether it’s accepted and I’ll be presenting it as a poster in San Jose, but my supervisor says it’s “brilliant” and “cracking” and I am optimistic. I know it’s good work and provides a contribution to knowledge.
Even if my submission is not accepted, though, writing those six pages has given me a sudden clarity on what my thesis must contain, and I can now see my way clear to moving ahead with that. I still have a little analysis to do, but I’ve finally finished data collection (shortly before Christmas) and now my task is to write it up.
I’ve put “I hope” in the title of this post because there’s always the possibility that the writing-up process will reveal things that I still need to clarify. But I do now, finally, have confidence on what my main contribution will be to knowledge in the human-computer interaction field. That’s a good feeling.
An aside: For a thesis, they call it “writing up”. I find myself wondering what the difference might be between “writing up” and “writing down”. :-)
This year I stayed in Newcastle over the Christmas break and didn’t have company or go to anyone’s home. I took advantage of five “Christmas in Newcastle” events in the series sponsored by the students’ unions of Northumbria and Newcastle Universities. Three of these had been on my Newcastle bucket list: the Beamish Museum, a Christmastime pantomime, and the Northumberlandia outdoor sculpture.
A traditional English Christmas dinner is served on Christmas afternoon at a local church. We had turkey, stuffing, potatoes, Brussels sprouts, Christmas pudding — the traditional dishes of Christmas dinner in the UK. Then we watched the Queen’s annual Christmas Day speech to the Commonwealth. I sat with some Chinese students and got validation of my impression of Chinese food in Newcastle — quality costs more than it should. (IOW, the good stuff is expensive and the less expensive stuff is not good.) The Queen spoke for 15 minutes or so, mostly about good will and Christmas. I would have liked to see more personality and feeling in her delivery, but my British friends tell me that the wooden style is how the British monarchy presents itelf. Oh well.
On the Sunday after Christmas, a coach (bus) took two dozen students to the Beamish Museum, an outdoor museum that illustrates life in the North East of England in the 1820s, 1900s, and 1940s. They have a 1940s town, a 1900s pit mine village, and an 1820s manor house and church. They also have a working farm, a steam train, a couple of ice rinks, amusement-park rides, cafes, and several gift shops. The staff dress in period costume and explain to visitors how life was in that time and place. Some offer demonstrations of period techniques (see photo for candymaking). This is how I like to learn about history.
Beamish Museum candymaker kneads sugar concoction while making lemon drops.
Although I had already seen a few films at our wonderful independent movie house, the Tyneside Cinema, I signed up for the afternoon there, with the film to be determined on the day. The selected movie turned out to be the new Star Wars episode, in 3D. The film didn’t have much of a plot (a couple of surprises near the end), but I enjoyed watching the special effects.
On New Year’s Eve I had my first experience of that classic British Christmas tradition, the pantomime (“panto”). I knew it wouldn’t really be my thing, but it was definitely an experience I had to have during my time in the UK. This one was Dick Whittington at Newcastle’s Theatre Royal, and it loosely followed the legend of Dick Whittington, whose cat is said to have driven the rats out of London and thereby made Whittington Lord Mayor. This production substituted Newcastle for London (of course), and it contained a lot of in-jokes about Geordie language and culture (some of which I got, to my pleasure). I would describe the panto as, basically, slapstick musical comedy with audience participation and displays of skill (e.g., magic and acrobatics). I enjoyed the comedy and the repartee with the audience. I’ve never gotten into slapstick or musical theater, but I found engaging the overall feeling of joy and fun. I doubt I’ll attend another panto, but I’m glad I discovered what it’s like.
Today a minibus took a dozen students to visit the Northumberlandia land sculpture, also called the Lady of the North. One cannot get an overview of this sculpture from the ground, but that’s what aerial photography is for. (This image is from the Northumberlandia site).
The weather wasn’t ideal: I would have liked to see the place on a sunny day, and the ice on parts of the path prevented me from walking the whole thing and ascending to the forehead. At least it wasn’t raining, though, and I managed to get a few decent photos. The one here shows the face (left) and one breast reflected in the pond.
We also had lunch in the pub next to the park. I loved the atmosphere (family pubs are something I’ll miss terribly if I have to leave the UK), which was why I found the food disappointing. However, it’s one of the few pubs I’ve found in the North East that have Aspall cyder on draft.
And in the park I ran into some people I know!
Today I became a Fellow of the RSA — the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce — and I am very pleased about that. In early November they emailed me inviting me to join, and the next day I sent in my application. Six days later I received an email informing me that my application had been approved. The glitch in that is that new Fellows have to wait until their first payment has been processed before they can log into the Fellows area, fill out their profile, or add “FRSA” to their names. And the timing was such that I would have to wait almost another month from that approval notification.
But today’s the day, and I’ve received my Fellowship number. It so happens that I’ll be in London later this week, and unless something comes up I plan to spend Thursday afternoon at RSA House.
Some people have told me that RSA Fellowship is not quite the high hono(u)r it used to be, but I can’t think it will be anything but good for me. It’s not that expensive (about £15/$25 a month, paid yearly) and it should be a great resource for networking. Plus, it’s full of educated people who share many of my values about making the world a better place, and that cannot be but good news. They do have a small chapter in the North East of England; unfortunately, its monthly get-togethers are on Wednesday nights, the same as Cappella Novocastriensis rehearsals, so I’ll have to make some decisions about that.
The extension to my student visa has come through, so I’m good to stay in the UK until mid-February 2017. The visa support folks at the university told me it could take up to eight weeks, and since that period included Christmas and New Year’s I thought it’d be longer than that. But they had my new visa to me just three weeks from the date I sent in my application. Amazingly enough, that included the time it took for them to notify me that I needed to provide my biometric info (which they sent by snail mail to the university) and then for me to retrieve the letter and then go to South Shields (30 minutes or so on the Metro) and get fingerprinted and photographed after paying £19.20. Since it was near Thanksgiving, the line from “Alice’s Restaurant” about being injected, inspected, detected, infected, neglected, and selected kept running through my head and it was all I could do to refrain from reciting it aloud — multiple times — but really, only the “inspected” and “detected” bits were fully applicable at this point.
Now they just need to send me back my passport. Think I’ll check with the visa support folks about when I can expect that to happen.
—- Update —-
Turns out that UKVI sent my passport and other documents back to the university, and they hadn’t let me know because they were expecting to receive my biometric visa card as well. So now I have everything back, and I’m ready to travel again. (Not that I’m going anywhere for Christmas, but it’s nice to be able to go if I want.)